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The difference between “Listening” and “Hearing”

In one of the comments to this blog, Jeff Schmidt made a terribly interesting point about our new ratings methodology:

“PPM,” he said, “measures exposure, not ‘listening.’ The device ‘receives’ – and we use that as a proxy for the actual person holding the device.”

Now I will assume that the device is generally in the proximity of a listener as the “reception” is happening (true or not, a far better assumption than the one which says folks carry their paper Arbitron diaries with them wherever they go and fill them out as they listen).

This distinction between “listening” and “exposure” is most practically one between “listening” and “hearing.” And the consequences for this difference are profound.

“Listening” is active. “Hearing” is passive.

“Listening,” therefore, is an act of will. “Hearing” can simply happen without desire or intention or interest or preference.

“Listening” is emotional. “Hearing” is passionless.

“Listening” means getting deep in the experience. “Hearing” means never getting beyond the glossy exterior.

“Listening” means listeners will seek out programming. “Hearing” means the programming has to seek out the listener.

“Listening” means you tune in specifically for something. “Hearing” means you’re listening in part to avoid hearing something – namely anything other than what constitutes a passive listening experience (e.g., commercials, clutter, chit-chat, etc.)

“Listening” means marketing can be brand-building and strategic. “Hearing” means marketing is mostly tactical, moving listeners from station to station for a time the way coupons move shoppers at the market. For “hearers” just doing marketing is more important than what the marketing demands of you. It’s the impact that matters more than the message.

“Listening” means I know and care about you. “Hearing” means I only care about me and I don’t even want to know you.

“Listening” means I’m tuned in for my favorite songs or personalities. “Hearing” means the devil is not at all in the details but in the simplicity of the brand overall and the degree to which it fulfills its basic expectation.

“Listening” means your station will develop fans. “Hearing” means you will attract aisle-browsers.

One of the things radio critics regularly ignore is that radio is only partially designed for “listeners.” It’s also designed for “hearers.” And anyone who cares enough to criticize what they hear on the radio is not a “hearer.” (To see this play out in the marketplace, one needs to look only as far as satellite radio and its stubborn propensity to target fans of music rather than hearers of it).

When you’re aimed at “hearers,” you will never replace someone’s iPod. Indeed, it was only by a technological stroke of luck and timing that we have been able to substitute for iPods this long.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing the imperfections of PPM here. Rather, I’m arguing that PPM has revealed something that was fundamentally true about radio all along: That for many listeners radio isn’t about high-testing songs and engaging personalities; radio is about comfort. Indeed radio is as much a part of the ambient soundscape as the whistle of the wind, the chirping of the birds, and the songs of the crickets. Something to be heard rather than listened to.

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