“No One Listens To The Radio Anymore”


(By Roy Williams) “Radio is dying.”

“Radio is dead.”

“My friends and I don’t listen to the radio. We (blah, blah, blah) instead.”

“No one listens to the radio anymore, especially in high-tech places like San Francisco, in the heart of Silicon Valley. That’s right, isn’t it?”

“Isn’t it?”

A few paragraphs from now, I will tell you exactly how many people we’re reaching in San Francisco each week and precisely how many times the average San Franciscan hears our radio ad.

But first, let’s look at why we can trust the numbers when someone asks, “Is radio dead?”

You’ve heard of the Nielsen ratings. You’ve heard of the Gallup Poll. And of course, you understand scientific survey, methodology, and statistical analysis.

Nielsen measures San Francisco’s radio listening habits continuously, using a sample size of about 2,400 adults.

Oh? You say you don’t understand scientific survey methodology and statistical analysis? You didn’t know the Gallup Poll is usually based on just 1,000 interviews? And that those 1,000 persons represent the entire population of the United States with a high degree of accuracy?

“How can a poll of only 1,004 Americans represent 260 million people with only a 3 percent margin of error?” This is the name of an article you’ll find in the online archives of Scientific American. In that article, Professor Andrew Gelman of the Department of Statistics and Political Science at Columbia University says, “The margin of error depends inversely on the square root of the sample size.”

Here’s what Professor Gelman is saying: The smaller the universe, the larger the percentage of that universe must be queried. If you want to know the opinions of a universe of 10 people, you’ve got to ask all 10 of them. The larger the universe, the smaller the percentage of that universe that must be queried. To accurately measure the opinions of 700 people, you’ve got to ask 250 of them. But a sample size of only 384 persons will measure the opinions of 1 million people with an identical degree of accuracy.

When the Gallup organization wants to get nit-pickingly accurate, they crank their sample size up to 1,500 persons. And that’s to measure the whole United States.

That Nielsen sample of 2,400 persons in San Francisco isn’t looking quite so small anymore, is it? By the way, the annual report of Nielsen Holdings indicates they had revenues of $6.6 billion. That’s right. Six and a half billion dollars to monitor our listening and viewing habits. That’s a lot of money to ask, “Is radio dead?”

I say “monitor” because Nielsen doesn’t trust our memories or our motives. Nielsen gives each of those 2,400 San Franciscans a small electronic device to carry with them each day. This Portable People Meter detects the radio stations to which you listen, noting the precise times you listen to each station, each day. This data is uploaded to Nielsen and serves as the basis of their ratings report.

Electronic devices don’t lie.

Nielsen’s methodology and math are irrefutable and unimpeachable.

I say we can trust Nielsen’s numbers. What say you?

We recently negotiated a weekly schedule on the broadcast radio stations of San Francisco. That schedule reaches 43 percent of the total (18+) population of that city an average of 2.7 times each week, 52 weeks a year, at a total cost of 47 cents per person, per year. This means that each of more than 2.5 million San Franciscans will hear our full-length message an average of 140 times in 2018 (52 x 2.7 = 140.4).

Is radio dead? About 50 percent of Americans spend enough time listening to the radio each week that you can efficiently and affordably reach those customers with sufficient repetition to become a household word, an intimate component of their daily life.

This familiarity accelerates and enhances every other effort at selling — e-mail, online, outdoor, voice-to-voice on the telephone, and face-to-face on the sales floor.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, it is written 11 times, “And God said…” The only description we are given of God in the book of Genesis is that he spoke a world into existence. But then in verse 26, it says that we are made in his image.

I believe this is why we can speak possible futures into the hearts and minds of other humans. It’s an art we call “selling.” And it works wonderfully well on the radio.

It’s OK with me if you believe the Bible is a fairy tale. But if you think Nielsen numbers are a fairy tale, you are in a special kind of denial.

Might I humbly and respectfully suggest that you pull your head out of your ass and see the light?

That was meant to be a funny, unexpected punch line. If you took it otherwise and it made you angry, I’m sorry. Please say hello to your colon for me.

This article was originally published on May 22, 2018. Roy H. Williams is president of Wizard of Ads Inc. He will be speaking at Radio Ink’s Radio Masters Sales Summit this September. Read Roy’s Radio Ink archives here or read his latest column exclusively in the current edition of Radio Ink Magazine HERE.


  1. Being in radio in 2023 is like being a blacksmith in 1923. You know your job is becoming obsolete, you just hope there’s enough horses left to get you to the New Deal.

  2. Radio is not dead only the people who run it. Non-broadcasters have been buying Radio stations and making it their playground for years—no more community involvement for the most part. Radio was a very respectable profession at one time. No one at the radio station is even there to say hello today. Additionally, there are certain radio station owners who are taking the easy way out and you know who you are by prostituting your airtime and selling it to want-to-be broadcasters who do not have no clue what it takes to pull an air shift. The only listeners they have are a few friends and themselves. When they find out broadcasting is not for them they pay off their contract and leave. RADIO IS NOT A HOBBY.
    Radio needs help no doubt about it. Whatever happened to the FCC? Several radio stations do not even have a sales department only an order taker if that should ever happen. Yes, Radio needs help. Just for fun take a listen to your radio station today and ask yourself, would I want to buy an ad on that program? For those of you who are still playing by the rules hang in there. You are what radio needs.

  3. I Love Roy!! I’m a graduate of the Wizard Academy, but this article is 5 years and BEFORE the pandemic!

    It desperately needs an update with recent Nielsen ratings and examples.

    This article will only encourage skeptics because the data and story is outdated.

  4. Roy,

    I pulled my head out of my ass years ago when I realized I didn’t have to get through 20 or 25 commercials an hour and listen to somebody else’s 250 song playlist over and over again. Pull your head out of your own ass. If radio doesn’t change…fast…it’ll be even more dewar than it is today.

    • Maybe YOU don’t like the repetitive nature of music radio, but the reality is that the REAL audience expects to hear their familiar favorites every time they tune in. And the proof of that is the ratings that are the basis for this column.

      Consider this, if you will: If the millions of radio listeners in the U.S. agree with you, why are they still listening?

      WE don’t need to change, but YOU need a reality check. Radio is not dead … it is providing precisely the programming the audience wants and expects. Perhaps YOU don’t like that this is the viable business model, but ranting against it doesn’t make you more important than that overwhelming number of listeners who embrace “somebody else’s playlist”.

      And the reason for that is: It’s actually THEIR playlist. It consists of THEIR favorites. And that’s what they want from us.

  5. Actually in my country there’re still lots of people listening to the radio. Because in some circumstances videos are not proper. For example, when you’re driving or in a bus, it’s impossible to watch a video. In addition, people with bad eyesight tend to listen to something rather than watching.

  6. I gave up on radio a long time ago. Online streaming is the future. I don’t have to listen to music I don’t feel, but more importantly, I don’t have to listen to repetitive formats.

  7. Yes, its dead. Its been replaced by something much better. I used to as a boy on Sunday listen to Radio Australia. At best fading and so on. It was better in winters. Today 25 channels or full stereo Australian stations on web. I am in eastern US. Same for India .. it is expensive to keep putting out radio energy and really a waste of time. As for mobile the solution was made years ago DSB. The only issue DBS makes you pay. But if you like Stern and so on no Big Nanny FCC. I drove from New England to West Coast and DBS was there all the way.

  8. Radio isn’t dead; it’s changing. Nobody cares how they hear their favorite radio personality — their local on-air friend. They want to listen to it when and where they choose. We can do that with radio. Radio is doing fine; it just changes form!

    Like the immortal William Shakespear once said, “What a piece of work is RADIO, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The voice of the world, The paragon of media.”

    Okay, I may have changed a few words 🙂

    KVCB-LP/HD Vacaville, CA.

  9. I’m pretty amused by the comments here…. Most miss the context of what Roy Williams is discussing, and his point of view. Like commenters on any site, this one is no different. Com Box Heroes focus their comments on arguments that advance their own personal biases, while avoiding the context of what is being discussed. This article is not about the death of radio, diaries, or the failings of Nielsen. Mr. Williams is writing from the point of view of an advertising agency (one who spends a lot of his clients budgets using radio as the primary delivery vehicle), negotiating on behalf of his clients looking to maximize the reach of an advertising buy using an industry agreed upon measurement tool to figure out the math. He is quite successful at it. Enjoy your day!

  10. HUGE variable missing. When Gallup does a poll, particularly a presidential poll or some other political race, there are two candidates. When Nielsen does a poll, there can easily be 30 or even 50- candidates (radio stations), which makes the data not only flawed, but fully impeachable. If it were so darned accurate, how can a radio station with 10,000 people streaming them have a 0 share in Nielsen? And, if it was so accurate, why does Nielsen print the statement that their reports are “opinions?” It’s because they is anything but defendable. Love your creativity Roy, but the ratings system is our greatest flaw as an industry.

  11. You people write for a living, and you let THIS be published? “Roy Williams is a regular columnist for Radio Ink Magazine. His column’s do not regularly appear online. ” COLUMN’S? Really? I’m sorry that is the final thought I take from this otherwise brilliant article.

  12. Wow…simply, WOW! This arcticle and most of the comments are fundamentally what is wrong with radio today. The only thing said that was correct in the comments … that we are at best “sheep”, waiting for the slaughter. Does anyone have a clue how to do radio? I wonder how many Market Managers know how to turn on a studio mic….How many MM actually know how to make a cold call……How mnay know where the tower site is..lol. I’m serious, probably most don’t and that’s metaphorically speaking what is wrong with radio.

  13. I’m a radio program director in Arizona in a diary market. We have counties as big as some eastern states out here. Sample size in my market may indeed be enough for good estimates. But… Nielsen still has to mail out diaries to zip codes. And being close to the southern US border there are many important factors that are considered. So the size of the sample is good for statistics, but it still depends on who gets a diary. Distribution weilds a lot of sway.

  14. Why is there the assumption that the only thing people listen to on the internet is internet generated content?

  15. The silly, worn out argument lingers. Of course Radio isn’t dead, just mortally wounded and lying on the battlefield of time with guts scattered. Sadly, there’s no one left to save her because, in military terms, the redundant troops were discharged, and most fans are gone on in search of new glitz.

    No, Radio is not dead today; she’s just very tired, she’s on life support and praying for a miracle cure before funding dries up. She’s another modern-day victim of change, the inevitable decline of all things rich and powerful.

    She tried to keep up…like the old starlet whose greatest movie was her last one but that was over two decades ago and her equally tired, parasitic publicists are the only ones extolling the old lady’s virtues; they have vested interest.

    Her remaining fans are forever loyal and grateful for a lifetime of wonderful memories. They are deeply concerned and saddened by her obvious decline while praying that she passes on without any additional pain or humiliation.

  16. I believe the reason many people claim not to listen to radio anymore isn’t because they want to make a statement that they believe is accurate. It is mainly to indirectly discuss their dissatisfaction with the content available.

    Also, just because people do listen, for whatever reasons – even including less thought of reasons like for background noise or boredom somewhere or loneliness, doesn’t mean they necessarily truly enjoy the content available. A lot of people settle for the best they can get. A good example out of the many are the time I met a former DJ partner who had programmed stations in her car. She had all the urban stations preset but hated rap. Since one was a rhythmic that resembled an urban, there were ocassional urban pop songs that played. She “settled” for that station because it was the closest to something that remotely resembled something she liked.

    While in this particular case it was her own ignorance to the fact that an actual CHR / Top 40 station exists that caused her to “settle” for the rhythmic that operates like an urban, there are many other cases where people “settle” due to a true lack of a station that fulfill their desires (and I’m not even talking about any outrageous format that would most likely fail, but even popular formats that *could* succeed if given a chance and programmed *properly* in certain lacking markets). A good example would be when Atlanta lacked a CHR / Top 40 station for over a decade, then after getting one, that station was bought and tweaked towards Hot AC sound, once again creating a void. All the “experts” argued and argued that a top 40 would “never work” there and tried to show all the flawed “proof.”

    To keep a long story short, Power 96.1 became successful, in addition to Q100 tweaking back to traditional top 40 and doing fine. However, for over a decade, it was Hot AC with limited top 40 hits OR pure urban that people had to settle for (and, of course, certain formats will automatically gain more ratings and appear to have a lot of “happy” listeners when many have to settle for the best they can get. Not to mention that many of the existing formats can “spice things up” by becoming more creative and thoughtfully having more specialty shows at “safe” or “the right times.”

    It may not be true that “No one listens to the radio anymore.” However, it IS true that people complain about how boring, limited and uncreative radio has become over time, especially now more than before.

    It would be more wise (or rather, more beneficial overall) for people to think of creative ways to make radio more fun, exciting and entertaining than it is for people to emotionally post things to subtly “get back” at those expressing frustration towards the state of radio. Maybe you can’t please everyone, but you can, indeed, do the best you can to be as creative and entertaining as possible as oppose to doing just enough to get by with decent ratings without much care towards whether or not the content is genuinely pleasing to people. Don’t have the mindset that “there’s nothing anyone can do” or “they have no choice, so they will tune in (to what’s available),” or ” well it’s working and it’s good enough.”

  17. A Medium market without competition from local TV is the sweet spot for community involved radio. Anti-social social media may be okay for arguments but it’s no place to brand a business. There is definitely a market for non-vulgar music and content where commercials are part of the community bulletin board and not treated as “interruptions”. Getting our stations via Bluetooth enabled streaming is a HUGE asset. You watch and listen. The world will turn back in our direction. It’s happening now. DVR and video streaming have destroyed TV. All that’s left are coupon books and us. I like our chances!!!

    • all that’s left are coupon books? all that’s left are Facebook and Google which represent 80% of online ad revenue.

      • Local small businesses don’t believe in on line like they do with the tried and true. We don’t rely on national ads at all. Radio stations die from bad management. So that makes US either lucky or good. I tend to accept a little of the former and a lot of the latter. 33 years we’ve been here and grew DURING THE RECESSION from two stations to eight. It takes work, dedication and passion. All we compete against for local ad dollars are coupon books. And magazines. I still like our chances long Term.

      • Local small businesses don’t believe in on line like they do with the tried and true. We don’t rely on national ads at all. Radio stations die from bad management. So that makes US either lucky or good. I tend to accept a little of the former and a lot of the latter. 33 years we’ve been here and grew DURING THE RECESSION from two stations to eight. It takes work, dedication and passion.

  18. I wonder why Roy would even bring up the ratings issue as the begged questions and contradictory suspicions have been around for some time.
    Roy, however, enjoys a significant and well-earned advantage.
    He and his hench-writers have an understanding of 1. How radio works and, more importantly, 2. How to work radio.
    These are factors about which most of the rest of the industry can’t even begin to fathom – or articulate.
    Meanwhile, and I may be grossly uninformed about this, someone said they saw one of those greeny-orangy cardboard placards at a Westboro Baptist Church gathering that read: “God Hates Radio”. I could be wrong.

  19. “Electronic devices don’t lie.”

    Really? Then can you please tell me why my computer with a wireless modem says I don’t have a wireless modem?

  20. I remember sitting in a restaurant with a client and hearing the “Nobody listens to radio excuse” and at the same time there was a traffic jam right out the front door. I asked: “Since no body listens to radio what are all these people out there stuck in traffic doing?” Got the order.

  21. As long as most radio companies continue to be run by investment people who are in it for the stock price and exit strategy and who program to the lowest common denominator rather than radio people who have a passion for communicating real ideas, presenting great music including new new music and artists and creating a community of listeners that have a strong emotional bond with the station, their locality and each other, loyal radio listeners will continue to abandon radio for other media that is more stimulating and engaging. Long live independent radio. It’s the only real radio left.

  22. First off, to say “nobody” listens is clearly ridiculous. Radio has stellar “reach” compared to other choices out there. The comment regarding the difference between “hearing and “listening “ is also valid. The problem is, while reach is still good, TSL and recognition has signifintly declined. If your message here is rah-rah, don’t let the comments get you down, I get that. But somehow, the industry has to address how it can improve listening levels and revenue generation. Not just say we’re “still” better than everyone else. I’m a former 30+ yr Radio Network (WW1) Programming exec, now working with BMW, and spending a ton of time with car buyers and especially with the connected dash in their vehicles. Buyers under 50 are, at least as often as not, uninterested in knowing how the “radio” works in the car. They can’t name a station to put in the preset when I ask. It’s all about apps, and/or phone connectivity and Car Play. That’s the group the industry must focus on.

  23. Let’s be clear. The People Meters show what radio stations a subject is exposed to, not what he or she actively listens to. If you walk into a shoe store there may be a radio station on in the background, but you didn’t choose it and, being focused on shoes, may be paying no attention to it whatsoever. You might hear the station, but you’re hardly listening to it. Of course Nielsen wants to erase the distinction between hearing and listening because doing so increases the the amount of radio “listening” the industry can claim credit for.

  24. And how long does that last after radio gets pushed farther down the menus on car dashboards? Or after the number of smart speakers exceeds the number of radios in homes? Or after the cell connections already buried in dashboards hunt seamlessly between Internet streams, over-the-air signals and even SiriusXM? Or after some kind of standard UI emerges to harmonize a simple way to listen to podcasts anywhere across all apps and devices?

    The answer is that the most original and in-demand stations will survive as Internet natives, and the rest will die.

    Look at the latest Nielsen 12+ for New York: https://ratings.radio-online.com/cgi-bin/rol.exe/arb001 . At the bottom are three streams. This resembles what FM looked like next to AM in the 1960s. Now AM is all but gone in many markets, such as Washington DC https://ratings.radio-online.com/cgi-bin/rol.exe/arb015 , where all the listed AMs total 0.7. The same will happen to FM.

    Case in point. My 21 year old son when he was 15 asked me what the point of range and coverage was for over-the-air radio. “Why is it okay that the signal fades away when you drive out of town, when you can get the same station on your phone?” he asked. Because his frame is the Net. Same goes for his entire generation.

    And then there’s the advertising issue. Already a year ago 1.7 billion people were blocking ads on their computers and mobile devices: a population exceeding that of the whole Western Hemisphere. To a large degree that’s a gag reflex against unwanted tracking (now basically illegal in Europe), as well as wasted time. The fact that the incumbent radio industry still thrives on advertising doesn’t mean a drought isn’t coming. It is, and it won’t stop. Near-universal dislike of advertising by radio’s audience is the industry’s equivalent of climate change. And denying it will fail a lot faster there than it will in the natural world.

    • LOL after three years of record-breaking global cooling, according to NASA. But anyway, neither I nor my clients are remotely poor, and our wealth continues to come, principally, from radio’s sales effectiveness. Roy H W. nails it again. Lazy programmers and bad business decisions make for lazy clocks, bad ratings, and plummeting listenership, but the few stations on the vanguard, and their advertisers, do exceptionally well. (Alas, reps aren’t making what they used to, but they, too, have become lazy.) Now that agencies have abandoned radio I do believe there are even greater fortunes to be made on the independent station level for locally-minded operators who can also raise salespeople.


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