If Personalization is the Buzzword of the Day, Why is Broadcast Radio as Hot as Ever?

If the headlines are to be believed, we are living in an era of hyper-personalization. Thanks to AI, brands are delivering more high-touch, bespoke experiences and products, from curated newsfeeds to custom flavors. The order of the day: give consumers (each and every one) exactly what they want. You would think, then, that when it comes to music, streaming platforms would rule the audio roost. But in fact, 86% of audio time is spent listening to radio, versus a paltry 14% on streaming services. How to make sense of that paradox?

“In a world of enormous fragmentation, radio is one of the few places where you can come together as a community and feel like a community,” explains iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman. 

That’s no overstatement. Media platforms have, for the last two decades, presided over the collapse of the mass-market audience. Think about it: twenty years ago, Friends, one of TV’s highest rated shows could easily garner upwards of 15 million viewers an episode. But these days ratings like that for a network sitcom are almost unheard of, thanks in large measure to the rise of cable and streaming, to say nothing of social media and gaming. There’s a channel, page, and subreddit for pretty much everyone. And that means fewer of us watching anything together en masse

But humans being humans, we still prize connectivity and community. In fact, as audiences become more fragmented, the value of shared experiences has only gone up. It’s why the Super Bowl, still the year’s top rated show, can command TV’s highest CPMs. And its why radio endures the current media upheaval as strong as ever, the rare platform where community in the broadest sense of the word still prevails.

In fact, nobody reaches more Americans than radio. For the past five decades it has maintained 92% reach. Even among those elusive and fickle millennials, weekly radio consumption (91%) handily beats TV (73%). And iHeartMedia, America’s #1 audio company, reaches 275 million people every month, besting Google, Facebook, and all the major TV networks. Even as audiences flee television, they’re sticking with radio. According to a recent Nielsen study, of the 44% of Americans considered “light TV viewers”, 90% listen to radio regularly.

Radio’s resilience in the age of gaming, streaming and social media owes much to the proliferation of smart speakers, which have extended radio’s dominance from the car into the home. One in five Americans use smart speakers, an astonishing 2100% growth from just two years earlier. An overwhelming 70% of smart speaker owners use it to listen to radio, versus roughly a third for streaming services. Smart speakers have taken over the home, with 34% of owners copping to owning more than one. And, interestingly, just under 20% of Gen Z’s say they listen to more radio since getting a smart speaker. The takeaway: smart speakers are training a new generation of radio fans to tune in pretty much everywhere. “Smart speakers have essentially become the new home radios,” says Tim Castelli, President of National Sales, Marketing and Partnerships for iHeartMedia.

In fact, radio now boasts massive reach on social media, too. Across all platforms, iHeartMedia counts 145 million followers, more than NBC or Netflix. Social media isn’t just a promotional tool, but a key part to how on-air talent interacts with the audience. Listener feedback and questions are routinely referenced on-air. Got a question about the Top 40? Ping Ryan Seacrest, who’ll read your tweet and answer. No other media offers that kind of real time engagement and connectivity to its audience. “Radio listeners have an amazing connection with their favorite on-air hosts—it’s almost like they’re old friends,” explains Gayle Troberman, iHeartMedia’s Chief Marketing Officer. “That unique bond doesn’t exist anywhere else in entertainment in media. It’s unique to radio.”

While 80% of radio fans say it’s music discovery that compels them to tune-in, it’s the on-air personalities that keep them listening. An astonishing 86% of broadcast radio listeners perceive a “deep connection” with the talent; 74% say they value their opinion and perspective. Core to that relationship is trust. Broadcast radio is far and away the most trusted form of media, say listeners—81% more than cable TV, 27% more than broadcast TV, and two times more trustworthy than social media.

It’s easy to overlook the sheer influence exerted by radio personalities, but there are no shortage of examples: Country music host and bestselling author Bobby Bones, whose eponymous morning show is syndicated to 105 stations coast to coast, was tapped to be on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars; his surprising win is largely attributed to the call-in support of his radio fan base. Elvis Duran reaches 5.5 million listeners every week, more than Howard Stern at his peak.

And marketers take note: They’re also influencing purchasing decisions. An incredible 61% of radio listeners say they’ve actually purchased a product recommended by the talent. Nearly half of consumers listen to radio within 30 minutes of visiting a store. In 2017, Procter & Gamble went from a minor to major advertiser of radio and saw almost immediate growth in its beauty category, evidence of the success of that strategy. 

Personalization is sure to remain the dominant marketing trend for the foreseeable future, especially as more companies adopt data mining tools to better super-serve their customers. But radio is proof that there’s still strong value in communal experiences, in formats that work. And despite all the buzz about the power of one, radio enjoys it, too, but on a scale other media simply can’t compete with.