Radio Listeners: Is “Free” All That Matters?


“When it comes to mobile devices, we need to remind listeners that radio is FREE – that its use does not sap so much precious battery energy and even more precious data plan bandwidth.”

So argue the folks I call the “freeks.”

These are the well intentioned folks in the radio industry who believe that listeners do not have their own best interests at heart. That listeners are, as a group, a bit dull-minded. Thus, listeners must be marketed at and advertised to in order to convince them of what they surely would be better off knowing: That free radio is better than any other radio-like alternative simply and primarily because it’s free.

This is precisely the argument you hear from the NextRadio folks, for example, as demonstrated in statements like this:

People still don’t understand the difference between streaming and the over-the-air signal…streaming drains a smartphone battery three times as fast as an FM chip. We know there are billions of hours of listening to local radio stations on data networks. If these chips were turned on, every American could listen to the same content for absolutely free. Just look at the research: Every time people understand it, they fall in love with it.

Leave aside that this is not what the research shows at all. It’s also not quite logical (a chunk of streaming happens well outside the signal radius), nor is it what the actual behavior of consumers who have access to FM-enabled mobile phones seems to show (the uptake of these devices is tepid). Nor is it even what the usage for NextRadio itself shows, if the relatively meager average listening audience is any measure.

The premise wrapped up in this statement is that “free” is an argument-stopper. If only consumers understood that radio on their mobile devices could be free, they would “fall in love” with the idea.

Tell this to the consumers who buy water in bottles rather than pour it from the tap for free.

Tell it to the consumers who pay for cable TV rather than watch over-the-air TV for free.

Tell it to the consumers who buy their songs on iTunes rather than steal them for free.

Tell it to the consumers who ride bikes in a gym rather than on the open road for free.

Tell it to the consumers who shop at a supermarket rather than grow their own food for free.

Tell it to all of us who see “free” as one measure of value but not the only one. Recognize that we know what we like and what we want and we are prepared – happy, even – to pay for it. 

“Value” is a bundle of attributes, and “price” is only one.

Give us what we want.

Let us decide if it’s worth the price or not.


A couple of interesting comments since this post was published.

The first argues that while “free” is certainly not all that matters, it is a big tie-breaker for “like” products, with the dominance of YouTube being a good example. Sure, I say. But another way of describing “like” products is with the term “commodities.” In other words, the more alike everything is the more advantage there is to be “free” since, by definition, there’s nothing else that differentiates the offerings. But is this our goal? To be the least costly audio commodity? That sounds like a very vulnerable place to me.

Meanwhile, this is not a game for radio stations alone. We assume, for example, that Pandora is viewed by consumers as “costly” due to bandwidth, but I don’t believe consumers see it that way. If you ask those who are not on Pandora’s premium plan whether it “costs them money” to use Pandora, I think the vast majority would say “no.” That is, Pandora is viewed as “free” or very nearly so if we spread the “costs” of bandwidth across every application we use that bandwidth for. So when it comes to “free,” checkmate.

It’s telling that cable operators and TV producers never proclaim the virtues of “free,” even though their over-the-air platforms are even more beneficial to consumer data plans than the over-the-air platforms of radio broadcasters.

The second comment came from a Christian radio broadcaster who explained that his station, in fact, is not “free.” Indeed, they depend for their support on their listeners, so they consciously design their products to be “unlike” other “free” offerings so as to make them worth sponsoring. Exactly right!

* = required field
  • finalrune

    Oh man, do people really seriously make that argument? I know I’m an outlier, but I’m one of those freaks that chooses to pony up the $36 to skip the ads on Pandora. Just give me my MUSIC. I think most people only listen to radio because it’s ‘the last option left’ – they forgot their iPod or maybe they don’t have an AUX in for their car. There is something convenient to radio’s simplicity, but I would be greatly surprised if there is anyone particularly enthusiastic left out there (and certainly not for much longer).

    If the best you have is, “Oh you get more battery life out of radio” you better be looking for a new career option. Did you know that rotary telephones have WAY better battery life than iPhone? As do typewriters!

  • jonhansen

    I must be in a minority then. For me, radio is far from the ‘the last option left’. Pandora doesn’t give me News, Weather, Travel, Comedy, Drama, Documentary….

  • finalrune

    Jon, you’re right, I actually listen to a LOT of public radio. I was thinking of the commercial band. You could not pay me to listen to commercial radio programming. And I still love my local NPR affiliate, but with almost all of that content moving to podcasts they shouldn’t be sitting still.

    – Fred

  • Stephen Martin

    I’m no expert on the US market but if people can get the same experience (or in the case of the NextRadio app, a better radio experience) with fewer downsides then isn’t that a reasonable consumer choice to promote?

    Having read NextRadio’s blurb the main savings benefit they sell is that of battery life. It would appear that they’ve identified a problem based on a consumer insight and have positioned themselves as a solution to it.

    Above all, they’re providing an additional way for people to find and enjoy great radio content on the devices they like to use. Shouldn’t that be encouraged?

  • All innovation should be encouraged. But I’m not wrong for demanding that the storytelling surrounding those innovations are honest. I’m not wrong for looking at the world from the perspective of consumers, not the perspective of broadcasters (the latter only matters when it’s the same as the former). I’m not wrong for calling BS on claims which the evidence suggests are BS.
    You are presuming that this product is a solution to a problem based on consumer insight. It’s not. It’s simply rationalized based in the fact that an FM chip draws less power than a stream. A watch draws less power than the clock on my iPhone, but is it an argument for a watch?
    Review some of the research I link to and you’ll see what consumers have to say. Look at sales figures and you’ll see what consumers are buying.
    Everything else is hot air.

    Thanks for your note!

    Mark Ramsey

Dive Into The Blog