Radio is the real media unicorn, says iHeartMedia's Bob Pittman
Who said streaming won the war? Radio is still a powerful contender and among the most popular – and most trusted – media channels, writes iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman as part of The Drum’s Audio Deep Dive.
Radio has something no other channel does, argues iHeartMedia's Bob Pittman / Adobe Stock
In the ever-changing media landscape, audio is hotter than ever, but the biggest audio medium today – broadcast radio – is not something shiny and new; it has been around for over a century. In that time it has changed the landscape of mass media, democratizing access to music and revolutionizing American culture, and even though audio has evolved significantly over the years with many other platforms emerging, no other medium – old or new – has replaced radio as the number one audio leader, despite the recurring predictions of its demise. Indeed, the new platforms have been built on the foundation of radio.
Almost nobody would have predicted that radio would still hold this leadership position in the lives of American consumers. When I started my career as a radio announcer in Mississippi at the age of 15, TV networks had just switched to near total color programming and millions of viewers were opting to get their evening news from either the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC or CBS’s Walter Cronkite. In 1981, when I launched MTV, the inaugural episode kicked off with The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star. More recently, of course, the rise of streaming services fueled the latest predictions that radio could be obsolete within a few years.
Yet here we are in 2022 and, per Nielsen data, radio continues to reach more Americans every month than any other platform, linear or digital – reaching four times as many people as streaming services and even five times more people than MTV – and twice as many as the biggest TV network. And we’ve even seen that time spent listening to broadcast radio and streaming audio services is split 75% to broadcast radio and 25% to streaming audio services, according to a study from Edison Research. The same study shows that radio reaches nearly 44 million Gen Zers every week, illustrating its sustained, multi-generational appeal – and debunking the myth that young people aren’t listening. In addition, eMarketer data reveals that consumers spend 1.4 times more time with broadcast media than they do with all of social media. All around, radio listening rates are up.
So what keeps us tuning into broadcast radio? In light of National Radio Day on August 20, I’m reflecting on where the industry is today, how far it has come and what cultural and human factors continue to drive the enormous popularity and sticking power of radio – and specifically, the accessibility, companionship and discovery that radio uniquely offers that other mediums simply can’t replicate.
The power of accessibility
Radio, by nature, is free to all, accessible and inclusive. It reaches nearly everyone, everywhere, and leaves no one behind.
Today, the average consumer subscribes to four to five streaming services, per Kantar data, and many consumers report being both overwhelmed by the number of options available and concerned about the increased costs of their subscriptions. Meanwhile, broadcast radio requires no monthly subscription fees, expensive equipment or even access to the internet.
Radio is easily accessible on numerous devices today, from clock radios and in-car audio – where radio continues to dominate – to digital devices like phones and smart speakers that put radios in our hands and homes in new ways.
This ease of access for every listener and community across the country has made radio an incredibly inclusive medium, drawing large listener numbers across all ages, genders and ethnicities. For example, recent Nielsen data shows that radio attracts 97% of Hispanic Americans, 93% of African Americans, 92% of women aged 25-54 and 82% of young people aged 12-17.
Cashing in on companionship
Beyond being the most accessible medium, radio, unlike TV or streaming services, offers companionship, not programs. Whether you’re listening while cooking, driving, working or simply relaxing, radio hosts keep you company and offer personal connections that other mediums can’t.
During the pandemic, broadcast radio was the top source for information about Covid-19, per recent Nielsen data. That’s partly because, according to research by Katz Radio Group, radio is the most trusted source of media – two times more trustworthy than social media. Additionally, people turned to radio because it helped them feel more connected and less alone.
Martha Quinn, who I hired as one of the first MTV VJs and who now hosts a midday radio show that airs across the country, told me recently that she’s blown away by the bond she’s built with her listeners by being ingrained in their daily routines.
That emotional and personal connection has led to major success for Martha and so many other radio personalities; listeners think of them as friends and trust them on everything from the latest hot news and information, what products to buy and what movies to see to vitally important information and resources in times of disaster and crisis.
In fact, 61% of radio listeners cite on-air talent as the main reason they tune in, per a 2021 Jacobs Media study done in conjunction with Veritone. In many ways, radio personalities are the pioneers of the influencer economy we live in today – with the majority of listeners stating that their favorite radio hosts have influenced their opinions and purchasing decisions.
Broadcast radio is the top source for music discovery among listeners, according to figures from a recent MRC Data study.
The experience that radio provides versus streaming platforms is distinctly different – but complementary – to that of a streaming music playlist service. Listeners trust their favorite radio stations to curate new music that fits their taste – something a streaming service’s algorithm can’t do. Think of it this way: digital streaming is today’s version of listening to a record or CD collection. Sometimes you want to tune out the world and listen to your favorite songs, but after a while you want to rejoin the world and hear a friendly voice you trust and connect to – and radio is where you go to discover new music.
In the same vein, artists rely heavily on broadcast radio to break new music to the masses and to form fan bases. That’s why music companies and record labels continue to work directly with broadcast radio to introduce new artists and songs – radio’s unrivaled reach means that artists can introduce their new music to the largest possible listener base, which is, of course, what all artists hope to achieve. That’s why to this day, artists celebrate ’making it’ when their first hit is played on the radio for the world to hear.
Although the media landscape has changed dramatically since my early days as a radio announcer, broadcast radio continues to not just survive, but thrive for one very clear reason: no other medium can match what radio can offer. Artists still rely on radio to introduce themselves and their music to the world. Listeners look to radio for companionship and personal connections. And radio remains the most accessible, affordable and inclusive medium, keeping it relevant and within reach at all times – for all.
It’s human nature to crave connection and be curious – and as long as that’s the case, radio will continue to meet us where we are, well into the future, even as technology offers us more and more options to receive it.
Bob Pittman is chairman and chief executive officer at iHeartMedia. For more on the power of sound, check out The Drum’s Audio Deep Dive.