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Qualitative aspects of the talk radio audiences

| October 20, 2011

By Michael Harrison

NEW YORK –– Continuing with a fall tradition, the latest numbers have been compiled for TALKERS magazine’s annual release of its Talk Radio Research ProjectTM (TRRP).  Primarily designed as an in-house vehicle to provide the TALKERS editorial staff with intelligence about the national talk radio audience as a resource for general background and to help answer basic questions from the press (such as “What kind of people listen to talk radio?”), the publication began honoring requests from radio stations to share this information.  It has proven extremely valuable as a supplemental sales tool that provides a thumbnail qualitative overview of several leading spoken word formats’ audience profiles including demographics, political orientation, income, education and consumer tastes, habits and disposition.  These include the mainstay news/talk format as well as the recent additions of the sports talk and pop culture talk genres.

The latest figures indicate that news/talk radio maintains its historic position as the most reliable attraction to draw adult audiences and inspire them to action in all audio broadcast media.  At present, the news/talk format predominantly focuses on discussion about politics, but it does reserve room within its scheduling for specialty programs about relationships, finance, health, technology and home improvement, among others which are taken into consideration when compiling these percentages.

News/talk radio is not alone in displaying these attributes.  So do the relatively recent additions of sports talk radio and pop culture talk radio (with several specific differences indigenous to these formats).  These spoken-word genres also deliver attentive and highly desirable audiences that consume foreground radio with passion and attention.  The people who regularly listen to news/talk, sports talk and pop culture talk radio are more than listeners –– they are radio fans!

(NOTE: TALKERS magazine has elected to use the more objective and appropriate term “pop culture talk” for the genre widely referred to over the years as “shock jock” radio.  The publication is also in the process of developing research to be able to provide specific audience analysis for urban talk radio which will debut in the near future.)

In 2011, we see a continuation of radio’s stepped-up attention to qualitative audience analysis spurred by the quantitatively accurate metrics of its new media competitors for advertisers expecting reliable research in targeting specific consumers –– something that Arbitron, both historically as well as in its present-day flux, has not been able to fully deliver –– especially during its bumpy transition from the “estimates” of diary to the also-estimates of portable people meter (PPM) methodology.  It is a tough time for radio to be saddled with an unstable system of estimating audiences while internet media serves up hard numbers.

According to this brand new fall 2011 edition of TALKERS magazine’s non-scientific, but reasonably reliable sales aid, people who listen to news/talk radio on a regular basis are generally politically and economically active, in addition to being affluent and well-educated, when compared to the general U.S. population, other mass media consumers and specifically the audiences of music radio.  The desirable profile of news/talk radio’s listeners has remained consistent during this 22-year period of this project’s evolution through both up and down trends in Arbitron ratings.  Even when talk formats –– especially fairly well-established news/talkers –– have so-called “bad” books (or PPMs), their average audiences deliver a powerful punch for the advertiser seeking educated, affluent, active adult customers.  That’s enough reason alone for news/talk sales departments, in large markets as well as small, to avoid becoming fully dependent on numbers.  It’s okay to live by the numbers…you just don’t want to put yourself in the position of dying by them, especially when determining them can be little more than an educated crapshoot.

It should also serve as a prompt for talk radio sales departments to put effort into selling the value of reaching today’s upper demo audiences instead of apologizing for this asset!

As mentioned, this perception holds even truer today than ever before.  The challenges presently facing Arbitron in reflecting accurate quantitative listenership data for the complex, unwired world of terrestrial radio acceptable to all involved factions during the dawn of “extra-terrestrial” communications (internet and satellite radio) is a signal to radio sales departments to begin working even harder on educating advertisers about the benefits of qualitative thinking in placing their dollars.  Talk radio marketers should focus on results and resist being intimidated by advertising agencies insisting upon presentations based solely on ratings! (I know, easier said than done.)  However, I hate to say it but… talk radio’s survival depends on doing this.

Though admittedly still entrenched in the advertising agency psyche, the cost-per-point paradigm is an increasingly muddy yardstick and reliance upon it in the modern age –– at least during this period of standard radio ratings uncertainty –– can prove as harmful to the interests of the client as to the broadcaster.

That being said, the following are interesting aspects of news/talk, sports talk and pop culture talk radio per the broad strokes findings of the 2011 Talk Radio Research ProjectTM:

News/talk radio

• Although news/talk radio is skewed toward males, far more women are listening than is generally recognized. Considering the active nature of news/talk listeners, as well as the significant quantitative numbers, this female audience should not be ignored, especially on stations with large total listenerships.  Perhaps sales departments should work more vigorously at selling existing female numbers than, as then-Clear Channel vice president Gabe Hobbs put it several years ago at the TALKERS magazine info-session at the NAB Radio Show in Dallas, “taking the path of least resistance” by concentrating only on the higher rankings of their male listenerships.

• News/talk radio (including “conservative talk radio”) has a much larger African American listenership than most people think.  Approximately 22% of the audience is comprised of black people who like news/talk radio in higher proportions than their percentage of the population (and that’s not even counting the listenership of urban talk radio which is closely related to news/talk radio in terms of subject matter).

• Thirty-five percent of the listeners of news/talk radio over 25 have graduated from college.  Interestingly, this includes a significant number of workers categorized as “blue collar.”  That’s right, a consistently growing segment of America’s blue collar work force is college educated…and is listening to news/talk radio.

• Although many of the hosts (and callers) in the news/talk radio universe are obviously conservative, the listeners are far more diverse in terms of philosophy and party affiliation.  In other words, there is not as much preaching to the choir as conventional wisdom would have you believe.  A significant percentage of listeners are independent.  It bears repeating –– despite the industry’s obsessive adherence to “format purity” on a political ideology level –– a healthy percentage of talk listeners do listen to hosts with whom they disagree…they even listen to hosts they hate!  Regardless, the continuing expansion of the ideological menu now being offered in the form of liberal (or “progressive”) hosts appearing locally and nationally is far more likely to increase the total listenership of news/talk radio than dilute it and increase the diversity of the total audience’s political leanings.  It should also be pointed out that although much is made of the difficulty progressive talk radio has faced in gathering steam and the example of Air America that is even still cited in such discussions, growth of the approach is steadily becoming apparent and the feasibility and accomplishments of the form should not be denied.

• News/talk listeners are very politically active and are more likely to vote than the audiences of any other radio format, not to mention the audiences/readerships of most other entertainment and information media.  That’s why news/talk radio plays such a huge role in the course of elections –– far more than its actual numbers taken on their own would suggest.  Seventy-eight percent of the news/talk radio audience’s eligible voters actually voted in 2010.  That is off the charts when compared to national averages or the audiences of other radio formats.

• News/talk listeners are relatively affluent and very active consumers of a wide variety of goods and services…although they, like the rest of the population, are feeling the pinch of this extended economic squeeze.  Fifty-four percent have annual household incomes exceeding $50,000.

• News/talk listeners are active news consumers, drawing information from a variety of sources.  We have not published specific figures this year as we have in the past because of the need to break down more specifically the spread of this activity across the internet.  However, it is evident that news/talk listeners are big newspaper readers and internet users.  For the fifth year in a row, internet-based news sites are, collectively, the favorite non-radio news source of talk radio listeners, which also indicates how compatible these listeners are with terrestrial radio station internet services.  This presents sales departments with infinite inventory and exciting marketing potential.  That’s right, by tightly connecting on-air and online elements of sales packages, news/talk stations can enjoy infinite inventory.  There is no need for clutter or PPM-busting endless spot clusters.  Just consider your platform a media station, not simply a radio station.

• Football is the favorite news/talk radio listener spectator sport followed closely by baseball.  So it doesn’t hurt to talk about key events in these sports even on politically-oriented programs.  For a couple of years, auto racing and golf were more popular than basketball and hockey among news/talk listeners.  However, basketball has resurged as the number three big sport (although the present lock out could contribute to undoing this development).  Tennis, however, continues to rival hockey…especially among females.  Golf has fallen somewhat since the demise of Tiger Woods.

• News/talk radio listeners enjoy a variety of music with country being the favorite in a tight field.  Research conducted by TALKERS magazine hints at the country music audience closely identifying with news/talk radio’s conservative flavor.  Obviously, because of its upper demographic orientation, news/talk listeners also favor oldies and classic rock.

• In a study relatively new to this survey launched as a result of recent research into the relationship between talk radio and community service, it has been revealed that the news/talk radio audience is prone to engaging in charitable activities and donates a significant portion of its income each year to non-profit organizations.  The recession has dampened the dollar amounts to a certain degree –– but not the tendency to give.

In conclusion, for a wide variety of reasons that used to require detailed explanation but have become increasingly self-evident, dollar-for-dollar, the advertiser trying to reach an adult audience will enjoy approximately three times the bang for their buck buying news/talk radio than music radio.

 Sports talk radio

• Sports talk audiences are predominantly male –– 77%.

• Sports talk audiences are tremendously emotionally engaged and connected to their stations and hosts.  This alone makes them a qualitative goldmine.

• Sports talk radio audiences are, to a significant extent, consumers of ESPN’s television and online platforms.  They are also ardent local newspaper readers –– far more so than the listeners of news/talk stations.  Approximately 20% say that their favorite non-radio source of sports information is their local newspaper.

• Sports talk listeners love baseball, but their favorite sport is football.

• Sports talk listeners are culturally (and ethnically) diverse.  Caucasians constitute only slightly more than half the sports talk audience (51%) followed by African Americans (26%) and Hispanics (19%) making it one of the most multi-ethnic/racial buys in radio.  This is a crucially important aspect/asset of the sports talk audience that for the most part is lost on advertising agencies and radio sales departments which are still glued to selling demos as opposed to mindsets.  The ethnic diversity of sports talk radio’s listenership is a rare and valuable quality of the format that sets it apart from the rest of radio!

• Sports talk listeners are economically diverse.  The curve covering low, middle and high income segments is notably smooth.

• Almost one in five sports talk listeners cite news/talk radio as their second favorite radio format (followed by a tie between country and hip hop/R&B) –– however sports talk skews significantly younger than news/talk as a spoken-word format.

• Sixty-six per cent of the sports talk audience over 18 has attended, are attending, or have graduated from college.

In conclusion, sports talk radio appeals to vibrant, involved radio listeners and is a powerful tool for advertisers to reach men of a variety of demographics, lifestyles and cultures.

 Pop culture talk

• Most of the programming/shows occur on stations that are otherwise programmed with music with the emphasis of this research drawn from classic rock, active rock, and CHR stations (as well as the relative handful of FM stations that are totally devoted to the genre around the clock).

• Pop culture talk audiences skew young with 83% below 44 years of age.

• Pop culture audiences skew male but reach more females than many think –– 41%.

• Pop culture talkers are “edgy” and “streety” (often described as “locker room”) in terms of jargon and social commentary –– hence the historic term “shock jock,” which is still predominant in the mainstream press and media.  However by 2011 standards, there is little shocking about them.

• Pop culture talkers and audiences are politically diverse with a majority (33%) best described as moderate or independent and 18% claiming to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal.

• From a topical perspective, pop culture talk radio is the most “general” of all leading talk formats…covering lifestyles, entertainment, relationships, and –– yes –– politics.

In conclusion, pop culture talk radio is in fact real “talk radio” with significant cultural, economic and political influence.  It still remains, however, largely misunderstood by the mainstream media –– mostly due to, a) being predominantly situated on music stations and, b) the misleading and archaic term, “shock jock.”

Michael Harrison is the editor and publisher of TALKERS magazine. He can be phoned at 413-565-5413 or e-mailed at michael@talkers.com.

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Category: Features