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FM on Mobile Phones? Be Careful what you Wish For

What’s the best way for radio to compete in a newly digital mobile environment?

Is it to ensure that every mobile phone has an activated FM chip?  Is it, in other words, to expand the limits of existing technology to cover new gadgets which are built fundamentally on newer and more interactive and personal technology?  Is it to turn a mobile phone into the same kind of radio that sits on your nightstand?

No, no, a thousand times, no.

Wild projections flutter about the radio industry regarding the consequences of FM chips in mobile phones – “30 percent more listeners,” goes one.  Forget the reality that “30 percent more listeners” will take us well over 100% by most estimates, and even 30% more listening by the same listeners is an impossibly rosy and unlikely projection based on scant evidence.

Let’s go with this faulty assumption and assume that lots of new listening to radio occurs on mobile devices where FM has been legislated into the device.

How will this listening be recorded?

Keep in mind these mobile devices are largely used with wired earbuds, thus blocking the famously audible signal that translates radio listening to PPM ratings. No audible signal, no ratings.  Not 30 percent more.  Zero percent more.

And if that radio listening transfers from an open-to-the-air radio to a mobile device, radio would actually lose listening.

Arbitron’s Bill Rose was very kind to share with me the “state-of-the-art” when it comes to this:

With the introduction of the PPM 360, we have modified our mailing materials to panelists. Now, all members of PPM 360 households receive their own box and included within that box is a headphone adapter and instructions on how to use this. In households that do not have the PPM 360, we ask about headphone usage when they first join the panel and then every 4 months during their tenure as part of the process to update household/panelist characteristics. For each person in the household we ask whether they have used headphones in the past year to listen to radio and if they say yes, we send them a headphone adapter.  We do not have listening statistics on the amount of headphone usage in the PPM panel.

I think the key sentence is the last one:  There are no statistics on the amount of radio listening by headphones in the PPM panel.

Arbitron does have stats on the number of first generation PPM panelists who say they listen to FM radio using headphones or earbuds.  That number, reported to me by Arbitron, was 19%.

Naturally, that stat will be influenced by the number of radio-enabled devices requiring earphones.  But it will also reflect confusion about what is meant by “FM radio” considering listening to FM radio via web stream is the same “FM radio” one listens to via a traditional radio tuner, but without the tuner.  There’s a built in bias to favor a larger response, in other words.

But let’s pretend it’s real.  That means compliance is critical.  Yet there’s no measure of compliance with the request that the adapter be used with the listening. Arbitron simply doesn’t know.

Does it discourage radio usage if even the most diligent PPM panelist knows it requires extra work to listen to the radio and record that listening for Arbitron’s benefit? Sure. Does this extra effort discourage the usage of the adapter in the first place?  Again, sure.  So incentives exist to listen less and to comply less often when listening occurs.


And we should be charging ahead in this direction why, exactly?

So we have two issues:

1.  An FM chip on mobile phones would generally be associated with the use of earbuds, and if the Arbitron adapter is not used, then listening which is swapped from an open-to-the-air radio to a mobile radio would result in lower radio listening, overall. Radio listening will vanish into the black hole of technological progress.

2.  The headphone adapter is another hurdle for PPM panelists to accurately record their listening.  Arbitron has no statistics on the amount of listening with headphones and no measures of compliance with the use of these adapters.  If I were a broadcaster, I might request this (I’m just saying). However, any student of behavior knows that the harder you make something, the less apt consumers are to behave that way.  So this hurdle will result in either less radio listening behavior or less compliance in the presence of the behavior – either way, the result will be no incremental listenership and quite possibly listenership declines.

So anyone who tells you radio must be built into every mobile device should likewise tell you how that listenership is to be accurately measured given the natural constraints of audible signals blocked by earbuds and awkward attachments designed to solve the problem by creating more work – and less compliance – for PPM panelists who are busy enough carrying a meter around and keeping it in motion.

Because, gang, if the listenership isn’t faithfully measured and that listenership is swapping in from your open-to-the-air radios, your ratings and the ratings of all your peers will go down.

Be careful what you wish for.

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