There’s a rule in politics that it’s hard to beat the incumbent. It’s the same for how we choose to listen to music and get current information. The only difference is that while you might get into a, shall we say, "spirited discussion" with someone over a Presidential candidate, things probably won’t get so lively discussing your choice of radio station (unless you’re really passionate, in which case we salute you).
Where incumbents are concerned, there have been 10 Presidential elections in the US since 1976, and 7 of them have been won by the candidates who were currently in office. Only Ford, Carter, and George HW Bush were beaten by their challengers.
For the last 20 years or so, there has been a similar “election” process taking place—but this one isn’t political. It’s about how and where we listen.
Go back nearly 100 years: in November of 1920, KDKA became the world’s first entertainment-based radio station. By 1926, there were a whopping 600 stations across the country. For the next 80 years or so, AM/FM was the way America—and the world—listened to current music and one of the primary ways we found out about current events.
Fast forward to the turn of the millenium: In 1999, Subpop Records began distributing their music in a new format called MP3. In 2001 and 2002, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio began broadcasting. Then came Pandora and Spotify. iTunes. Podcasts. Alexa. Suddenly, it seemed, AM/FM didn’t just have a challenger—it had DOZENS. Many people predicted the end of traditional radio… but a strange thing happened.
For the most part… nothing happened.
In 1998, Nielsen reported that an average of 95% of all Americans across all age groups listened to the radio at least once a week. Today, that number has dropped to… 93%. With so many new choices, why has so little changed?
Because it’s hard to beat the incumbent. For 80 years, radio was one of the primary means by which the world was entertained and informed. The evidence shows that most people continue to be engaged with this familiar medium.
Another point to consider: new audio choices do not necessarily come at the expense of traditional ones. A person who now streams Pandora while they're in the kitchen cooking dinner at night is probably still listening to their favorite local radio personalities during their morning commute.
Edison Research, the same company that does most of the exit polling in Presidential elections (speaking of incumbents), does a quarterly survey called “Share of Ear” to understand what percentage of time Americans spend with various types of audio. As of the end of 2018, radio not only had the highest percentage (46%), it was a bigger number than the next four categories of audio combined.
And in some ways, 21st century technology has made the original more accessible. Most stations now stream their broadcasts over the internet, allowing radio here in Maine to be heard live from anywhere in the world. Archived podcasts mean that if you missed the morning show today, you can download it and listen later tonight. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow listeners to interact with their favorite radio hosts in ways they never could before.
When you get down to it, radio is still what it always has been: on-air hosts playing music, reporting news, and talking about what’s happening around you. We all have access to it. We all understand it. We’re all familiar with it. So when it comes time to choose audio from a long list of candidates, the majority of listeners still cast their vote for what they know.
Journalist Linton Weeks, writing in 2012 about the Obama/Romney contest said, “the power of incumbency is something to keep in mind when reading the to-and-fro news stories of the day. Again and again, challengers have taken on champions, only to be swatted down at election time.”
The world is radically different in 2019 than it was in 1920. The world’s relationship with radio, though… that hasn’t changed all that much.
The votes have been counted.
The people have spoken.