Audience Dialogue

Our audience is dying!

Case study 25

In the early 1980s, having an abundance of data from quarterly radio audience surveys, I analysed trends in the different age groups listening to an Australian radio network. The network was called Radio 2, displaying a total lack of originality because (a) the title was copied from a vaguely similar BBC network, and (b) it would be difficult to imagine a more prosaic network description than "2".

Over the last five years or so, the surveys showed that Radio 2's audience was gradually becoming older. As this network was on the AM band, and most young people preferred FM stations, few listeners were aged under 40, and the average age was about 55.

For fun and devilment, I produced a graph projecting the average age of the network's listeners far into the future, and compared this with tables of age-specific death rates. I calculated conclusively that, if present trends continued, all the Radio 2 listeners would have died by 2001.

The resulting graph was circulated among producers of programs for the network. A mild panic ensued. Moves were made to change the programs drastically, so that the network would gain some younger listeners. I tried to explain that my graph embodied assumptions which would not necessarily hold for 20 years - but it was too late. Drastic program changes were made (for many reasons, not only related to my findings) and audiences, already small, fell further.

Ten years later, arouind 1991, I again reviewed the age distribution of the Radio 2 audience. Though the total audience was smaller, the proportions in each age group were much the same as in 1981. Conclusion: every listener who died had been replaced by another in the 40-plus age group. The loss in total audience could be attributed to the increase in the number of radio stations available.

Moral: Don't panic if your listeners are old. There could be two reasons for this:
(1) People born in a certain range of years are more likely to listen to your station;
(2) People of a certain age are more likely to listen to your station.
In all the research I've done, reason 2 is much more frequent than reason 1. So have patience; don't panic. A frantic attempt to obtain younger listeners will usually result in a loss of the existing listeners, without a corresponding gain in new ones.