RALEIGH – While updating the marketing model for Carolina Journal and the John Locke Foundation, I pulled the most recent Arbitron survey data on radio listenership. Changes in the way the ratings are collected and reported have generated some fascinating wrinkles in the data, as have format changes at some of the state’s major radio stations.
For those who follow politics closely, the ratings for news/talk stations are of particular interest. Studies show that people who listen to news/talk programming – ranging from Rush Limbaugh to NPR – are very likely voters and frequently contribute to political campaigns and causes in other ways, such as donating, volunteering, or writing letters to the editor.
Arbitron, long the dominant provider of ratings data for the radio industry, has begun a transition away from the practice of sampling listeners by asking them to fill out diaries. Instead, survey participants are being supplied with electronic devices called Portable People Meters (PPMs) that automatically record radio signals within close proximity of the listener.
Another change is that while Arbitron has long included public-radio stations in its studies, the results have rarely been included in the publicly available summaries of radio listenership. The company is now including them in survey reports for major radio markets.
Finally, listenership trends in North Carolina talk radio have been affected dramatically over the past year by a format switch in the Triangle and Triad markets. News/talk mainstays WPTF-AM and WSJS-AM, respectively, lost their longtime affiliate relationships with Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, which now broadcast on “Rush Radio” FM stations in each market.
So, what does all this tell us? Here are some findings to chew on:
• As best I can determine, news/talk stations attract an average of about 650,000 North Carolina listeners every quarter-hour, or about 11 percent of all listeners in rated North Carolina radio markets.
• Public radio stations account for at least a third of that total news/talk audience (I say “at least” because I have yet to find recent Arbitron data for some public-radio stations in smaller markets). The most listened-to news/talk station in North Carolina, both in terms of audience size and share, is WUNC-FM, along with the other stations that rebroadcast its signal in Eastern North Carolina. The most-listened to commercial station in the format is WBT-AM in Charlotte, followed closely by WRDU-FM in the Triangle. Both are Limbaugh affiliates.
• The Triangle has the highest listenership of news/talk radio in North Carolina. The format draws an average of nearly 20 percent of the radio audience at any one time. The Triad (11 percent), Asheville (9 percent), and Wilmington (9 percent) markets also attract a relatively high share of news/talk listeners. Listenership is relatively low in rural Eastern Carolina.
• While WPTF-AM and WSJS-AM have lost audience share after the exit of Limbaugh and Hannity, they still attract sizable audiences in their markets with a mix of local content and other syndicated hosts. A sister station, WZTK-FM, broadcasts yet another mix of local and syndicated material from Alamance County, and thus reaches both markets.
Judging by national surveys of the news/talk audience, listenership has become more polarized than it used to be. That is, fewer Democrats or liberals listen to Limbaugh or Hannity than in the past. Fewer Republicans or conservatives listen to NPR than in the past. Still, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, about a fourth of Limbaugh’s audience is Democratic. About a fifth of NPR listeners identify as conservative.
What media sources most closely match the general electorate in the partisan or ideological breakdown of their audiences? Local and TV stations, not surprisingly. Among national media, the audiences of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Fox News tilt to the right. The audiences of Time, Newsweek, CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times tilt to the left.
With regard to news/talk radio, it still accounts for a large amount of the news, information, and analysis on public policy issues received by politically active North Carolinians. That’s why candidates and campaign ads appear so regularly on them – and why CJ considers the stations such an important avenue for conveying our work to a larger audience.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.