How Do Radio Stations Know How Many Listeners They Have

How do radio stations know how many listeners they have?

Throughout the history of radio, it has been crucial for stations to track how many people listen to their content.

Understanding this allows them to advertise themselves better, in addition to benchmarking how they’re performing against their competitors.

But one question many radio diehards often want to know is “how do radio stations know how many listeners they have?”

The answer to this is a little complex. These days, several kinds of radio stations exist – and their strategies for gathering this information differs slightly. Things have also evolved, with various solutions emerging onto the market.

In the past 20 years, I have worked in commercial, noncommercial, online, and low-power radio stations. Listenership is calculated for different types of stations and serves different purposes.

As a senior manager in radio, I’ve used listener data to determine advertising rates, hiring decisions, and music selection.

This article will provide a detailed overview of how you can calculate radio audience measurement. You’ll learn about the different strategies for numerous kinds of platforms, plus more.

Can radio stations track listeners?

The short answer to this is yes – radio stations can track how many listeners they have, to some extent anyway.

In the past, radio stations have mentioned that they can find out how many people listen to their shows. For example, the BBC published an article in 2011 outlining how they’re able to tell that most of the UK’s population listened to their programs.

But Britain’s main broadcasting network isn’t an exception to the rule. Nielsen – more on them later – also published an in-depth post that discusses the science behind measuring audio.

How Do Radio Stations Know How Many Listeners They Have

How do radio stations know you’re listening?

Okay, so you now know that radio stations don’t pluck their listening numbers out of thin air.

A lot of work goes into the behind-the-scenes, and the role of data has become even more important with multiple media challenging traditional radio stations in recent years.

The next most important question we should seek to cover is “how do radio stations track listeners?”

It’s pretty difficult for radio stations to know exactly who’s listening, but a couple of tactics can help them in this respect. In many cases, radio stations will use tools provided by third parties that can provide some level of insight.

Another way that radio stations know you’re listening is through surveying a large group of people. This can help to gain a rough idea, but the nature of this means that it can be somewhat inaccurate unless you survey everyone in a specific area.

In this respect, surveying is a more effective option for local radio stations than national ones.

How is radio listenership tracked on conventional analogue and FM radio?

So far in this article, we’ve covered the basics of tracking radio listenership.

However, it’s important to remember that there is no one size fits all approach; each form has its differences, and radio can be a lot more complicated to understand fully than other forms of media.

With that in mind, it’s worth breaking down each of the main types of stations more granularly. So, how do FM and conventional radio stations know how many listeners they have?

One of the most common tools used to track listenership in conventional radio is a concept known as AQH. This stands for Average Quarter Hourly and – as you might have guessed – identifies an average of people listening to a radio station within 15 minutes.

When using AQH, it’s worth remembering that not everyone’s listenership is equal. Typically speaking, listeners will need to have been tuned in for at least five minutes during these quarterly spells.

This isn’t too surprising. Think about how many times you’ve listened to a station for a few minutes (or even seconds!) before switching to the next while driving.

Stations look at cume as well. Cume is short for cumulative audience. It measures the listening habits of a specific demographic like women 18-34. Like AQH, persons must listen for at least five minutes.

Another measurement is time spent listening (TSL). TSL measures how long and how often people listen.

Finally, share is used to determine how a station ranks in a market compared to competing stations. Share is the percentage of listeners in a market listening to a station.

To measure ratings, radio stations usually can’t do this on their own. Instead, they’ll work with third parties that have the tools necessary for this.

One of the most popular is Nielsen, which is used by some of the most significant channels in the US and covers most of the country’s largest cities.

There are two ways Nielsen measures listenership.

One way is the use of survey diaries. Randomly selected participants self report their listening habits into a survey.

Some markets use portable people meters (PPM) to collect data. Participants wear an electronic device resembling a pager that tracks what station a person listens to and for how long.

There is some controversy over the use of diaries to calculate ratings. Participants rely on their memory, which may not be accurate in recording the correct station call sign or on-air hosts. Stations can easily manipulate the zip codes where diaries are sent to their favor.

Digital radio (DAB)

If you’re from the US or Canada, you’ll probably find the idea of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio completely alien. This form of radio is also uncommon outside most of the world that isn’t Europe.

However, DAB radio stations are pretty popular in various countries worldwide. The UK is perhaps the best-known example of this, with the taxpayer-funded BBC still enjoying significant listenership in 2022.

However, Britain isn’t the only place where digital radio is popular.

Just across the North Sea, Norway has its own version – Norsk Riskskastning (NRK) – and fellow Nordic country Denmark has Danske Radio (DR).

Other countries with DAB radio include France, Australia, Germany, and Italy.

DAB radio stations have several methods for discovering their radio listenership. In the UK, the BBC works closely with Radio Joint Audio Research (RAJAR) – which is responsible for looking at viewing figures in the country.

In the final quarter of 2021, RAJAR released an in-depth whitepaper looking at the current state of British radio. In this, it revealed how many audio hours are listened to across the country cumulatively – plus more.

It does this every month, but how? Well, it uses a couple of methods.

RAJAR utilizes data that help it discover listenership figures in the country, but it also regularly asks people to participate in research; these are useful for finding percentages in particular.

How Do Radio Stations Know How Many Listeners They Have

How do online radio stations measure audience size?

Online radio channels are a little different from FM in the way that they broadcast their content. Their tactics to measure listeners differ a little, but they’ve got an advantage where they’re based on the internet.

Like FM radios, online radio channels will measure their listenership using third parties like Nielsen. Again, many of these platforms will use the AQH method, which lets them get a good idea of how many people are listening (and actually engaged) with the content being published.

Online radio channels will also use analytics software that gives them a full performance. They’ll typically need to choose and pay for these themselves but doing so gives them several powerful insights.

When using analytics software, online radio stations can break down their research into numerous segments that will enable them to grow in the long run. These include unique listeners, average listening time, and location.

Online radio analytics are often more accurate when collected using third-party SaaS platforms. Rather than determining averages, information is usually derived from servers.

Despite having in-depth analytics, online radio channels can still use alternative methods to measure their audience. Polls, for example, can help them gain further insights on audience preferences and different demographics.

How are radio ratings calculated?

As you can see, it’s a little trickier on some media than is the case with others – and some are also more accurate.

One significant factor in a radio station’s success is how good its ratings are. Again, measuring these can be a little complex if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of the radio industry.

Once again, AQH plays a significant role in calculating radio ratings. It’s a lot more useful when looking at how popular a station truly is than taking overall numbers at face value, and this is even more important when measuring up against other radio stations.

Other factors come into play when determining radio ratings, too. Measuring the number of listeners that simultaneously listen to a radio channel, for example, is a good way of delving into the popularity of particular programs.

The average number of hours listened to can also play a role when determining radio ratings. Many people will listen to something once and either never return or do so intermittently, which can give some larger channels’ audiences a lower lifetime value than a smaller station with more loyal listeners.

Radio listenership, in a nutshell

Radio stations have plenty of tools to help them know who’s listening to their channels.

We’ve covered how channels on different platforms use various tracking methods to find what they need and reveal some of the ways that ratings are determined.

Measuring listenership is crucial for radio stations, regardless of whether they’re national broadcasters or only focusing on a very specific area.

Having this information available enables them to sell to advertisers, finetune their content for the audience, and attract artists to promote their music.

Many radio stations host talk shows, where they invite interesting characters to debate a whole range of topics. One common question is whether or not these individuals get paid; if you’ve found yourself asking this, why not check our article on the topic?

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.

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