Radio Listening as a Function of Basic Human Need: Why Did Maslow Listen To Radio?
Morris W. Shanahan1 , New Zealand Broadcasting School,
 and Nicholas Brown, The Radio Network, New Zealand

On-line publication date: October 12, 2002, Journal of Media Psychology
                  Hard-copy designation: Volume 7, number 3, Fall 2002, Journal of Media Psychology


    Despite the exponential growth in new information and entertainment technologies, traditional, terrestrial radio listening has continued to maintain significantly high levels.  New Zealand figures in 2002 show that well in excess of 90% of all people over 10 years of age consume radio during any given week (Research International, Auckland 1/2002).  Similar figures are reflected in most Western countries, including Australia (ACNeilsen, retrieved from /7/ Radiometrosurvey5 2002_Sydney.pdf) and the US (Arbitron, retrieved from http://wargod.arbitron. com/ scripts/ndb/ndbradio2.asp).  Radio listening has even managed to survive and even thrive despite the enhancements in competiting technologies, such as the Internet.  Hendy (2000) cites evidence from the UK published in The Times (26 February 1999) that while “more than a third of people spend less time watching television and a quarter spend less time reading magazines since they have gone ‘online’, a quarter claim to spend more time listening to the radio.” (p.128).  What is it about radio that has allowed it to survive in the new technological age?

    While many radio professionals will suggest people are still tuning into radio for entertainment, music, information, personalities and contests (what radio does), some argue that the needs of listeners are more intrinsic.  Various reasons for listening to radio have been offered; the avoidance of feelings of isolation or loneliness (Fornatale & Mills, 1980), to create a feeling of involvement and participation (Crisell, 1986), or fulfilment of a need to stimulate one’s imagination (Douglas, 1999).  Indeed, listener’s language to describe radio goes even deeper.  When asked to describe their relationship with radio, listeners have used words such as friend, companion, secure and intimate (comments from listeners cited in Radio: The Power of Sound, 1994).  These words are indicative of a valued relationship, suggesting that radio may satisfy some deeper, more basic human need.

    MacFarland (1997) adds further rigour to this argument, suggesting radio listening is more than just music, news and entertainment.  He states that relaxation, excitement and fantasies are among the underpinnings of human compulsion and argues that these pleasures are not the by-products of radio listening, but “They are the product.” (p.43).  MacFarland suggests that the real reason people tune into radio is the satisfaction of at least one of these basic human pleasures.
It is interesting to note that many of the words used by listeners, industry professionals and even academics to describe or explain radio listening tend to parallel descriptions often used in descriptions of the five needs in Maslow’s theory.  For example:

1. Physiological needs – biological, physical security, rhythmic (circadian and photoperiodic).
2. Safety needs – security, stability, self protection, protection of loved ones.
3. Belongingness and Love needs – companionship, affection, intimacy.
4. Esteem needs – awareness, status, respect of others, self respect.
5. Self-actualization needs – desire to grow intellectually and emotionally, aesthetic fulfilment, curiosity.
    In 1970, Maslow argued that people are motivated to behave by a desire to satisfy these needs at various levels.  It is interesting to note that when radio is dissected, listening appears to fulfil Maslow’s basic human needs at every level, suggesting that basic human need may be a functional variable in radio listening.


Physiological Needs
    MacFarland (1997) has argued that the rhythmic patterns to people’s lives might already be met by radio listening.  Circadian rhythms are met through radio station format design.  For example, as people tend to adjust their biological clocks as the day goes on, radio programs to meet those basic needs.  At night, many adult radio stations tend to shift the musical emphasis softer with programs such as ‘Love Songs’ or ‘Quiet Storm’ to meet the more relaxed rhythms of adult listeners.  However, youth stations take a more active approach in the evenings with increased contesting or active participation, reflecting the more youthful rhythms apparent in the evenings (Weston, 1979).  In essence, much of radio programming is geared towards meeting the natural body clocks of their target listeners (Brice, personal communication, July 23, 2002).

     Scannell (1996) argues that radio has an active influence on the rhythms of listeners and re-temporises an individual’s cadence.  News at the top of the hour is one example.  Many people tend to organise their time from the top of the hour, often determined by the start of the radio news.  Over the years, many radio programmers have tried to interfere with this temporal arrangement by shifting news off the top of the hour.  Examples include 20/20 News (20 minutes to and 20 minutes past the hour), shifts to 5 minutes before the hour (to try and get news to consumers first), bulletins at 10 past or even 20 past the hour have also been attempted.  Such attempts at re-temporizing listeners have had little or no impact on listening (Celmins, personal communication, August 20, 2002).  Celmins claims that during the Breakfast Show there is “definitely more of a need effect, as people of whatever age, will always tell you in focus groups that they like to have reliable time-markers in breakfast, so they know what they should be doing at that point.”  As David Hatch stated (quoted in Barnett, 1994, p.228, cited in Hendy, 2000), “You can move a television program from Monday to Thursday and nobody gives a hoot, but if you move a radio program by five minutes there are questions in the House [of Commons]”.

     There are examples too of how radio feeds into the photoperiodic rhythms of listeners.  The typical adjustments made to formats and music over summer is but one, with stations becoming more upbeat and active, reflecting listener behaviour during this period.  Many stations have adopted a 100 Days of Summer marketing campaign to reflect the lifestyle of listeners during this season, particularly youth stations.  Talk-based formats introduce gardening programs during spring while winter programming is deluged with increased weather forecasts and travel information.  The physiological needs of listeners are met by radio at nearly every turn.

Safety Needs
    Radio also plays an important role in meeting the safety needs of listeners.  For example, the massive increase in radio listening during the September 11 crisis was not confined to New York.  Talk radio stations around the world experienced significant increases in audience during this period, as people showed concern for their own safety and the safety of family and friends.

    Radio has a tradition of being able to deliver “essential, breaking information”, particularly during disaster situations where the safety of individuals has been put at risk (Bartlett, 1993).  Whewell (personal communication, October 4, 1999) and Brice (personal communication, July 23, 2002) both agree that radio meets the safety needs of a population in times of crisis and was set up to do so.  Kassof argues that this need for safety was fulfilled by radio even when there is no imminent threat to citizenry.  He found general agreement to the statement that “You listen to radio news mainly to be reassured that nothing is happening to hurt you or the people you care about.” (Radio W.A.R.S., 1983, p.24).

    Radio appears to empower listeners with the ability to judge the level of fulfilment of the basic human need for safety within their environment.  In times of crisis, radio informs listeners, allowing them to make their own judgements.  In times of relative calm, radio provides reassurance that their safety is not in jeopardy.  In both instances, radio provides the listener with the opportunity to take action in the fulfilment of this basic human need, even if that action is inaction.

Belongingness and Love
    Many radio industry people believe fulfilment of the need to ‘belong’ is one area in which radio excels.  This contention is strongly supported by evidence from as long ago as 1962 when Mendelsohn (cited in Fortanale & Mills, 1980, p.xvii) found that “radio helps fill the voids that are created….by feelings of isolation and loneliness.”  Fortanale and Mills found that 59% of radio listeners used radio for this reason.  Comments from the 1994 AGB McNair Survey supports their findings, with numerous respondents describing radio as “my great companion”, “an antidote to loneliness” and “as I live alone, I listen to a lot of talk [radio]” (Radio: The Power of Sound, 1994).  Radio appears to create a connection between isolated individuals and fosters a sense of collective community (Cardiff, 1988).  Douglas (1999) even suggests that radio listening is actually an act of sociability.

    Determining how radio meets the basic human need for love appears a little more difficult.  However, radio is able to create a feeling of intimacy that no other medium has yet been able to replicate.  As Hendy (2000) suggests, “radio is used by listeners to forge a direct relationship with the broadcasters themselves.” (p.129).  The one-to-one nature of radio, particularly between personalities and listeners, is designed to foster these relationships (Brice,  personal communication., September 4, 1999).  Popular radio personalities have long been aware of the effect they can have on some people.  Expressions of love, imagined or real, can be frequent and unsolicited.  Even back in 1980, Hobson found that male radio personalities were actually encouraged to present themselves as romantic figures for female listeners, particularly women at home alone.  The imaginative use of radio provides the listener with the opportunity to make the radio personality any fantasy they so desire, including romantic ones.  Serendipitous support for this argument comes from comments made to many radio personalities by listeners when they actually meet in person.  The most common comment is “you don’t look like what I thought you looked like” (Neill, personal communication, August 20, 2002).

    As well, some stations deliberately create a loving mood during particular dayparts.  In fact, on an emotional scale of one to eight, the statement “I listen to radio to get me in a romantic mood” solicited a very strong positive response when tested by Kassof (Radio W.A.R.S., 1983).  Programs like ‘Love Songs to Midnight’ not only play music to create a romantic mood, but more often than not, are presented by broadcasters with a brief to generate romantic and loving fantasies through their presentation style and content.  Pauling (personal communication, September 9, 2002) suggests that radio was and still is often used as background during romantic interludes.  Even the names chosen by these presenters are often targeted at arousing a passionate response; Delilah Renee, Dr. Love, Misty Knight are just some of the pseudonyms used to assist in creating a romantic, loving feeling by night-time radio personalities.

    The feeling to belong and be loved is a major factor in the programming of radio in today’s competitive environment, particularly when it comes to stations that target the younger and older ends of the demographic spectrum, which tends to contain the a large number of people at this level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  For years, radio programmers have deliberately attempted to foster this sense of belongingness.  Rock formats portray a ‘coolness’ that suggests that if you listen, you are one of the ‘cool’ group by association.  Top 40 Radio does the same by generating a feeling of ‘fashionability’, i.e., if you do not listen, then you do not belong to the ‘fashionable’ group (Brice, personal communication, September 4 1999).  Adult formats, especially talk formats, generate entire communities.  In New Zealand, talk station Radio Pacific even referred on-air to its older audience as ‘The Radio Pacific family’.  There appears to be strong evidence that the need to belong and be loved may be a primary motivator in radio listening.

Esteem Needs
    If, as suggested by Brice (personal communication, September 4, 1999) that selection of a radio station is analogous to “wearing a badge that says ‘I am part of this group’” then radio listening can be used to represent status.  In fact, many radio programmers can recall stories of focus group sessions with younger participants where previously identified station selection by contributors changed in favour of the ‘cool’ or ‘fashionable’ station when people were required to acknowledge, in front of a group of peers, what station they listen to most.  The need to maintain esteem was paramount, even to the truth (Celmins, personal communication, August 20, 2002).

    Whewell (personal communication, October 4, 1999) believes talkback radio fulfils an individual’s need to have their opinions heard and respected and confirms their self-esteem and esteem determined by others.  Validation of a person’s opinions, particularly apparent in much of talk radio, generates respect, both self-respect and the respect of other like-minded individuals.  Likewise, being aware or knowledgeable of events provides the individual with a sense of respect and value that generates an enhanced sense of self.  It appears that radio offers individuals a means to foster and develop feelings of esteem by providing them with opportunities to talk and solicit responses or opinions using the language of the listener and comparing their concerns and interests with those of others (Festinger’s Social Comparison Theory).

    The need to be aware is also a primary motivator for radio listening.  While awareness might serve safety needs at one point in time, it can also be used as a tool to enhance esteem needs at another.  For example, individuals consume radio news and information on a regular basis.  This tends to be more evident with slightly older, more educated and/or more affluent listeners, those that tend to have already satiated the more subordinate of Maslow’s basic human needs.  It is interesting to note that consumption is consistent, even in relatively calm times.  This informational listening (Douglas, 1999) provides individuals with data that can affect their everyday lives, change or confirm their attitudes and provide a sense of validation, inflating esteem.  However, Pauling (personal communication, September 9, 2002) suggests that radio fulfils the awareness needs of the young as well as the old.  He argues this is evidenced when young people talk with one another about what they heard on the radio, be it information, music or entertainment.  Irrespective of the specified motivation for radio consumption, it appears the need to fulfil Maslow’s esteem needs can be a functional motivator for radio listening.

Self-actualization and Being Needs
    The desire to learn is one of the central elements in Maslow’s final level of basic human need.  Acquisition of knowledge for knowledge sake meets the criteria for self-actualization.  It is here that radio continues to excel.  The plethora of radio formats in today’s media environment provides listeners with a variety of information options, from stations that provide; all news, all sport, all weather, current affairs, feature programs, a wide variety of talk-based elements and everything in between.  This variety is coupled with radio’s innate advantages of accessibility, immediacy and localism (when satisfying) to provide profuse opportunities for listeners to access whatever information deemed desirable.  The continued high listenership to talk-based formats suggests this need is being met at a number of different levels.

    Also central to Maslow’s theory of self-actualization is the need for aestheticism.  Here too radio provides.  Stations dedicated to classical music are but one avenue.  Talk-based options also provide.  Radio networks, such as New Zealand’s National Radio, Australia’s ABC and some of the UK’s BBC networks furnish listeners in search of aesthetic fulfilment with programs such as drama, comedy and a strong arts disposition.  In addition, radio incorporates the Aristotelian dramatic structure in much of what it does.  Shingler and Wieringa (1998) argue that the Aristotelian model may expand even beyond specific programs to incorporate the words, speech and voices, the “primary code of radio” (p.51), as well as music, noise and silence.  Listeners derive pleasure from this structure in its own right.  The paradigm of exposition, development, climax and resolution is, in itself, aesthetically pleasing.  MacFarland (1997) even argues that music follows this same model, with some songs “fitting the Aristotelian model in a single sweep from beginning to end” (p.188).  Indeed, the entire radio program is a structure designed to provide predictability, expansion, and culmination for listeners.  As Douglas (1999) suggests, the mere act of listening to music on radio can be arousing and aesthetically pleasurable.

    Finally, Maslow suggests that people seeking self-actualization desire the utilization of higher cognitive experiences.  Radio again supplies by stimulating the imagination (Crisell, 1994; Douglas, 1999).  If a picture can paint a thousand words, in the world of radio, one word can paint a thousand different pictures.  Radio can arouse, excite, relax, alarm and even depress individuals, dependent upon the content, presentation and receptiveness of the listener.  Radio stimulates the imagination, resulting in strong emotional attachments to the medium itself (Hendy, 2000).  Theater of the mind is generated through all elements of radio, from the music, features, personalities and even commercials.  Radio provides listeners with the opportunity to engage in the meaningful construction of fictions that are unique and convincing to the individual, satisfying their expectations for aestheticism.  It could be argued that radio is in fact the highest form of cognitive interactivity existing in the media today, fulfilling self-actualization needs in a number of ways and at a variety of levels.


    The arguments presented suggest that basic human need may be a functional variable in determining radio listening.  All five of Maslow’s basic human needs can be fulfilled through the act of radio listening, the level of need being dependent upon the individual’s hierarchical position at any given moment in time.  Radio meets physiological, safety, belongingness and love, esteem and self-actualization needs in a variety of different ways and listeners can engage fulfilment simply by selecting the format type that meets their requirements at any specified period of time.  There is significance in such a suggestion for radio operators and policy makers both, if fulfilment of basic human need is considered constructive.

    If radio serves to meet basic human needs at a variety of different levels, then it is important that radio provides the necessary variety of programming to fulfil the needs of all listeners.  Evidence in highly regulated radio markets, where the number of radio stations is limited by policy, shows listenership dwindling (Shanahan, 2000).  Perhaps regulators need to review control of the airwaves and examine the potential ‘good’ of an expanded radio environment.  The sense of community within a common nation-state is multiple in nature, but this does not appear to be wholly reflected in restricted media environments.  If the Reithian view of radio to engage citizens in a public sphere for the purpose of rational and reasoned debate is to be achieved, then perhaps radio is not being fully realised as a strong democratic tool to meet the needs of many groups within a population.  As the population of most Western countries becomes more integrated and globally representative, the need for the media to generate a sense of community amongst like minded listeners may be even more important in affording the citizenry opportunities to achieve at higher levels.

    For radio providers, this study suggests they might need to look much deeper than their current demographic and psychographic profiling.  While the differences between public service and commercial operators is well documented, neither can ignore the need to recognise what basic human needs they are attempting to meet and the profile of the audience seeking satiation.  Furthermore, providers need to plan to move with the population as needs evolve.  For example, events directly after September 11 saw much of the Western world shift downwards on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Human Needs, from the satiation of esteem and self-actualization needs to the more fundamental needs of safety and belongingness/love.  Evidence suggests that talk-based radio formats at this time were instrumental in meeting such needs, but did they provide rational and reasoned debate, or simply attempt to confirm or validate existing concepts and/or biases?  If, as Maslow suggests, individuals are seeking satiation so they can move to the next level of need, then perhaps a review of such an approach might be desirable.

    The continued survival of radio as a medium may be considered in relation to its ability to continue to meet the basic human needs of citizens and to provide for them at all levels.  Furthermore, it is suggested that radio has an egocentric obligation, as well as a social democratic responsibility, to assist individuals to achieve satiation and movement to higher levels of need.  If radio is to continue to function and thrive in the face of the exponential growth in new media technologies and convergence, perhaps the maturing advantages of portability and stimulation of the imagination may not be enough to secure an adequate future.  Radio may need to pay further attention to what appears the functional variable in radio consumption; fulfilment of basic human need.


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1. Requests for additional information may be sent via email to Mr. Shananahan: