How much do people listen to the radio? Inside Radio recently tackled the question in a front-page article, and found it far from easy to answer. And it turns out even more difficult than they thought.
First to review:
A recent Bridge Ratings study claims that listening has precipitously declined in the past five years. Listening is now 18 hours a week, a decline of 18%. In contrast, Research Director using Arbitron's national RADAR numbers claims that over the past 40 years, TSL has only declined 11% to 15.4 hours per week.
Then there is Media Audit that claims a 13% decline over five years to 17 hours.
So who’s right?
Each company has gathered its information using different means, so the numbers aren’t really comparable. Perhaps the most unreliable number is the Bridge Ratings estimate. It assumes that people can accurately estimate their radio listening, and that turns out to be wrong.
The Committee for Research Excellence notes that:
Serious caution needs to be applied to interpreting self-report data for media use....The industry has long known self-report tends to understate certain media (like radio).
Their research showed that participants tend to understate their traditional media usage and overstate their new-media usage. In the CRE study radio listening was understated by 14%. Their interviewers observed participants listening to radio almost two hours a day, but participants thought they were listening only an hour and a half.
So the Bridge Ratings estimates that rely on self-reporting are probably understating listening. Which means the participants in the company’s panel are actually listening over 20 hours a week. Nielsen has found that tech-savvy people listen to more radio than regular people, so a panel that regularly participates in tech surveys may very well be listening to radio this much.
Then is the RADAR number more accurate? Not necessarily. Until 2001, the RADAR report (Radio's All Dimension Audience Research) was produced by Statistical Research Inc., and used telephone interviews. Then Arbitron bought the service and ultimately relied on diary estimates to produce their national reports. Since then diary numbers have gradually been replaced with PPM numbers as markets make the shift.
Arbitron admits PPM produces lower TSL, so combining PPM estimates with diary estimates is sure to lower TSL. That means it is impossible to make meaningful comparisons between national estimates made before 2007 and today’s numbers. We covered this topic in July of last year here.
Any national Arbitron trends are suspect.
Of the three sources cited in the story, Media Audit seems the most credible. It gathers listenership data by telephone like the defunct Birch Radio once did (and Birch was MRC accredited).
We can check their reasonableness another way.
PPM gets all the headlines, but Arbitron continues to measure radio listening for the majority of markets using diaries. While we can no longer trust Arbitron’s national numbers, we can make a reasonable TSL estimate if we just look at their diary markets.
We looked at 15 diary measured markets across the country where we had five years of trends, and this is what we found:
Average TSL across the markets was 17.5 hours. The average decline over the past five years was just under 8%. The median drop was a little over 8%.
The average conceals a wide range of changes. Four markets had double digit drops, five markets dropped less than 7%, and one market changed less than 1% in five years.
So how long do people listen to the radio? We think about 17 hours a week. Is that down from five years ago? Looks like it. How much? Probably low double digits or less. And it isn't consistent across markets.
Not bad for a 90 year old medium that new-media pundits declared dead several years ago.
Noting the modest decline in listening levels, Inside Radio observed:
Consumers have gone from albums to iPods, from three networks to 200+ cable channels, from printed newspapers to a 24-hour news cycle, from one land line per family to cell phones for each member.
Yet radio remains relevant, used by over 90% of Americans every week–something we have noted on many occasions in this space. Good to see Inside Radio on board.