RIT Study: Many Listeners Unhappy With Local Radio Programming

Music by local artists neglected; youth abandoning radio, survey says

A. Sue Weisler

Michael Saffran, associate director for new media for University News Services and adjunct professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts

Radio listeners in six U.S. cities—among them Rochester and Buffalo, N.Y., and Dallas-Fort Worth—are largely dissatisfied with the programming aired on local radio stations, according to a study at Rochester Institute of Technology.

In a survey, less than 15 percent of respondents described their satisfaction with local radio programming as “To A Great Extent.” In contrast, more than twice the number—nearly four out of every 10 listeners—expressed “Very Little” or zero satisfaction with local radio programming, with the remainder saying they are only partially satisfied.

The study, Effects of Local-Market Radio Ownership Concentration on Radio Localism, the Public Interest, and Listener Opinions and Use of Local Radio, also examined the impact of radio ownership consolidation on listeners’ perceptions about local radio and their use of radio and other media.

“The banking and financial sectors aren’t the only areas in American society witnessing adverse effects from more than two decades of deregulation,” argues study author Michael Saffran, an RIT adjunct professor of communication. “As the nation grapples with the mortgage crisis, U.S. citizens also face a growing ‘media crisis’ wrought by excessive ownership deregulation and consolidation.”

The RIT study is one of the first to explore direct effects of radio ownership consolidation on listeners’ attitudes toward and use of local radio, revealing potential impacts from deregulation on principles of radio “localism” and the public interest. Findings will be presented at the 100th annual convention of the Eastern Communication Association, celebrating Defining Moments: A Century of Communication, April 22–26, in Philadelphia.

“Many American broadcasters in today’s era of ‘big media’ are not fulfilling their nearly century-old obligation to serve the public interest as stewards of the citizen-owned airwaves,” Saffran asserts. He highlights study findings showing potentially harmful effects from local and national radio ownership consolidation on listeners’ overall perceptions of amounts of local music, news and public-service programming, live-local programming and station responsiveness.

Radio growing irrelevant among youth; stations mostly ignore local music, listeners say

Findings also revealed an emerging disconnect between local radio and today’s youth, as respondents under age 25 reported listening to radio the least.

“Although iPods appear to be taking a bigger byte from compact-disc sales than from radio, it’s noteworthy that local radio is losing relevance among younger audiences that have switched to portable digital-music players,” says Saffran, who is also an associate director for new media at RIT and spent 18 years as a local radio announcer and news reporter.

Local musicians are likely familiar with feelings of neglect. More than three-quarters of survey respondents reported perceptions of “Very Little” or zero music by locally based artists and bands aired on local radio stations.

“Such stark findings, though not surprising, sing a sad song to local musicians vying for airplay on their hometown radio stations,” Saffran says.

Radio didn’t earn entirely bad marks, however. Listeners overall are generally satisfied with local stations’ off-air community involvement—a finding that could be misleading, Saffran cautions.

“Some stations are quite visible in their communities and many listeners regularly see radio personalities at local events,” he says, “but does parking the station van at local festivals and handing out freebies fulfill broadcasters’ public-interest mandate? Most experts would answer: no.”

Possible solution: Stricter radio ownership caps tied to newspaper/radio cross-ownership

To benefit local radio and the communities it serves, Saffran suggests reversing the federal ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership—a proposal that could seem at first counterproductive, he concedes. However, Saffran supports tying the policy to stricter local and national radio ownership caps. He believes tighter ownership limits could be imminent under a new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to be appointed by President Obama.

Saffran adds: “Stricter radio ownership limits—potentially benefiting local radio audiences through enhanced news, public-service and live-local programming and station responsiveness—realistically stand a greater chance for enactment with tradeoffs agreeable to all stakeholders.”


Full study: http://www.rit.edu/news/supp/msaffran_rit.pdf

Audio podcast (interview with study author Michael Saffran):


Effects of Local-Market Radio Ownership Concentration on Radio Localism,
the Public Interest, and Listener Opinions and Use of Local Radio

Key findings:

• 39.5% of respondents report their satisfaction with local radio programming as “Not At All” or “Very Little”; 14.8% report their satisfaction as “To A Great Extent”

• Respondents under age 25 use local radio the least; respondents ages 45–54 and respondents in markets with low ownership concentration use local radio the most

• 78.1% of respondents report perceptions about the amount of music by local artists and bands aired on local radio stations as “None” or “Very Little”; 2.1% report perceptions of “A Lot”

• 22.8% of respondents report their satisfaction with the amount of community involvement among local radio stations as “Very Little” or “Not At All”; 22% report their satisfaction as “To A Great Extent”

• More than 75% of respondents who attempted to reach a live announcer via studio telephone were occasionally unsuccessful; approximately 50% were “Never” or “Rarely” successful (findings Saffran attributes, in part, to computer-automated “voicetracking” and syndicated programming)

• Light users of local radio report perceptions of less live-local programming compared with moderate and heavy users

• Respondents’ primary sources for daily news: 1.) Internet, 2.) TV, 3.) Newspaper, 4.) Radio

Markets surveyed: Binghamton, Buffalo, Dallas-Fort Worth, Ithaca, Middlesex-Somerset-Union, Rochester

Policy proposals:

• Local and national radio station ownership cap reductions:
— National broadcast ownership cap of 120 stations, including any combination of AM, FM or TV stations
— Local broadcast ownership cap of four stations per market, including no more than two in the same service (AM, FM or TV) per market

• Elimination of newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban

• Digital-spectrum reallocation to independent, local broadcasters

• Expanded licensing of low-power FM (LPFM) stations

• Sharpened and strictly enforced studio staffing requirements

Findings to be presented at: 100th annual convention of Eastern Communication Association, Defining Moments: A Century of Communication, April 22–26, 2009, Sheraton Society Hill, Philadelphia. Web site: www.ecasite.org

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and ensuing radio ownership consolidation are blamed for harming radio localism and the public interest. Prior studies examined impacts attributed to consolidation on format diversity and other measures; however, none explored influences on listener perceptions. The present research sought to determine effects of local-market ownership concentration on listener opinions and use of radio—potentially indicative of stations’ localism and public service—by surveying listeners in markets categorized by ownership concentration levels. Findings suggest concentration does not strongly influence perceptions; however, overall results indicate potentially negative consequences from local and national consolidation on amounts of local music, news, and public-service programming; live-local programming; and station responsiveness. Findings suggest policy change that could enhance radio localism.

About Michael Saffran:
Michael Saffran is an adjunct professor of communication in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology and an associate director for new media at RIT. He holds an M.S. in communication and media technologies from RIT, worked for 18 years at radio stations in western and central New York state, and wrote a regular column, “On the Radio,” in which he covered radio for Business Strategies Magazine, published in Rochester, N.Y. His research interests include mass media regulation, media ownership consolidation, radio programming trends, and development and trends in new media, particularly podcasting and satellite radio. Contact: (585) 475-5697 or michael.saffran@alum.rit.edu.
Photograph available: http://www.rit.edu/news/pics/michaelsaffran.jpg

About Rochester Institute of Technology:
Founded in 1829 and located in western New York state, Rochester Institute of Technology is internationally recognized for its leading academic programs in computing, engineering, imaging technology, and fine and applied arts, as well as for programs for students with hearing loss. Nearly 16,500 full- and part-time students are enrolled in more than 200 career-oriented and professional programs at RIT, and its cooperative-education program is one of the oldest and largest in the nation. Web site: www.rit.edu


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