New Contributions to the History of Audience Understanding

One of the things I tried to do in Audience Evolution was to provide a thorough and comprehensive review of the literature on what I call “audience understanding” — which in this case refers to the various ways in which media organizations have tried to understand their audiences, the various methodologies and tools employed, and the ways in which knowledge, or impressions, of the audience factor into organizational decision-making.  There is a surprisingly large body of literature on this subject, but pulling it together requires casting a very wide net and digging into the nooks and crannies of an array of academic disciplines.

It is this kind of digging around that led me to the most recent issue of the journal Cold War History, which contains a fascinating article by Graham Mytton on “Audience Research at the BBC External Service During the Cold War.”  Mytton, a former Head of Audience Research at the BBC World Service, chronicles the efforts by the BBC to understand the listening habits of radio audiences behind the Iron Curtain, and to determine to what extent these audiences were listening to the BBC and to other western broadcasters.

Mytton documents the various steps the BBC undertook to understand the listening behaviors of eastern European and Russian radio audiences, and how the organization sought to overcome the obvious obstacles associated with doing so during the height of the Cold War.  The BBC first focused on interviewing refugees, but quickly recognized the obvious shortcomings of such an approach — that those with an interest in leaving their countries likely had different listening habits than those content to stay.  So, the BBC shifted its focus to interviewing citizens of communist states while they were traveling abroad. 

Obviously, in this context the audience understanding that was being sought was highly motivated by political concerns, a dimension that is fairly rare in the literature in this area.

More typical of the literature in this area (given its focus on more commercial concerns) is another recent contribution — an article by Steve Craig in the Journal of Radio & Audio Media on Daniel Starch’s pioneering 1928 study of the U.S. radio audience.  Starch is a prominent figure in the history of marketing and advertising in the U.S., and Crag’s article represents the first detailed analysis of Starch’s early research on radio audience behavior. 

The study was commissioned by NBC with, according to Craig, four goals in mind: 1) to produce a study with credibility amongst advertisers; 2) to burnish the fledgling network’s corporate image; 3) to attract new advertisers; and 4) to justify the ad rates it was charging advertisers.  The study involved in-person interviews with over 5,600 individuals.

Craig shows that, like other early examples of radio audience research (I’m thinking, in particular of Paul Lazarsefeld’s 1946 study, The People Look at Radio), the Starch study is fairly heavy handed in its efforts to make the case that early radio listeners had no problem with — and even liked — advertisements.  It is important to remember that in the early days of the development of radio, many policymakers and advocacy organizations were quite resistant to the airwaves being used as a means of selling products.

These articles are of particular interest for how they both chronicle first steps to impose more rigorous, quantitative approaches to understanding audiences upon contexts that had, until then, been dominated primarily by anecdote, intuition, and the occasional crude analysis of listener letters.  They provide useful historical context for the current efforts I’ve been discussing in this blog by advertisers, content providers, and measurement firms to reach deeper understandings of how, why, and to what extent audiences are using emergent media platforms.

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This entry was posted in Audience Scholarship, Rationalization. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to New Contributions to the History of Audience Understanding

  1. harsht says:

    In a similar vein, AC Nielsen himself wrote some articles in the Journal of Marketing (1942 onwards)where he demonstrates the use of audimeter as a technically superior and more accurate method to telephone recall.

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