Radio is for old people

An edited version of this article appeared in Village magazine, May 2015 edition

The internet is coming, and it’s eating radio audiences.

Newspapers have grown used to the idea that they face an existential threat from the digital world – even if they haven’t quite figured out what to do about it – but for a long time broadcasters – in particular radio – thought they could be different. But the truth is that, behind the chipper periodic press releases trumpeting new listeners which inevitably follow the publication of every new quarterly Joint National Listenership Research (JNLR) survey, radio audiences are being hollowed out.

Image via MorgueFile
Image via MorgueFile

While every radio station promotes their market share (the percentage of listeners who are listening to a particular broadcasters) and reach (the percentage of the total population listening to anything), industry boosters have in effect come to an unspoken agreement not to mention minutes listened. And the humbling truth is, the average number of minutes a typical audience member spends listening to radio is in decline.

The decline has two aspects. Firstly, like print, radio is becoming a middle aged medium. Over-35s spend over four hours a day (251 minutes) listening to radio, over 100 minutes more than among 15-24 year olds (153 minutes). Even among the wider 15-34 demographic, mean minutes listened is just over three hours (182 minutes). The younger you are, the less likely to listen to radio.

Secondly, the mean number of minutes spent listening to broadcast radio daily is in decline. This is the case across all age groups, although the decline is more notable among younger listeners. Since November 2009, mean minutes listened across all adults (over-15s) has declined by five minutes, but while over-35s are only down six minutes for then, numbers among younger cohorts are in double figures, 13 minutes among 15-24s, and 16 minutes among 15-34s. Both audiences had lost more minutes, from a lower initial base. Eventually, those declines will bite into advertising revenues.

“Younger people are listening to far fewer minutes per day of radio compared to older people. My radio sources tell me this is a major source of concern, although not one they are much interested in talking about in public,” one industry commentator said. “Similar patterns can also be seen in television. These are increasingly media for old people.”

“The really interesting issue is the lack of an RTÉ product for people born between 1986 and 1996. That whole cohort has been abandoned. The only people really making an effort to chase younger audiences are Communicorp. Head of 2FM Dan Healy is trying but he is operating under heavy constraints.”

There may be a limit to what can be done, however. The problem extends beyond improving content. There are simply more demands for listeners’ attention, from podcasts and internet radio, to all the other audio, visual and text offerings on mobile, tablet and desktop computer screens.

As always, where America leads, the world will follow, and the fortunes of US radio foreshadow what the Irish market can expect in the next five years. There, the majority of news websites now get more trafic from mobile than desktop, and online advertising continues to provide more revenue to newsrooms, but not enough to make up for the losses in print advertising.

Unfortunately for news, their share of digital advertising amounts to only $3.5bn, an impressive enough figure, but bear in mind that’s the revenue for ALL newsrooms. Compared to the Big Five who dominate digital advertising, it is a rounding error.

The entire online advertising market was worth $22bn in 2014, and half of that went to just five companies: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter. On mobile screens, the situation is even worse. A slightly different five – Facebook, Google, Twitter, Pandora and Apple – account for almost two thirds of advertising.

For radio, the threat isn’t just an audience spending more time reading screens, but that digital competition can eat into its core offering. Streaming services have become more popular, internet radio allows consumers a greater choice of stations not limited by distance from signal, and the success of Serial last year didn’t make it so much a breakout hit as an indicator that podcasting has reached a tipping point with popular audiences. Recent US research shows that the number of Americans who listened to a podcast within 30 days almost doubled to 17% between 2008 and 2015, coinciding with the launch and spread of smartphones. The same research shows 53% of Americans listened to online radio. the internet is coming for audio.