08/16

The Truth about Eroding Radio Listening

Last week in MediaDailyNews, these results were trumpeted:

Comparing listening patterns from spring 2009 to spring 2010, [Researcher Richard] Harker found that the proportion of the U.S. population that is listening to broadcast radio actually grew from 91.4% to 93% over that period. Average weekly listening dipped about 1%, or 11 minutes, to 17.4 hours per week.

The conclusion?  That “digital alternatives have failed to make a big dent in local broadcast radio listening.”

This is flat out wrong, and I’ll show you why, using Arbitron’s own data.

First, the interpretation reported here seems to derive from a tiny window of time:  One year.

Second, the erosion in time spent listening is obscured by the finding that radio’s reach continues to be strong and healthy.  But think about that one for a second:

If, in fact, digital alternatives are cannibalizing radio listening, it’s much more likely to be a slow and steady process than a sudden on/off one. Consumers make way for new media, they don’t generally stop using what’s familiar unless it ceases to be useful.

In other words, the right way to assess radio’s usage erosion is to assess time spent listening, not the medium’s reach.

So let’s do that, shall we?

For this analysis, I’ll use nationwide Arbitron data that pre-dates PPM so as to avoid impacts on listening that are methodological rather than truly behavioral.

Here’s what the trend in time spent listening (TSL) looks like among persons 12+ from Fall of 1998 (before the dawn of the iPod) to Spring 2007:

And here’s the same picture focusing on those folks who are most likely to be affected by new digital alternatives: persons 18-24:

Now, let’s look at a more recent frame – still pre-dating PPM data.

What follows is TSL change by age group among both Men and Women from 2005 to 2008:

So erosion in TSL is evident in virtually every cell in that three year window.  TSL erosion is likewise evident in the ten years preceding the introduction of PPM, a period marked by – you guessed it – a rising tide of digital alternatives.

Finally, note that even Harker’s data point to a one year decline of 1% in TSL.  And if that’s a real annual number which holds steady (rather than decreasing or increasing), we’ll find that overall TSL drops more than 5% after another five years.

So does this mean radio is screwed?  No, of course not.  Far from it.

Ask your friends in television – they’ll tell you that erosion in time spent consuming a media product is GUARANTEED to occur when consumers are confronted with new options worth embracing.  Yes, guaranteed.  So let’s stop pretending, okay?

This is, in other words, normal.

So why am I sharing this with you?

Because some in the radio industry insist on spinning fairytales rather than examining the numbers right in front of their noses.  Radio IS being affected by digital alternatives, just like everything else is.  So let’s begin by developing strategies based on the real world, rather than the one occupied by a girl named Alice and a Cheshire Cat.

Sure, I know some analysts argue that “folks don’t listen to the radio anymore.” And of course, that’s laughable.  But beware the Kool-Aid you drink, for it may be your own.

Strategies based on reality have a better chance of long-term success than ones built on a skeleton of fantasy, no matter how seductive things might be through that looking glass.

And it’s all good.  Why?  Because digital alternatives are inevitable.  The audience demands them.  And radio will increasingly be about more than TSL and reach:

It will be about impact and effectiveness.  It will be about streaming online.  It will be about pictures and video and platforms in-car, on the desk, mobile, and one day embedded into your very skin.

This is a great opportunity.

And it will be driven by radio’s immense “megaphone,” which is still hugely influential and the envy of all who lack it.

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