Throughout the coverage of radio shock-jock Rush Limbaugh’s ‘slut shaming’ of Sandra Fluke, his listenership has been reported as either 15 or 20 million. But how do journalists know how many listeners he actually has?
Could it actually be less than a tenth of that much reported number?
This is because (unlike how TV viewership numbers are calculated), radio listenership figures are still based on the rather ancient method of diaries and numbers include anyone who listens, even if only for a minute, during a week. The numbers also come from those with a self-interest in big numbers rather than some independent measurement body.
The Post found that Arbitron, the overseer of U.S. radio ratings, has never tried to measure Limbaugh’s audience.
Arbitron told The Post: “There is no economic motivation for any objective third party to do that kind of analysis.”
Media Matters reported that:
That eight-digit number [20 million] is what’s known in radio as the “cume” (short for cumulative). It in no way reflects the actual audience size like the way television shows are measured minute by minute or half-hour by half-hour. Instead, the cume number represents a very large — and generous — umbrella covering the number of people who, in theory, tune into a program at any time during the week, even if it’s for just two minutes.
A radio trade reporter confirmed to MSNBC last week, common industry shorthand to determine the actual size of a radio audience at any given moment is to cut the cume [cumulative] figure down by a factor of 10, which would mean Limbaugh’s 20 million becomes 2 million. Or, if you take the more modest cume number of 14 million, which some inside the industry have used to judge the talker’s audience, Limbaugh’s rating becomes 1.4 million, which is roughly the same size audience that Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann get each night on cable TV.
As a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s told him this week, reporters regurgitating the supposed size of Limbaugh’s audience is important:
It is THE reason that politicians listen to him and don’t say anything. They think he has numbers much larger than he does because they are not trying to get the truth of the size of his audience.
One number which we know is a fact is that Limbaugh is America’s least popular ‘news personality’ according to a recent Harris Poll. Nearly half of all Americans rank him their ‘least favorite,’ twice the number of CNN’s Nancy Grace. Even a quarter of Republicans don’t like him.
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