03/30

What Wins in the New Radio Dashboard

A huge proportion of radio listening happens on the mobile devices known as automobiles, especially during the aptly-titled “drive times.”  And there’s considerable concern regarding the impact technology and new listening options will have on that listening as those new choices steadily make their way into cars.

It’s fair to say that nowhere in a car is there as much innovation today as there is in the dashboard.  And much of that innovation has to do with the entertainment options available to the “audience” behind the wheel.

In 2011, 11% of consumers reported listening to Internet Radio in their cars via their cellphones – almost double the number from one year earlier. And listening in-car via mobile devices remains a relatively awkward and cumbersome experience.  The easier it gets – the more “radio-like” – the more consumers will embrace it.  And the automakers have placed a big priority on making it easier and easier.

Meanwhile, nearly half of all U.S. mobile phone subscribers own the kind of smartphones which enable this in-car listening, and this number grows every year.

Much attention has been focused on the notion of radio “being in the new dashboard,” but very little attention has centered on what that new dashboard will mean for radio and what radio does, day to day.

As I look into that crystal ball, here’s what I see:

  • While broadcasters stubbornly resist the notion of classifying alternatives to radio as “radio,” consumers see no such distinction.  They will go where their interests and capabilities carry them, regardless of how it’s classified
  • The easiest substitutions for “radio” are for music radio – whether or not it is personalized to one’s own tastes.  The introduction of an infinite array of music-based options will drain both cume and especially time-spent-listening from music-oriented stations during the drive-times
  • This “off-band” listening will be invisible to broadcasters and their clients because they are not part of the Arbitron “100-share universe.” Thus we will see the size of that universe shrink even as the composition of winners and losers within it change.  Music-oriented stations will do worse in the drive-times not because people don’t want music then but because there are so many other places to get it. Meanwhile streaming metrics will show just how that listening is really growing.
  • Simply adding a station to a platform (e.g., TuneIn or IHeartRadio) which has great shelf-space in the “new dashboard” is not enough. Because when every broadcaster adds every station to those platforms the sheer magnitude of clutter will drown out the voice of any particular station brand.  You don’t walk into a crowded room and expect to get noticed.
  • Listeners will be left with these choices:  “Anything I want from anywhere I want it” or “Anything I want that I can’t get anywhere else.”  This will place a premium on unique and specialized content. Just as unique TV shows continue to thrive in a hugely cluttered video environment, so will unique radio shows thrive.
  • The interactivity of digital platforms will be much less of an advantage in cars because of the dangers of distraction.  That is, radio’s alternatives will have to perform more like radio to be successful – and legal.
  • The winning content in the “new dashboard” universe:  A great morning show, a unique personality, news radio, talk radio, sports radio, and public radio. Drive time ratings for all of these will rise, relative to other options.
  • For the afternoon drive, the same trends will drive usage.  Look for more stations to experiment with afternoon shows as foreground as the ones they depend on in the morning.  Afternoon shows that sound like morning shows will have a ratings advantage in the new digital dashboard.
  • We’ll have less music in the morning and less music in the afternoon. Radio will increasingly be the medium for people who want an alternative to music during the drive-time.

Watch – or listen – and see.

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