This week, media funders from across the country will gather at our annual Media Impact Forum to explore connections between radio and community, and how audio producers can spur civic conversations among audiences. We’re excited to showcase how one of media’s oldest forms of communications is reaching new audiences in creative ways—and garnering more funder support than ever before.

In fact, we just released a report on the latest trends in radio and audio grantmaking, and it shows that among media forms and formats, radio is seeing a resurgence in reach and impact. Our report also found that: “Radio and audio funding levels are growing, reflecting both overall funding trends in media and particular interest in using old and new sound-based formats in creative and compelling ways.” For example:

  • Funding grew from $80 million in 2009 to $102 million in 2017.
  • Primary areas of focus for radio grants include education, arts, journalism, public affairs, international development, health, civic participation and science.
  • For audio projects and programs outside of radio—such as as audio books, educational resources for people with visual impairment, and podcasts—$70.4 million in grants were made to 204 U.S. organizations for audio projects from 2009 to 2017.
  • Funding for audio projects and programs grew from $3.8 million in 2009 to $7.6 million in 2017.

On the consumer side, research shows that the time Americans spend listening to online audio content has reached a record high this year, and the percentage of Americans who listen to audio content online has doubled in the last seven years, with a full two-thirds of Americans now listening online. Part of this increase is due to the proliferation of podcasts, which are especially convenient for busy listeners.

But the appeal of audio stories goes far beyond convenience. Radio and audio storytelling projects are making significant impact, in part because audio has the power to captivate unlike any other media form.

“Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production,” said Barcelona-based communications professor Emma Rodero in an interview with The Atlantic. Rodero, who studies how audio storytelling captures—and retains—people’s attention, says,The importance of oral language throughout history is due to its simplicity, ease of transmission and accessibility compared to written language or the technical complexity of audiovisual language. And this still holds true today.”

Beyond the broadcast

As with all media, there is no one way to measure the impact of radio and audio projects. In the past, public radio stations have relied upon traditional metrics for counting up listeners to gauge success. But more and more, radio stations and projects are facilitating community conversation on the ground and not just on the air. Public radio has been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to cross-platform and engaged reporting. AIR’s Localore program—which partners independent producers with public media stations to cover underserved communities across America—has experimented with multimedia collaborative documentary storytelling, with great results. And all around the country, we see radio stations and programs are hosting community-focused efforts such as in-person community forums and educational collaborations.

For example, in last month’s Tracking Media Impact newsletter, we highlighted the work of Capital Public Radio’s jesikah maria ross, who took a comprehensive approach toward evaluating the success of Place And Privilegea multimedia documentary that includes an hour-long radio documentary, an eight-part podcast and an interactive website that uses personal stories to explore the housing affordability crisis in Sacramento. Ross’s multi-pronged evaluation strategy involved hiring multiple consultants with complementary areas of expertise to prototype strategy, clarify big picture goals, and develop an impact framework and questions. The result: a very thorough impact report, and an increased profile in the field.

Not every audio project has the resources to conduct such a thorough impact evaluation, but fieldwide resources exist to provide guidance. The Center for Investigative Reporting, which produces Reveal (a public radio program, podcast and other digital content), is a leader in impact, with resources that include the Impact Tracker, an interactive database for measuring the impact of reporting projects. (And see our curated collection of resources here.)

Podcasts pose specific challenges

Standalone podcasts bring with them specific measurement challenges, which are complicated further by distribution across multiple platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and Google Play Music. In 2017, the Knight Foundation—with the help of MIF research consultant Jessica Clark—took a deep dive into the podcast landscape. In an MIF article expanding upon this research, Clark and her co-author, longtime public media consultant Sarah Lutman, broke down the ways in which podcasters could conceivably measure impact, and the ease of varying measurement approaches. On the easier side are: downloads (which don’t necessarily measure “listens”), member surveys, and sponsorship renewal rates. Harder to measure are: social sharing, moments of conversion, the mix of listening across platforms, user engagement beyond consumption, and outcomes assessment specific to journalistic or public service goals and other social impact.

Two years later, these challenges remain, and others are coming to light, especially as users are now increasingly listening to podcasts across multiple delivery services. As Nick Quah, writer and publisher of podcast industry resource Hot Pod, explains on a16z’s “Podcast About Podcasting,” “The tension has always been between people who see podcasting as the future of blogging and people who see podcasting as the future of radio.” (Those who see it as the future of radio are more likely to be focused on traditional metrics and broadcasting methods, while those who see it as the future of blogging are likely more interested in democratizing podcasting production and publishing tools to create communities around digital content.)

Podcast analytics are determined by the various platforms, and many platforms are not currently offering the kind of analytics that would provide deep insights into which parts of podcasts resonate with audiences; or ways for users to interact more easily with podcast content such as automatic transcription, embedded comment threads, and podcast highlights feeds. Some of these challenges are related to underlying structural problems that cause fragmentation, but others could be remedied with technology that is already in place in other countries.

Podcast analytics are also geared toward advertisers, but the advertising model may not be the best way for podcasts to generate revenue. This reflects a conversation in the larger journalism industry about using legacy revenue models for digital media. And for issue-driven podcasters, analytics designed to court advertisers are less useful than ones designed to build communities around particular issues. Quah sums up the tension: “Analytics as constructed by a technology company, by a platform, by a data team, is an effort to tell the advertiser, ‘This is how valuable you should think this is.’ And in the art world, value is constructed in a whole different, amorphous way.” It’s not about finding the one right metric or universal truth, Quah reminds us: “These are socially constructed things.”

For more on radio and audio impact, we invite all funders to join us at 1 p.m. on Friday, May 31, for a webinar on high-impact radio and audio journalism. Learn more and register.

Since 2013, Media Impact Funders has been providing resources for funders and media producers seeking to build impact strategies and evaluate the outcomes of media projects. Learn more about impact.

About the Author
Katie Donnelly

Katie Donnelly

Research Consultant

Katie is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders and associate director for media strategy and production firm Dot Connector Studio. She formerly served as associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. Katie has led impact evaluations for many media organizations including PBS, Working Films, and the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. She has conducted extensive impact research, particularly on the power of documentary film, and has written about the power of media to make change for numerous academic and journalistic publications. Katie has created many educational toolkits that use media to dig into social issues, including curricula addressing youth and gender, substance abuse, and gender-based violence.