Has Listenership Of Terrestrial Radio Gone Down Now That Satellite Radio, Streaming Are Things?

I can’t imagine that the old AM/FM model of providing content to listeners is the same as it was two decades ago, with the advent of streaming and satellite radio.

Anyone familiar with the numbers able to provide an answer?

Purely anecdotal, from the perspective of this listener: 10, 20, and 30 years ago, I never listened to the radio except when driving my car. Exactly the same as today.

Short answer: yes.


  • In 2008, 96% of Americans had at least one radio in their home, with an average of 3.0 radios. In 2020, only 68% of Americans own at least one home radio, and the average is down to 1.5 radios. (Source)
  • Listenership of AM/FM stations while in the car declined by 5%, from just 2017 to 2019, ad revenue for terrestrial radio stations has declined every year since 2015, and 41% of those who are listening to the radio less cite other options (streaming, satellite, etc) as a reason why (source)

And (around here) with the expansion of copyright collection agencies.

It used to be that every school, shop, or sandwich bar was playing the radio. Then they sent out collection agents to make them pay.

This metric in itself is, I think, not very meaningful. In past decades, most homes would have either hifi systems or lower-budget integrated music centres, in either case with the capability to play terrestrial radio. Such devices would, thus, count as a radio, even if they were seldom used as such but rather for other purposes, e.g. playing CDs. That’s at least what I did and still do - I have devices in my home to listen to terrestrial radio, but I hardly ever do. That hasn’t changed much over the decades. Nowadays, with the hifi systems being replaced by bluetooth speakers, the number of radio devices in homes is going down, but that doesn’t mean actual usage of radios is going down too.

The ad revenue of radio stations, OTOH, is a more meaningful statistic.

Not just the ‘central stereo’ device - a huge chunk of portable music devices would include a radio. Just about anything with a boom box form factor had a radio in it, and from the late 80s on cassette players all included a radio. I also wonder how that stat gets skewed by people who don’t throw stuff away, since there are a lot of cheap radios - does ‘boom box I haven’t used in several years but keep around in case I find a cassette’ or ‘old battery powered radio that’s in a box in the attic’ or ‘hand-crank radio that I got as a present and keep in the hurricane prep gear’ count for that state? I agree, it’s not a very meaningful statistic.

Even when I listen to the “radio”, I don’t actually listen to my car’s radio. I plug my phone in via USB and run Amazon through that. The only exception is when I want to hear “Bears Talk” on The Score or ESPN Chicago, then I do the old AM radio thing for as long as I can stand the commercial interruptions.

I haven’t listened to the actual radio in my car in probably 4 years. I use it to listen to podcasts or audiobooks from my phone.

We have one radio in the house - it’s an AM/FM CD combo. It’s way back in the closet, covered in dust.

Yes, that’s also how I remember it. In the 1990s and 2000s, and possibly earlier already, lots of devices that were capable of playing audio in any way would have an integrated radio. Cassette players, walkmans, whatnot. I still have a no-name $30 portable MP3 player from the mid-2000s somewhere in a cabinet that has radio functionality; it wasn’t great, but it was enough to pick up the local FM station. In those years, you would have a large number of devices around you that would count as a radio, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d ever use them as such.

Also alarm clocks clocks - I just remembered that all of my digital clocks in various rooms are clock-radios. Even though I don’t listen to radio except ‘in the car when the trip isn’t long enough to warrant messing with an aux cord’, I’d push that average way up with my 10+ radio devices.

If they’re getting that technical, they need to include all the cell phones that have FM radio capability, which I doubt they did.

For example, I have a Samsung Galaxy S9, and if I listen using headphones, it has a built-in FM tuner as part of its wireless communication chipset- it uses the headphone cord as an antenna.

That said, almost nobody actually uses it AFAIK. Most people probably listen to iTunes, Pandora or Spotify, or something along those lines. Which is probably pretty common at home these days as well- lots of smart TVs come with the ability to play those services, and it’s easy enough to get bluetooth speakers as well.

I suspect that FM radio will probably end up being a car-only thing for a while, and eventually once we end up with better wireless connectivity, car dashboard systems will just stream digital music.

Plenty of terrestrial AM/FM stations also have a streaming feed. I’m listening to one right now.

Anecdotally I stopped listening to the radio when I got a car with bluetooth capability so I can listen to podcasts or music from my phone. Prior to that, I was growing increasingly frustrated at the radio anyway, with dwindling choices for radio stations, and the ones that remained swamped with ads, usually awful conservative political ads, pre-recorded DJ’s, and music genres that shifted away from what I liked on top of shrinking the depth of the playlist, leading to repeated songs nearly as bad as on Pandora. Clear Channel buyouts of many stations are a big part of that. It’s similar for TV. The things that suck about it, especially ads, are being doubled down on to the point that it’s just too awful for me to take anymore.

Is this universally true? In Canada, a lot of businesses played the radio. And it is now much more infrequent. But I wasn’t aware that was the reason. And if so, I don’t get it. Surely the exposure and potential number of listeners - boosting advertising - outweighs the pittance broadcasters could collect when most companies will just stop it. People don’t like paying for stuff they are accustomed to thinking of as “free” (ignoring hidden costs, folks usually do!) - from music, torrents, internet media, road tolls, supplementary taxes, ad nauseum.

You misunderstand the legal structure of license fees. It’s not collected for the broadcasters. It’s collected for the composers/musicians.

Radio stations pay a license fee to broadcast music, but that license fee is predicated on it only paying for private listeners. If you are a business that plays music for your customers to listen to, you need to license that music. It doesn’t matter if you play the radio, or from a vinyl record, or hire a musician. If they play music that someone else wrote, you owe the artist money. The two main licensing companies are ASCAP and BMI, and they have combined annual revenues in the $2.5 billion range.

Most businesses pay this fee as a matter of course because it’s a lot cheaper to pay it than to have an employee who doesn’t realize how it works (very few people understand how this all works) turn the radio on some afternoon and have the BMI license police find out about it.

ETA: The above is how the law works in the US. I’m not sure how it works on Canada or other countries, but most copyright laws are generally mostly the same in developed counties due to international treaties.

There actually is an exemption in the US for some businesses to operate a single radio or TV without having to pay a fee:

You are right. I did misunderstand that. It makes sense. But if a mechanic in a shop has a radio on, although inside a business, in a sense he is still a private listener? (I am sure the licensing companies would disagree.). If using it during phone messages or in elevators, that may be different. I was glad to see the sensible single radio exception. I have no idea what the Canadian law is - but no reason on the face of it to think it much different from Stateside statute.

Question about copyright. The radio would not play music if the copyright holder did not allow “transmission”. Are there artists who allow transmission but not retransmission?

Also, if Trump or Biden play a song, and the writer objects to its use at an event - as happens - can they actually do anything except try to get a license fee if not paid?

I expect that there are very expensive lawyers who could figure out exactly where that line is :wink:

I believe there are expensive lawyers working on the bounds of this problem right now, but they may be entitled to some money due to a harmed reputation. Like, if you’re a cool band and a decidedly uncool-with-your-fans politician uses your song, you might expect some loss of future business because your cool fans don’t think you’re as cool any more, and you can sue for that.

That’s the legal structure of licence fees, but the practical effect of license fees is that they are collected firstly for the benefit of collection agencies, secondly for the benefit of music promoters, and only for the benefit of composers/musicians as a cost of doing business.

In Aus, the licence fee payed by radio stations was predicated on the advertising revenue, which depends on the actual audience, and a different licencing agency expanded to cover small shops. Yes, this did reduce the audience, but, hey, that’s a different agency doing the radio negotiations, and not our problem. Did it result in additional revenue to composers/musicians? That’s unlikely, but hard to quantify.