Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Talk Radio: Old, Male, Conservative and Dying

In 2006, almost exactly 4 years ago I wrote a post predicting the migration of AM talk radio to FM. I predicted that the aging demographic is dying off, creating a need for change. I  predicted that there would be more centrist and left wing talk because of the younger demographics of FM radio. I think that radio will adapt to the audience, because historically it's something that radio has always been good at. You can read it here.

Because of the effectiveness of search engines I got an anonymous comment on it only recently. Inexplicably the response was railing against the perceived left-wing tilt of NPR I am not sure that the troll actually read my post, but that's only because their comment had almost nothing to do with it. It is possible that they were deeply offended by a single offhand comment. I wrote that AM talk radio was "wildly conservative, politically."

That comment was, and still is factually true.  It's been a few years so I thought I'd revisit the topic and cite my sources. I'll start anecdotally. Rush Limbaugh is the biggest name in AM talk radio. He makes an estimated $58 million dollars a year, and just recently was topped the Newsweek "Power List." [Source Here.]  As of September 2010 he has the number one most listened to talk program on the radio.  [Source Here.] Despite that his listenership is down. Rush Limbaughs audience peaked in 2003 at an impressive 14.5 million. It's all downhill from there. According to Talkers Magazine, Limbaugh only reached a weekly audience of 14.25 million in 2008 and only averages 13.5 million in 2007 and 2006.It's called a rough plateau and it's what happens before the drop.

His audience isn't turning off the radio. They're just dying. He is still delivering the same quality program he always has and to 600+ stations. But the median age of a Rush Limbaugh listener is 67. A full 72% of Limbaugh’s audience are male adding to the early fatality rate (women outlive men). [Source Here] This data is not an outlier. The Fox News audience has a median Age of 65.  [Source Here] This is a big problem. According to a recent actuarial table (below) almost 20% of Americans do not make it to age 67. If you look past 67. It's a cliff.Check out the actuarial chart below:

Listeners of AM talk radio are not a random cross-sampling of America. Only 5% are between the ages of 18 and 24, and 80% are over the age of 35. They are more likely to be male than female (64% vs. 37%). [Source Here]  According to the Pew Research Center self-identified "conservative Republicans" make up 28% of talk radio’s audience, compared to only 17% of the general public. As for registered voters that regularly listen to talk radio, 41% are Republican and 28% are Democrats. [Source Here.] 

Extrapolating this as an industry-wide trend isn't difficult. The top 10 talk radio show audiences according to Talkers Magazine are as follows: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Dave Ramsey, Dr. Laura,  Neal Boortz, Laura Ingraham and Jim Bohannon.  Of that set, Boortz is a Libertarian, and Bohannon is more or less middle of the road. The other 8 are solid conservatives. [Source Here.] So as the whole AM radio talk audience "ages out" it will have a disparate effect on conservative talk programs.
"Up until 1978, half of all radio listening was done on the AM dial. Now that share has dropped to about 17 percent, according to the FCC...  AM radio accounts for only about four percent of listening among the 12-24 set, with FM making up the remaining 96 percent. Only nine percent of listeners aged 25-34 still tune in."
This is not a reflection of programming quality, or a political change in the general population. It's a result of the vagaries of AM radio itself. AM radio stations have been dropping like flies. Back in 1990 there were 4,987 AM stations and 5,832 FM stations. In the 20 years since, the number of AM stations has dropped by 200+ and the number of FM signals has nearly doubled. [Source Here] In 10 years there will be nothing left on the AM radio band but Spanish, Religion, and Spanish-Religion. Political conservatism is not going extinct. But it definitely is going to lose it's domination of AM radio and therefore specifically— AM talk radio. So where will conservatives go to get their media?  Some will go to FM radio, some to TV, and the rest, doubtlessly to the internet, but the diaspora appears to be inevitable.