Time was, radio was the central entertainment of the American home. You’d gather the kiddies, sit down to dinner, and listen to a nice, wholesome program where a nice, wholesome announcer would explain that Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.
Alas, times have changed: families eat more fast food, kids prefer Juuls, and radio has been replaced by television in the American living room.
Oh, sure: You public radio nerds can protest all you want that NPR is more vital than ever, what with the Ira Glass and the Guy Raz and the Jad Abumrad. And maybe you were right 15 years ago. But with the advent of podcasts, can even NPR keep hanging on? After all, the educational programming on Gimlet Media doesn’t bleep out swear words. This American Life has to issue a listener warning every time they talk about s-e-x.
As with other technological dinosaurs, it sure looks like a meteor named The Internet is about to kill off radio once and for all. You’d be forgiven for thinking so. You’d also be wrong.
Radio’s Big Return
In 2014, a study by Nielsen Catalina Solutions found something surprising: Despite the growing consensus that social media was the next great frontier for advertising, the best average return on investment actually came from radio.
And we’re not talking chump change, either. On average, the study found that brands saw a return of $6 for every $1 spent on radio advertising. In at least one case, a retail brand saw a genuinely shocking return of more than 23 to one.
Now, there are reasons to take all this with a grain of salt. First of all, at least one soft drink brand got a measly return of 1.38 percent, so it’s not as though everyone who advertised on radio was raking in the dough (although, hey, a profit’s a profit).
Second, and perhaps more important: In the world of the internet, 2014 was, like, a thousand years ago. According to Edison Research, between 2014 and 2017, podcast listenership grew from 14% to 24% of the U.S. population. More recent research had that number up as high as 44% in 2018.
Surely, you might think, this is taking a bite out of radio advertising’s ROI—especially when some brands have gone all in on sponsoring podcasts. But yet again, my hypothetically convenient reader, you have thought wrong.
Business is Booming, Bay-Beeeeee
Somehow, despite the persistence of irritating morning DJs, radio advertising’s returns continue to grow. When Nielsen Catalina Solutions followed up on their study in 2018, they found the average ROI was no longer $6 per dollar spent. Instead, it had doubled.
This study was commissioned by Westwood One, a media company with some 8,000 affiliated broadcast radio stations. Which might raise an eyebrow: They certainly have a vested interest in commissioning a study that suggests their product is a good investment for advertisers. They weren’t just blowing smoke, though: Westwood One had already promoted an ROI guarantee to advertisers who were hesitant to purchase radio spots.
Every generation introduces a new way to consume information, from the days of the printing press to, ummm… let’s say The Matrix? But these advances don’t necessarily kill their predecessors. For example, the introduction of ebooks did nothing to slow the rise of independent brick-and-mortar booksellers across the country.
Likewise, the advent of Spotify and podcasting hasn’t killed off radio. It might be a dinosaur, but not every dinosaur dies.