Audience Dialogue

Findings about radio audiences

Depending on how a survey defines "radio listening" it might find an average duration of listening of anything from 5 minutes a day, to 3 hours. When the duration averages 5 minutes, radio listening is usually defined as "listening intently to radio, and doing nothing else at the same time." When the duration averages 3 hours, the definition is more like "being within earshot of a radio that is going." This is the difference between "hearing" and "listening." For practical purposes, the looser definition is the easier one to use. If people are filling in diaries, they can usually remember when they were in a place where the radio was going. Itıs harder for them to remember the exact times when they were paying attention. However, this definition gives an unfair advantage to stations which mostly play music. If a station has mostly spoken programs, these need to be listened to with more attention. So a diary survey for a station with mostly spoken programs could ask "what times were you listening to radio, and giving it most of your attention." This wording produces a much smaller radio audience (in terms of average daily duration) but a higher audience share for spoken-word stations.


Are you willing to sacrifice present listeners for future listeners? Thereıs usually at least a six month time lag between a program change and a change in the size of the audience (as measured in diary surveys). For programs broadcast at times when audiences are small, this time lag is often more than a year. The reason for this time lag is that hardly anybody uses a printed guide to radio programs; they think they know whatıs on. One exception to this six month rule: newly introduced talkback programs are almost instantly reflected in ratings. So if you want to increase your radio audience quickly, begin a talkback program.
The radio listening of just about everybody is to stations, not to programs. Very few listeners switch on at the beginning of a program, and off at the end of it. But with television (when multiple channels are available), the audience tunes in mostly for specific programs.
Radio listening is time-based, not program-based. If you change the timeslot of a program, its audience will almost certainly not follow it to the new timeslot. The program will inherit the previous audience in the new timeslot, though after a while that audience may change. But television audiences follow programs, not times.
In many developing countries, where most households have recently bought a television set ­ specially in Asia, it seems - radio is even less important, to most people. Perhaps thatıs because in countries that rapidly grow in wealth, many people go straight from having nothing to having TV ­ while in more slow growing countries, people had radio for many years before TV was available.
The number of people listening to radio usually reaches a peak around meal times, particularly around 6 to 8 a.m, 12 noon to 2 p.m, and 6 to 8 p.m. In countries where most people have TV, the evening peak usually applies to TV, not to radio.
In an area with 3 or more radio stations, the average person listens to between 1.5 and 2 stations at least once in a week. If the market has 30 stations, this figure hardly changes.
What looks like a big program change to a stationıs staff will often be hardly noticeable for most listeners.
On the other hand, what seems to staff like no change at all may be quite a drastic change for some listeners. An example: when an Australian radio station moved its morning horoscope to a later time, people started missing their buses. The staff had not known that listeners were using the station as a clock. When the horoscope came on, listeners assumed it was 7:12, and time to leave for the bus stop.
Listeners' habits are more fixed early in the day. When they listen to radio soon after they wake up in the morning, people tend to listen to the same station at about the same time every day. Habits are less rigid in the middle of the day, and least rigid late at night. This means that listeners will tolerate more change at night than early in the morning. It also means that when new listeners first try your station, it may be late at night. At this time, the audience may be very small, but to attract new listeners, you can't let your standards slip.
A radio station can lose an audience much faster than it can gain one. In an area with several other stations available, when one station drastically changes its programming, the audience almost always drops. Some of the previous listeners decide they donıt like the new style, and change to another station (they hardly ever stop listening to radio altogether). But the new listeners the station was hoping to reach take a long time to change their habits - usually at least six months.
Because many listeners stay with a station for years, stations which try to appeal to children and teenagers have a difficult time. As each listener outgrows the station, another one must be found.
Calculating audience share is difficult, when it is done properly. You need a diary survey, with the sample spread evenly over at least one week. Then you record all the quarter-hours of listening, and calculate each stationıs audience share as a percentage of the total listening. Instead of using a diary, you could ask each respondent "What percentage of your listening is to each of the following stations?" But that doesnıt work ­ people donıt record their behaviour in such detail.

However, thereıs one simple shortcut that does work: the question "Which station do you listen to most often?" Some people will say "no station" and some will say "lots of stations equally. But if you regard those answers as missing data (see chapter 5) and calculate percentages based only on people who named a station, youıll probably find that those answers are within about 2% of the share figure. Iıve found this rule of thumb to work well in areas with between 2 and 20 radio stations.


There are a lot of unwilling radio listeners. One recent example: a woman drives her teenage son to school each morning. They take it in turns to choose the radio station to listen to. The mother prefers a news and current affairs station, while the son prefers pop music. At any time on this trip, one person likes the radio station they are listening to, while the other detests it. In a survey I organized around 1995, we found that at any given time about 25% of a station's audience dislike what they are listening to - but they have no choice.
In an area with ten or more radio stations, the programs are usually specialized. Audiences are segmented mostly by age group, next by education level, but very seldom by gender.
How can a radio station increase its audience quickly? One way is to organize a competition with a valuable prize. To win the prize, you must listen to the station frequently; perhaps clues are given on random occasions. However, an audience gained in this way disappears just as quickly as it grows.
See also chapter 3 of Participative Marketing for Local Radio, which lists 34 findings about radio audiences, that are relevant for marketing. These are divided into four groups:
Findings about radio in general
Findings about time use on radio
Findings about stations
Findings about programs
Probably some of the findings there overlap with the findings above.

The US-based Radio Research Consortium has in early 2006 conducted a major study of public radio in that country, entitled Audience 2010, so far producing 7 reports. The reports focus on possible reasons for the recent decline in public radio audiences, and may be of interest to noncommercial stations in other countries.