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As part of an item on the The Young Turks news show, aired Jan 26th 2018, Cenk Uygur claims (2:30 and on) that the supposedly-high ratings of well-known right-wing talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck has "never been verified", that "they just make up numbers" and that "no-one knows" what the numbers really are.

Is that true?

  • Cenk Uygur has denied the Armenian genocide. Is he notable? – Andrew Grimm Jan 10 '19 at 21:55
  • @AndrewGrimm: I don't see how this comment helps readers of this question. – einpoklum Jan 10 '19 at 22:30
  • @AndrewGrimm: Ah, now I see what you mean. I'll say two things: 1. Your criterion for Uygur should make major US news outlets, including the New York Times non-notable (e.g. claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) 2. IIANM, he recanted that claim; but the network name does remains, which is problematic to say the least. 3. They boast 10 billion overall YouTube views, so statistically they're notable. – einpoklum Jan 11 '19 at 0:06
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The best answer I can come up with is probably not, i.e. the ratings are probably well-established..

Just looking at the Wikipedia source of most listened to radio programs, some of the entries in their list of rankings are self-reported and others are sourced from talkers.com, which is a bit nebulous on their methodology:

This list represents Talkers Magazine's monthly in-house research for December 2017 tabulating cumulative weekly estimates of total unique listeners for the top radio talk show hosts in America. It is based upon the Talkers editorial board's analysis of a combination of on-air, online and on-demand audiences as indicated by a sampling of ratings services and other metrics-gathering sources and methodologies. It includes hosts whose programs are primarily focused on politics, current events and social issues and are carried on stations and platforms described by generally accepted radio industry terminology as "news/talk" or "talk/radio." Note: It does not include several highly listened-to hosts carried exclusively on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, which operates a closed subscriber system and does not make specific host audience numbers available.

The entries that are self-reported mostly report Nielsen Audio as their source. In the case of the #1 spot on the Wikipedia list, Morning Edition, they report "ACT 1 based on Nielsen Audio". ACT 1 is most likely a reference for this software, which describes itself as "the tool of choice for analyzing Nielsen Audio radio audience data."

Nielsen Audio Ratings

It's a hard problem to solve to determine the number of subscribers on a broadcast network. Nielsen acquired Arbitron in 2012 and re-branded as Nielsen Audio. They collect their ratings data by providing audio panelists with "Portable People Meters":

The PPM is a wearable portable device, much like a pager or mobile phone, that electronically gathers subaudible codes that identify the source of a broadcast, such as a radio station.

While wondering if these sub-audible codes is really an effort at mind control by Nielsen and they're using ratings collection as an effective cover story would be off-topic for this question, as a skeptic I would more readily believe results obtained from this objective sampling which is unavailable unless you are willing to subscribe to their service. Even if I was willing, the answer would most likely depend on which geographical market you are asking about, because that's how it is reported. For instance, the Toledo Blade reported ratings for Fall 2016 in their market, and I did not recognize any of those names as a nationally syndicated talk radio host for the top 10 spots (which did not break out news talk radio separately from other formats).

However, even if Nielsen does want to charge money for their service and even if Talkers Magazine doesn't want to share out exactly what their methodology is, I don't see enough of an economic motivation to just dismiss their results out of hand seeing as how they are widely cited by news and other industry publications. That itself isn't exactly evidence, it just means plenty of other people in the industry take them seriously and have for quite awhile.

Absent any other information, the Talkers Magazine source is probably close to reality (and happens to be free), even if its listing has been described as "heavily subjective". The fact that I have to qualify my statement with "probably" is probably what Cenk was getting at, even if he had to resort to hyperbole to make the point.

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That's not true, unless you start being weird with your definition of verified, or ratings. Third parties (nielsen list) make estimates of listeners by reports from a sample population.

There might be some truth to a theory that all radio stations across the board are making up listener numbers in some cartel style business with the rating companies, but that would be internet vs radio not left vs right.

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    How well-founded are the assumptions used for the estimates? Also - Uygur did not claim left-leaning radio hosts have verifiable ratings, so maybe he was taking an Internet-vs-Radio jab. – einpoklum Jan 28 '18 at 11:31
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    The source for eg Rush Limbaugh in that list is talkers.com (based on their analysis; no idea how reliable that is; see eg your wiki link: "The nature of news releases allows radio companies to inflate their listener totals"). I don't know if Nielsen has numbers, but at least according to this politico article, they don't. The wikipedia article you linked also seems to suggest that they don't have numbers ("Nielsen [...] does not compile nationwide information by host"). – tim Jan 28 '18 at 14:45
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    Your link does not link to "Nielson's" list but the Talker's Magazine list, and includes this note directly above the list: "Unless otherwise noted, the Talkers "non-scientific" estimate is the source" – Jeff Lambert Jan 28 '18 at 15:08
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    @user5341 Because the answer does not link to Nielsen. Nor does it link to anything a skeptic can take a face value, either. – Jeff Lambert Jan 29 '18 at 15:14
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    daniel, please consider amending or removing your answer in light of ther comments. – einpoklum Jan 29 '18 at 17:38

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