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Radio: surviving the online and mobile revolution

Video didn’t really kill the radio star, nor has Internet radio yet managed to put the radio broadcaster out of commission. The evidence is in its constant survival through the ages. If that wasn’t proof enough, Arbitron recently released findings from its September 2011 National Radio Listening Report that showed radio gained more listeners compared to the September 2010 report.

According to Arbitron, since last year, radio has added 1.7 million listeners, age 12 and older. This makes an approximate total of 241.4 million listeners tuning in each week. Surprisingly, the majority of this growth has been in the younger demographic, with radio now reaching 91.9 percent of teens, 12 to 17, and 93.4 percent of adults, 18 to 34.

“I’ve always described radio as the Energizer Bunny of media; it just keeps going and going,” said Bob Papper, professor and chair of journalism, media studies and public relations department at Hofstra University and a former radio and television producer, in an email interview. “I’m a little surprised that the numbers are up, but I’m certainly not surprised that they’re holding up. Radio found its way against the onslaught of TV, and I suspect it can handle online as well.”

But Papper questions the numbers, given that the younger demographic has a history of being the hardest to track as the least reliable survey takers. “That has also meant that younger numbers have tended to fluctuate more, depending on what can sometimes be a widely variable sample size,” he said. “I guess what I’m saying, then, is that I’d like to see more than one jump to know whether we’re really seeing an increase, or whether it’s just a sampling anomaly. We have lost – and then regained – people (especially young people) before in both radio and TV.”

The younger demographic also are usually more tech-savvy, which is illustrated by the number of teens sporting earphones. The iPod itself has become less noticeable as each newer model shrinks in size. In light of this, it’s no surprise that articles pointing the finger at the iPod as a radio killer continue to pop up. But while it may be smaller, lighter and of better quality than past portable devices, Papper doesn’t believe it’s ever been a threat to mainstream radio. For one, portable devices have been around for many years – think Walkman. Listening to the same music over and over also can become redundant. “Radio can introduce what isn’t on your playlist, and it can provide context and background that download doesn’t have,” he said. “That means Pandora isn’t the biggest threat.”

Meanwhile, Barry Stigers, host at California’s KAHI-AM, believes that mobile devices like the iPhone ultimately has had the greatest impact on the surveyed age group, while stations that provide apps allow the audience to access the news anytime or anywhere. “This shift is moving all media to the Net with the advent of the iPad, and will move the older readers and listeners with the iPad access so easy,” he said in an email interview. “These new toys satisfy what I believe is the basis axiom of media success: satisfying, highly organized, portable, easy access and dependable.”

The real radio killer, however, might be social media. Papper believes that Facebook is the actual threat. “It’s one thing to mechanically (and on a limited basis) suggest new music (Pandora). It’s another when a friend – either personal or one on the radio – does it. Facebook (or any social medium) has the potential to supplant at least some of the benefits of radio,” he said. “MySpace suffered from bad timing and bad management. Facebook is just starting out in this area. We’ll see how it goes.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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