Radio Is Way More Powerful Than You Think

Have you ever felt like you personally know a radio or podcast host, even if you've never met in real life? You're not the only one. Researchers have confirmed that many listeners have a "parasocial relationship" with their favorite hosts. This is a one-sided relationship where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party (in this case, a host) is completely unaware of the other's existence. Parasocial relationships are most common with celebrities and organizations like sports teams, but they're also particularly strong with radio and podcast hosts. Perhaps too strong.

The Mic Is Mightier Than The Pen

In 2014, iHeartMedia and Entertainment (then Clear Channel Media and Entertainment) revealed the results of a national study of the increasingly powerful role of radio and the unique connection between radio personalities and listeners. The study showed that 6 out of 10 listeners said that radio hosts are "like a friend" whose opinions they trust, even equating an on-air personality endorsement to a friend's recommendation. In a similar study by USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, a full 82 percent of participants exhibited behaviors associated with "parasocial identification."

"Have you ever had a thought about a podcast that you listened to and love, 'man, I bet if we lived in the same town or I knew that person we'd be friends?' When you listen to somebody, it is a very intimate bond that is formed," Alex Blumberg, CEO and co-founder of Gimlet Media, said at Podcast Movement 2016 during his keynote. "You're hearing my actual words, but you don't see me. And so you do what humans do, which is you create a version of me in the brain to say those words to you. Because you're listening to me but also creating me as you listen, I quite literally become a small part of you. And that enables you to hear what I'm saying with more empathy. I think this is the greatest power of audio."

It's also harder to lie through audio. In 1995, psychology professor Richard Wiseman carried out one of the of the U.K.'s largest-ever psychology experiments and found that audio-only listeners were able to detect when a host lied more than 73 percent of the time, versus 64.2 percent for newspaper readers and 51.8 percent for television viewers.

"They don't really know why that is," Blumberg said in his keynote. "But I think it's partly because everything else is stripped away. All you have is your ears, and so you're just listening, and you can hear emotional truth."

The Dark Side Of The Mic

These deep relationships might sound harmless, but in the wrong hands, the power of audio can be used for unspeakable evils. David Welch wrote in "The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda"* that Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, called radio "the most important instrument of mass influence that exists anywhere" and considered it an essential tool in achieving the political ambitions of the Third Reich.

Indeed, radio was a double-edged sword during the rise of the Nazi party. A study from Princeton University showed that radio had a significant negative effect on the Nazi vote share at first, when political news had an anti-Nazi slant between 1930 and 1933. But this negative effect was fully undone in just one month after Nazis initiated heavy radio propaganda in 1933. Radio also helped the Nazis to enroll new party members and encouraged open expressions of anti-Semitism after Nazis fully consolidated power.

And radio's influence didn't stop in the early days of the medium. Researchers at Harvard University theorized that broadcasts from the "hate radio" station RTLM were responsible for an increase in violence during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. In fact, one estimate suggested that "10 percent (approximately 51,000 prosecuted persons) of the total participation in the genocide was caused by RTLM propaganda."

Mic At The End Of The Tunnel

Today, talk radio maintains a powerful influence, and with the proliferation of podcasting, it's important to be aware of what you're hearing and how it could impact you. Beware of confirmation bias and stay curious to combat political bias. And always be skeptical of what you hear, lest you find yourself drawn into the wrong side of history – even if you think of the host as a close friend.

"Because it has the power to promote the rise of hatred and intolerance, it also has the strength to fight those things. I actually don't think any form of media is better to fight against those things than audio," Blumberg said. "One of the things that keeps fear and pain from turning to hatred is empathy. I feel like if we can try to empathize with the people we fear, or with the people who maybe fear us, we can take fear and pain and turn it away from hatred. And I think no other tool is better equipped to aid in that mission than audio. I don't think there's a better medium to help with empathy than audio."

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Hear a lighter side of audio in a special celebration on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the podcast using the player below, or find the episode everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. The McGurk effect refers to how visuals can change your perception of the same sound. 00:40

  2. Your location and language can play a role in determining the kinds of tones you hear. 01:46

  3. The Shepard Tone Illusion makes it seem like a series of rising pitches continues to rise higher and higher when replayed. 02:40

Written by Cody Gough December 26, 2017