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Radio Is a Muscular Mass-Reach Medium

In-car audio is “huge,” Westwood One notes, and AM/FM is the big boy on the block

AM/FM radio is America’s top “mass reach” medium. And despite proliferating audio choices, 97 percent of in-car tuning comes from three established platforms: AM/FM, the leader, followed (well behind) by satellite radio and personally owned music.

Those are among the main points of a recent presentation by Westwood One for its clients and partners about the state of American in-car audio. It compiled industry data from several sources including the quarterly “Share of Ear” study from Edison Research that tracks consumer time spent with audio sources, as well as from Nielsen and RADAR.

Westwood One began by concluding that “in-car audio is huge,” with nearly a third of all audio being consumed in vehicles. The average American adult listens to one hour 14 minutes of audio in the car each day, out of a total daily consumption of four hours 16 minutes.

Fig. 1: AM/FM radio Available audio sources in our lives have proliferated, overall. They now include personally owned music, Sirius XM, Pandora, YouTube, TV music channels, streaming, podcasts, Spotify and more. Yet AM/FM still constitutes half of total listening in all locations, five out of every 10 minutes.

In the car, radio’s position is yet more powerful, seven minutes out of 10.

Westwood One notes that in the car, the “big three” content platforms of AM/FM, satellite and personal music account for 97 percent of audio time — and of those, AM/FM’s piece is almost three times bigger than the other two combined. An average person spends 53 minutes a day listening to AM/FM in the car, 10 minutes to Sirius XM and eight minutes to personal music. Streaming and podcasts get only three minutes.

Another salient piece of information is that AM/FM’s in-car reach is relatively steady. Five years ago, 78 percent of persons 12+ were reached weekly in the car by AM/FM; and the number stood at 76 percent last year.

Two-thirds of AM/FM listening takes place out of the home (almost the opposite of streaming audio, which tends to be a domestic pursuit).

Westwood One concluded its slides by noting trends that play further to radio’s strengths.

It predicted that “geolocation” is going to become an increasingly important theme, as new available data connects media exposure with store visitation behavior. Companies like NinthDecimal, a mobile programmatic and audience intelligence platform, are creating targeting solutions that will make these connections, it said.

Also, podcasts, currently a tiny slice of in-car listening, is growing “fast” as a compelling audio source. Meanwhile, efforts to convince wireless carriers to activate FM chips in smartphones will help boost OTA radio’s presence via that in-car channel.


Now, to be sure, uneasy lies the head that wears the dashboard crown. Radio’s historical dominance in the car is certainly not what it was in 1985 or 2005.

The information cited above must be considered in the vein of a pro-radio sales pitch; Westwood One is a radio network and it is owned by Cumulus Media, a radio-heavy company. Their numbers here don’t compare “deltas” from 15 or 20 years ago, nor do they scrutinize listening habits for, say, young adult demographics specifically. There is plenty of reason to keep an eye on long-term competition and demographic erosion.

But the information provides a factual counterweight to an incessant narrative of radio as yesterday’s audio news. We often allow ourselves and others to ignore an ongoing “big picture” every time someone mentions Pandora or Spotify or podcasting. Don’t overlook radio’s established and continuing strengths.

A clear-eyed ad buyer in 2016 who looks at the accompanying graphics and wants to pick the most influential in-car audio platform in American lives shouldn’t have much trouble figuring it out.

So when anyone asks you how you feel about working in “old legacy radio,” it bears repeating: Americans listen to AM/FM 53 minutes a day in the car. Radio, today, at the midpoint of the second decade of the 21st century, is a muscular mass-reach medium, a “king of the road” who doesn’t have to apologize to anyone.

See the full slide deck at Cumulus/Westwood One Chief Marketing Officer Pierre Bouvard blogs about topics like this; you can find more at I share the discussion as context to our own new eBook, “HD Radio in the Connected Car,” which you can read for free at And as always, let me know what you think, via letter to the editor to [email protected].