Did you vote in the midterm election last week? If you were registered to vote, nearly half of you actually made your political choices known. In 2018, a record was set for midterm voting as 49% went to the polls in that election. According to the National Elections Project, 47% cast a ballot, causing FiveThirtyEight to wonder whether high turnout is the “new normal.”
Americans seem more engaged by politics these days than during any time in modern memory. Whether it's the issues or the politicians, we have an opinion. If campaign ads are an indication, interest levels were indeed high. In fact, they were inescapable, making watching TV or listening to the radio a challenge.
It seemed like entire clusters of commercials were for political proposals, referenda, or the candidates themselves. Spending was on track to break the $9.3 billion level. Hopefully, radio got its fair share of the pie.
But how were the ratings for cable and broadcast TV news networks for election coverage? In a word, “meh.”
Overall, 25.4 million viewers tuned in for the “pre-game shows” and the election results. That's 30% lower than in 2018. Axios reports lower viewing levels might have been driven by fewer upsets and surprises (although the predicted “red wave” failed to materialize). Still, the ratings were stronger than in 2014.
Overall, Fox News was on top of the heap, attracting more than 7 million viewers last Tuesday night in primetime, followed distantly by ABC (3.3 million), MSNBC (3.2 million), NBC (3.1 million), CNN (2.6 million), and CBS (2.5 million).
And here's a fun fact: Only 7% of TV election coverage viewing fell in the 18-34 year-old group. Watching the returns on television skews older, of course, led by the 55+ group, comprising nearly two-thirds of viewing.
But that doesn't mean young people aren't engaged. In fact, they are more likely to get their “news” – political and otherwise – from social media. TikTok is the platform on the rise when it comes to using social for information and news, according to Pew Research.
We won't know how radio news stations fared during this election cycle for a few weeks in metered markets, and a few months in metros measured by diaries. Clearly, news formatted stations in both the commercial and public radio sectors will be counting on strong listenership.
But will it happen? Our most recent Public Radio Techsurvey fielded last summer continued to show signs of news burnout. In fact, it reached a record level – one-fifth (20%) of public radio core fans say they've decreased their listening to get a respite from the incessant news cycle. Women, Millennials and Gen Xers, as well as fans of NPR news stations lead the way.
The 800 pound pachyderm in the parlor, of course, is former President Trump, trying to make a comeback with his third run for the White House, an unusual circumstance in and of itself. But everything about Trump since he officially became part of the political spectrum in 2015 has been off the charts.
Last night, he spoke in a Mar-a-Lago ballroom, announcing his candidacy for 2024, against the wishes of many advisors and fellow Republicans. Fox News carried much of the speech before cutting away for analysis, CNN carried the first 20 minutes, but bailed once he officially threw his hat in the ring, while MSNBC didn't touch it in real time. The three prime networks aired regular programming.
CNN showed the first 22 minutes of Trump's speech. Once he formally announced his 2024 campaign, @AndersonCooper interrupted and turned to his panel for perspective, critiques and fact-checking pic.twitter.com/9uMxl6PREt
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) November 16, 2022
Will his candidacy signal a period of renewed interest in political news coverage in the States or is he “old news?” Will his ongoing legal trouble spur more news interest? Will a Republican primary battle be the ratings elixir it was in 2016? And will President Biden run for a second term?
Of course, these are all questions outside of the control of news anchors and journalists in big and small markets, at local stations and at the networks. Politics makes strange bedfellows as the saying goes. It also makes for unpredictable swings in the public mindset, determining whether consumers lean in to political happenings or run away from them.
The “secret sauce” to consistent success in the ratings and listener engagement might lie with local news coverage of metro areas and smaller communities. As newspapers die off, local TV news becomes less dependable, and commercial radio cuts back on news resources and staff, public radio is in a position to reap the benefits.
In fact, a study funded by the Wyncote Foundation and put together by Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, Mark Fuerst, and Caroline Porter shows that in the past five years, public media stations have beefed up their news staffs considerably.
On the public radio side, nearly 3,000 journalists now work for local public radio stations, an increase of 15% since 2016. The study cites sophisticated local news initiatives from stations that include WFAE (Charlotte) and WBUR (Boston), as well as an increase in local talk/news shows.
Local news digital sites are also on the rise, as are newsletters and local news podcasts, some of which are everyday productions, similar to “The Daily,” the wildly successful podcast by The New York Times. KCUR (Kansas City), KUOW (Seattle), KOSU (Oklahoma), KQED (San Francisco), and Vermont Public Radio are among the outlets producing daily local podcasts.
Of course, the big move this year was Chicago public radio station WBEZ's purchase of the Chicago Sun Times, a bold move that added journalist boots on the ground in Chicagoland, as well as digital assets and considerably stronger reach.
For radio – whether it's public or commercial – the strategy that insulates news organization from the vagaries of the political manipulating is to laser focus on the local scene – local government, state and local voting, school board meetings, and other issues germane to people in their regions and communities.
The public is discovering – in some cases the hard way – this stuff matters to their lives. And more and more are engaging. Radio on the ground that covers these issues has an opportunity to dominate the local scene, including entertainment, culture (pop and fine arts), and even hometown sports.
Of course, there's another element – personality. While public radio has traditionally shied away from celebrity, there are more and more emergent local news stars.
Paul and I have conducted a significant number of focus groups on Zoom for public radio since the onset of the pandemic. And we can tell you that even in public radio – especially in public radio – personality matters. It engenders loyalty and it can help bring in donations and solidify membership.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden – and their respective parties – will do what they do these next two years. So will Vladimir Putin and Elon Musk.
The coverage that presents the most lasting, meaningful opportunity is LOCAL. It's winnable in most markets, but requires research, investment, and yes, qualified journalists.
No one said it was going to be easy – or cheap.
But it can be highly rewarding.
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Bob Bellin says
Random thoughts..Getting news from TikTok is not getting news and nd the fact that people think it is makes it worse. When a prime “news source” doesn’t even claim to be factual and is owned by the Chinese, well, it seems like a petri dish for disinfo. If it’s expensive, commercial radio won’t do it. Period.
Personality matters in presidential politics at least as much as it does in radio. Going back 40 years, the candidate with the most engaging personality won virtually every time – except 2020.
John Covell says
The spanner in the works for election day coverage, as I am sure you are aware Fred, is that nowadays the election evening results don’t tell you much. “Election day” has become “election week,” and there’s nothing to suggest this is only temporary; more states are providing more voters more options, and this trend is likely to continue. Add to that the differences in deadlines (eg, whether mailed ballots must be received by the end of “election day” or just postmarked by that date) and it’s a prognosticator’s nightmare.
It’s fair to ask whether any of the broadcast media can offer cogent analysis in these circumstances. I don’t expect it; long-form analysis is beyond the attention span of too many radio listeners. For me, traditional major news organizations (eg, NY Times, Wash Post, Economist) are just as timely and more concise for national and state-level races. State and local elections are probably the best province for local broadcasters, as that is where they can add the most value for the listener.
Fred Jacobs says
John, you are spot-on. Differences in how states (counties, municipalities) conduct voting and tabulation have changed how we get the results.
As for broadcast radio’s role in the process, it would seem that has become the purview of public radio for the most part. They tend to do the best job of covering the election stories, aside from those rare commercial stations committed to the local scene.
Craig Jackman says
I am saddened that the idea of getting a high 40’s percent turn out to vote is great progress in North America. Elsewhere in the world, turnout routinely exceeds 75%.
Fred Jacobs says
It is a sad commentary, Craig.