While cellphone listening includes some streaming radio, most of it will be via the FM receiver that many phones contain. The reason is simple. FM doesn’t use data, and is therefore free. So this is not just about smartphones, although of course they offer significant additional opportunities.
The radio event of the year in 2016 was undoubtedly the launch of the first results of the new audience measurement system, the Baby RAMS.
With a valiant attempt at razzmatazz, CEO Clare O’Neil and her team from the newly minted Broadcast Research Council introduced its first set of figures to a crowd of managers, marketing types and others who packed into the Wanderers Club in August. There was even some song and dance.
Station managers have been fretting about their particular figures since, and those whose audience numbers are lower than under the previous regime have found plenty to grumble about. Community radio stations, as before, have disputed the whole system.
It’s going to take some time for the new system to bed down. The BRC made it clear that the new figures can’t be compared with the old, tired RAMS figures since the method is fundamentally different, and should be significantly more reliable. But the warning has fallen on deaf ears: The obsession with narrowly tracking numbers is just too strong.
The BRC will have to do a great deal of work to explain what the numbers can and can’t do, and the debate about audience measurement will go on for some time.
But this is not about the research controversy. At a broader level, the numbers illustrate some fundamental shifts that radio planners should take into account as they think about 2017 and beyond.
Two fascinating sets of figures were captured for the first time, both for the whole audience and for each station: What devices listeners use, and where they listen. They show that the traditional radio receiver rules supreme, with 78% of the audience, followed by the cellphone at 38%. Car radios trail at 26%, and there is only a little listening online or on satellite.
In terms of place, 87% of listening takes place in the home, and 33% in a vehicle. Places of work and study follow with 11% and public places score 6%. (And yes, the figures add up to more than 100% because people tick more than one box.)
Let’s be clear: While cellphone listening includes some streaming radio, most of it will be via the FM receiver that many phones contain. The reason is simple. FM doesn’t use data, and is therefore free. So this is not just about smartphones, although of course they offer significant additional opportunities.
Phones matter to radio
So phones matter to radio. Steven Goldstein, founder of US firm Amplifi Media, told the Download on Podcasting research project: “Twenty percent of all audio is coming through the smartphone. The smartphone has become the radio.”
Listening to radio on the cellphone is a significantly different experience, which radio managers need to understand: It is much more individual and intimate, as it mostly comes through a pair of headphones or earbuds. This means that the audio quality matters a great deal: Listeners are used to getting crystal clear sound directly to their ears, with minimal interference from the environment.
In many ways, this takes radio back to a much earlier age, where listening was a largely individual experience. In the 1920s, amateur enthusiasts had to build their own receivers, often in attics and basements, and listened largely on headphones. Good loudspeakers came later, as American radio historian Susan Douglas has documented.
The move to cellphone listening takes another radio trend further: Its portability. In Listening In, Douglas describes how the arrival of the transistor enabled teenagers in the ‘50s to develop their own listening and music tastes because they could take the radio out of the home, and away from their parents’ tastes.
Cellphone listening stands in this tradition, and takes it further. The cellphone lives in our pockets, always available.
The telephone is so last decade
Significantly, it has become a one-stop home for a range of entertainment options. Anybody visiting a university campus will know how common it is to see students walking around with earphones plugged into a phone. They could be listening to traditional radio or to their own music, and occasionally making an actual phone call. That’s rare, though: The telephone call is so last decade.
For radio planners, it means that the competition is not just other radio stations, it is a number of other audio options, including streaming and private playlists. That’s not a new insight, but on the cellphone, all those options sit very close together. If your breakfast jock is losing her touch, a shift is as easy as a tap to another app.
Still waiting in the wings, at least for South African audiences, is the podcast, which offers a media platform that is quite different in many respects. A downloadable piece of audio, it allows users to listen in their own time. Typically, a listener could download a selection of interesting podcasts via wi-fi at home, to save costs, and then listen at the gym, while commuting or similar. It’s on-demand radio.
Several South African radio stations have taken to making sections of broadcast content available in this form, but that only scratches the surface of what is possible. In the US, particularly since the runaway success of the real-life crime series Serial, highly produced podcasts have become an important feature of the landscape.
Golden age of podcasting
The website Mother Nature Network called this the golden age of podcasting.
Gradually, solutions are being found to the challenge of monetizing what is really a new audio medium. Already, specialist agencies in the US are selling into this space, and techniques for dynamic ad insertion are being developed, to solve the problem of time-sensitive ads being heard in podcasts some time after they were first created.
Systems for delivering reliable metrics remain a problem, and integration of on-demand audio with social media is still generally clunky. But the question has to be asked: is there a Netflix, waiting in the wings to do to audio what that company is doing for on-demand video?
In South Africa, we’re still far behind this curve. Some companies and individual pioneers have dabbled in the space, but we’re a long way from this becoming a significant feature of the landscape. Opportunities still remain unexplored.
That’s the other lesson in those new BRC figures: It is easy to get over-excited by new possibilities, particularly in the brave new online world. But traditional listening patterns remain strongly dominant: Despite some variations between stations, the biggest audiences remain on the familiar radio set, and in the home.
That’s not an argument for ignoring new possibilities, just that we should not neglect the bread and butter of making great radio for existing audiences.
Franz Krüger is adjunct professor and director of the Wits Radio Academy.