Radio is the real media unicorn, says MTV co-founder Bob Pittman | Panda Anku

Who said streaming won the war? Radio remains a strong contender and is among the most popular — and trusted — media channels, writes iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman on The Drums Audio Deep Dive.

In the ever-changing media landscape, audio is hotter than ever, but today’s largest audio medium – broadcast – is nothing shiny and new; it’s been around for over a century. In that time it has transformed the mass media landscape, democratized access to music, and revolutionized American culture, and while audio has evolved significantly with many other platforms over the years, no other medium – old or new – has done like radio replaced as the number one audio guide, despite recurring predictions of its demise. In fact, the new platforms were built on the basis of radio.

Few would have predicted that radio would still hold this leadership position in the lives of American consumers. When I began my career as a radio announcer in Mississippi at the age of 15, the television stations had just switched to near-full color programming, and millions of viewers were choosing to get their evening news from either NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report or CBS’s Walter Cronkite. When I started MTV in 1981, the first episode started with The Buggles’ video Killed the Radio Star. More recently, of course, the rise of streaming services has fueled the latest predictions that radio could become obsolete within a few years.


Radio has something no other station has, argues iHeartMedia’s Bob Pittman/Adobe Stock

But here we are in 2022, and according to Nielsen data, radio continues to reach more Americans each month than any other linear or digital platform — reaching four times the number of people streaming services and even five times the number of people than MTV — and twice as many as the largest TV network. And we even saw that according to a study by Edison Research, the time spent listening to radio stations and streaming audio services is split 75% between radio stations and 25% streaming audio services. The same study shows that radio reaches almost 44 million Gen Z every week, underscoring its enduring appeal for multiple generations — and debunking the myth that young people aren’t listening. Additionally, eMarketer data shows that consumers spend 1.4 times more time on broadcast media than all social media. Radio listening rates have increased all around.

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So what keeps us from listening to the radio? With National Radio Day on August 20th, I reflect on where the industry is today, how far it’s come, and what cultural and human factors continue to drive radio’s tremendous popularity and power – and particularly the accessibility, camaraderie, and discovery, that radio uniquely offers that other media just can’t replicate.

The power of accessibility

Radio is inherently free, accessible and inclusive for all. It reaches almost everyone, everywhere, leaving no one behind.

Today, the average consumer subscribes to four to five streaming services, according to Kantar data, and many consumers report being both overwhelmed by the number of options available and concerned about the increased cost of their subscriptions. Meanwhile, broadcasting requires no monthly subscription fees, expensive equipment, or even access to the Internet.

Radio is now easily accessible on numerous devices, from clock radios and in-car audio devices – where radio continues to dominate – to digital devices like phones and smart speakers that are bringing radios into our hands and homes in new ways.

This easy access for every listener and community across the country has made radio an incredibly inclusive medium, attracting large audiences of all ages, genders and ethnicities. For example, recent data from Nielsen shows that radio attracts 97% of Hispanics, 93% of African Americans, 92% of women ages 25-54, and 82% of young people ages 12-17.

redeem camaraderie

Aside from being the most accessible medium, radio offers accompaniment, not programming, unlike TV or streaming services. Whether you’re listening while you’re cooking, driving, working, or just relaxing, radio hosts keep you company and offer personal connections that other media outlets can’t.

During the pandemic, according to the latest data from Nielsen, radio has been the main source of information about Covid-19. That’s partly because, according to research by Katz Radio Group, radio is the most trusted media source — twice as trustworthy as 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 nationwide, recently told me she’s blown away by the bond she’s formed with her listeners by being rooted in their daily routines.

This emotional and personal connection has helped Martha and so many other radio personalities to thrive; Listeners consider them friends and confide in them everything from the latest hot news and information, to what products and films to buy, to vital information and resources in times of disaster and crisis.

In fact, 61% of radio listeners cite on-air talent as the top reason they tune in, according to a 2021 Jacobs Media study conducted in partnership with Veritone. Radio personalities are in many ways the pioneers of the influencer economy we live in today – with the majority of listeners saying their favorite radio hosts have influenced their opinions and purchasing decisions.

advance discovery

According to figures from a recent study by MRC Data, broadcasting is the number one source of music discovery among listeners.

The experience that radio offers compared to streaming platforms is quite different from that of a streaming music playlist service – but it’s complementary. Listeners trust their favorite radio stations to curate new music that suits their tastes — something a streaming service’s algorithm can’t do. Think of it this way: Digital streaming is today’s version of listening to a vinyl or CD collection. Sometimes you want to switch off the world and hear your favorite songs, but after a while you want to rejoin the world and hear a kind voice that you trust and connect with – and radio is where you find new music discover.

Likewise, artists rely heavily on broadcasting to bring new music to the masses and build fan bases. That’s why music companies and record labels continue to work directly with radio stations to introduce new artists and songs – radio’s unrivaled reach means artists can introduce their new music to the widest possible audience, which of course all artists hope to achieve. That’s why artists to this day celebrate their “making” when their first hit hits the radio for the whole world to hear.

Although the media landscape has changed dramatically since I started broadcasting on radio, broadcasting not only survives but thrives for one very clear reason: no other medium can match what radio has to offer. Artists still rely on radio to introduce themselves and their music to the world. Listeners on the radio look for camaraderie and personal connections. And radio remains the most accessible, affordable and inclusive medium, keeping it relevant and within reach – for everyone.

It’s human nature to crave connection and be curious – and as long as that’s the case, radio will continue to find us where we are, even as technology gives us more and more opportunities to do it to recieve.

Bob Pittman is the chairman and chief executive officer of iHeartMedia. For more on the power of sound, check out The Drum’s Audio Deep Dive.

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