Americans Say They're Listening To More Radio, Not Less

At a time when conventional terrestrial radio appears to be under siege from an array of new technologies from iPods to webcasts to satellites, as majority of Americans say they are listening to the same amount of radio, and a fifth say they are listening to more radio than they did five years ago. Those are the findings of a survey released late last week by American Media Services. But the survey, which was immediately embraced by radio broadcasters as evidence of the medium's reach and ability to engage, begs an important question: Why is radio still doing so badly?

The survey of 1,008 adults was conducted for AMS from August 11-13 by Omnitel, a polling service. Among its other positive findings: 63 percent of respondents said they still discover new music from radio play--ahead of talking with friends, TV, and the Internet--demonstrating the medium's value as a marketing and promotional tool.

However, the rapid, disruptive growth of the Internet--which netted 18 percent--is ominous alongside the 26.8 percent of respondents who said they listen to radio less than before. In addition, while 10 percent of respondents guessed they would be listening to radio more in five years, 12 percent said they would listen less. And because the survey neglected to ask questions about demographic characteristics such as age, education, and income, the composition of the various cohorts listening to radio more and less is unclear. It says nothing, for example, about listening among young people with disposable income versus well-to-do seniors.

By comparison, the AMS survey had good news about another feared competitor--subscription satellite radio. That medium's growth has been slower than originally forecast, and the AMS survey finds consumer awareness and interest are fairly low on the whole. Ninety-two percent of respondents hadn't subscribed to satellite radio service, and 56 percent said they probably never would.

However, this encouraging finding was tempered by low awareness and interest in HD digital terrestrial radio, which the industry is positioning as a competitor to satellite. Only 9 percent said they had heard a lot about it, 36 percent had heard "only a little" about it, and 55 percent hadn't heard about it at all. Together, the two findings suggest that consumers have low awareness of new radio technologies overall.

That's bad news for the industry as a whole. In addition to the push for greater accountability and transparency in radio ratings, HD digital radio is frequently cited as a potential growth driver for radio during a long doldrums. Recent reports from the Radio Ad Bureau show small growth in national radio sales and declining local ad dollars.

The trend goes back years--continuing into 2006 even though 2005 was "not a hard year to beat," according to Jim Boyle, a radio analyst with CL King. Boyle expressed doubt about "radio execs sitting there and saying 'this year it's going to be different' when the industry's been moving in a sideways-type growth for five years now." Boyle said "you can point to HD radio," but added that "it could also be a huge problem" if adoption rates are low, or if it simply cannibalizes existing revenue.

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