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Community Broadcaster: Radio Stays Strong

The numbers are good, but times call for innovation

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

Radio stations should be encouraged by the latest study of Americans’ listening habits by Pew Research. It is a great time to use our solid position to make strides.

In its July survey, Pew Research presented one of the most comprehensive, and thought-provoking, looks at what Americans listen to, when and how. Even if you are not the big radio network, chances are you may be enjoying audiences’ loyalties. And the numbers are indeed encouraging.

Radio has a massive audience, which has been steady for years. Ninety percent of Americans 12 and older listen to radio at least once a week. This figure has changed very little since 2009, nearly a decade. Such engagement in this wild and at points erratic landscape is no small accomplishment.

These numbers are all the more impressive when you compare radio’s audience to podcast listenership, which is on the high side of a podcast boom. Only 17% of Americans say they have listened to a podcast at least once in a week. That is up 10% compared to five years ago. However, that audience is still a fraction of what radio is right now.

If you are a community radio station, there are so many departures you can take with this information. As you know, local media serves its neighbors in a way digital has not yet realized. For instance, Northern California’s KRCB is one of many stations in the region to respond quickly to the spate of statewide wildfires with emergency information critical to its community. And even when there is not a crisis, community radio is still a boon to your town. Stations are the conduit for arts and culture. They cover local elections. All these are valuable reasons why stations should be appealing to their communities for support. Radio is connective tissue in the life of a city.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: #PM18’s Best Kept Secret — Local Podcasts]

The lower podcast numbers may be instructive as well for stations that are hoping to get into the podcast game. Whether you are going out on your own, or maybe even looking to jump in the fray with initiatives like PRX’s Project Catapult, there is lots of growth opportunity today. Yet unraveling the audience puzzle may be your greatest challenge of all.

The barriers for podcast entry are significant ones. Edison Research identified several matters that underscore radio’s advantage, and may also educate stations about how they can do better work in winning audiences for their own podcasts.

Edison’s team points out just how big a barrier to podcast listenership that awareness is for podcasters. A whopping 80% of respondents say they do not listen because they do not have the software necessary to do it. A big majority of people who could tune in have no idea that their smartphones, laptops or other devices may have the apps to listen to podcasts built in.

Data usage is another top concern of audiences. While there are always debates about the impact of mobile data pricing on audiences, what is not in dispute is the fact that podcasts do eat into your plan. It is easy to assume that people will just wait until they find free Wi-Fi to consume a podcast. But how many of us make a mental note to download something when free internet access is available? It is a bit like appointment radio. Virtually no one will wait around for your podcast.

Both matters create engagement moments your station could try. For instance, listening lounges to permit residents a place to hear podcasts or download their own. Or incentivizing usage of a station’s streaming and/or podcast app with giveaways and other methods. Simplicity is the key.

It is easy to assume community media is the small fish in a big pond. However, Pew’s study hints that radio is still a dominant medium. Community stations, especially those in rural and lightly served regions, most assuredly have their own strong bases. Now it is up to community radio to come from that position of strength to be the best, most responsive voices for their areas that they can be, and take innovations like podcasting to new and local levels.

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