These days, radio broadcasters have a lot on their plates. Many of the “givens” that were firmly in place since the early days of the medium are now on shaky ground.
Radios are disappearing in homes and workplaces, their status in cars is being crowded out by other media delivered via smartphones, and smart speakers introduce an entirely new set of opportunities – and challenges – to a medium that has always been known for its ubiquity.
Now, companies that have always depended on radio being everywhere are now in the process of rethinking the fundamentals:
What kind of company are we? And what kind do we want to be? Do we have the right people in place and do they have the willingness to change the way they've always operated in order to adjust to the new realities of media content and distribution?
In the middle of all this, radio by all accounts is not having a stellar year. Radio sales teams are being challenged like never before, trying to make the case for a medium that's been part of the media fabric for nearly a century.
In this environment where the certainties are anything but, another issue – and a potentially important one – is looming as a silent assassin. As radio companies operating in PPM markets struggle with the issue of whether to Total Line Report – or not – the ongoing question of measurement continues to rear its ugly head.
The theme here is quiet. Last month, Inside Radio quietly ran a story reporting on a survey conducted by The Diffusion Group that reports headphone penetration shot up by 20% last year.
Sit down for this one:
More than three-fourths of adults (77%) now own earbuds or headphones. (You can only imagine the percentage among those under 18).
In fact, as many people own these devices as laptop computers. And a visit to most modern offices reveals an eerily quiet environment as workers sit in cubicles privately listening to their preferred audio. It's the same thing on airplanes, libraries, and Starbucks.
And no one knows why.
Part of this is undoubtedly due to the reality that earbuds now come standard with just about every mobile device purchased. As smartphones and tablets have become standard equipment for consumers, earbuds come along for the ride. But many are never used, taking a back seat to headphones. The Distribution Group's principal analyst, Michael Greeson, notes, “This speaks to the widespread appeal of today's headphones. Whether purchased for a better audio experience or to score cool points, headphones are in demand.”
The fact is, no one knows why this is happening, but like any trend that impacts audio consumption, it ought to be on the radio industry's increasingly crowded radio screens?
You may be asking, what does this have to do with radio, as long as consumers are listening on one device or another?
In the biggest markets, everything.
More and more audio consumption is moving to headphones so streaming measurement becomes more critically important to a medium trying to transform itself.
And in PPM, whether it was Arbitron back in the earliest days of the methodology or in today's unstable environment, headphone measurement in a metered panel has always been questionable.
That's because it in order to capture “silent listening” on earbuds and headphones (remember, the meters only measure audio it can “hear”), a dongle has been provided to PPM families.
Yet, it is clunky, cumbersome, and yet one more speed bump to participating in a Nielsen radio panel. Last year, consultant Randy Kabrich offered up his interpretation of the Rube Goldbergian dongle that connects an audio source to both the PPM meter and headphones.
Nielsen has consistently claimed this isn't a problem, but logic suggests otherwise. And even many of the old Arbitron team quietly raised their eyebrows when asked about the headphone measurement problem its company was trying to solve.
And so here we are, in the midst of a mediocre revenue year entering budget time. And market managers, CFOs, and other prognosticators are tasked with projecting their companies' financial fortunes in a landscape that keeps spinning uncontrollably.
In an unpredictable media world, Nielsen could lend an important degree of confidence to its many radio clients by conducting fresh research to address these rapidly changing respondent behaviors. Are panelists consistently using these dongles? And if not, what other measurement solutions can be designed to ensure radio is keeping up with the Digital Joneses?
Whether it is media buyers and planners, radio executives and their staffs, or the MRC, it's a matter of confidence and trust – perhaps now more than ever. The old rules are being cast by the wayside in place of new media content and new distribution outlets. Radio can prosper in this environment if it is being measured accurately and fairly.
These days, that's a big IF.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.
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