In a masochistic mood, the Radio Show program committee decided to highlight research purporting to show plunging usage of radio among young listeners.
The research results were duly reported by the trades with little comment and even less analysis. The dramatic decline was accepted as fact.
The study claims that in the past decade daily radio listenership among 12-24 year olds has fallen from two hours forty-three minutes to one hour twenty four minutes today. So according to the study daily TSL has fallen 49%.
Has young listening really dropped 49%? And if it hasn’t, can we trust the rest of the study findings?
The biggest problem with this study is that it is comparing apples and oranges. In fact, virtually every listening trend analysis published today is comparing apples and oranges.
To assess listening changes over time, we have to use a sound consistent research strategy. We have to be sure that listenership is measured the same way each time.
The 49% decline compares self-estimated listenership in a 2000 telephone-based study to the responses of a 2010 online panel of participants.
Trending telephone study responses to online responses exaggerates radio listenership declines.
Research has confirmed what should be obvious: The apparent strength and popularity of digital media is higher in online research, while traditional media like radio tend to look comparatively worse.
There is nothing wrong with using an online panel to understand media usage today, but we can’t trend the information unless the prior study was also done online.
The second well understood problem with the study is that it asks the online panelists to estimate the amount of time they use each medium.
For example, Nielsen puts teen television viewership at nearly four hours a day while the study’s self-reported viewership is less than three hours, a major difference. Nielsen puts young radio listening at nearly three hours a day, twice the study’s claim.
So we have two factors that both exaggerate radio listening declines while overstating digital usage.
Then there’s the sniff test. Is the estimate consistent with directly measured listening estimates?
We have a decade of Arbitron trends along with two years of Nielsen estimates to judge the reasonableness of the study’s 49% drop in listening.
In a methodological sound analysis of Arbitron and Nielsen listening trends, Harker Research found that 12+ TSL had declined just 1% in the past year.
Using a similar approach, our analysis suggests that 12-24 TSL in diary markets declined less than 20% in the first eight years of the decade before most large markets had made the transition to PPM.
Arbitron’s yearly Radio Today has become an odd amalgam of diary and PPM based estimates, which compromises its value. However, despite the addition of lower PPM estimates, even Arbitron shows a much smaller decline in young listening.
Isolating PPM trends as we did in our earlier analysis raises further questions about the purported 49% decline. Some established PPM markets actually show 12-24 TSL increases coinciding with new CHR stations in large markets!
UPDATE: The Southern California Broadcasters Association just released an analysis of PPM showing 12-34 TSL up slightly in the past two years to 10:09. See the analysis here.
Many people in and outside of radio want to believe the 49% loss. They want to believe that broadcast has become irrelevant to young listeners.
Research that exaggerates radio’s decline is red meat for new-media bloggers and pundits. Studies like this give aid and comfort to broadcast’s enemies, those who delight in finding any factoid or tidbit that shows radio on the ropes.
We do not deny that radio faces challenges. We are not attempting to conceal the truth in an effort to gloss over radio’s challenges. Radio listening has declined over the past decade, but at a much smaller rate than new-media stakeholders want you to believe.
We believe misguided research that portrays radio far worse-off than it really is does a disservice to radio. We wonder why the NAB would give its blessing to research that distorts radio health.
We believe that both radio’s supporters as well as detractors should know the real story-–even when many don’t want to believe it.