Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Why Do People Listen to the Radio? (Part 1)

Radio is a portable, use-anywhere medium. Attempts have been made to turn radio into a wired, fixed-place medium, e.g., Muzac, cable audio and, more recently, internet radio. However, an essential feature of radio, particularly since the invention of the transistor radio in the 1960's, is that radio can be listened to virtually anywhere, even in moving vehicles.  Within most households there are multiple radios, so that listeners can access their favourite radio programming throughout the home. It has been estimated that there are upwards of 100 million radios in Canada, in cars, trucks and homes.  Computer chips are starting to turn smartphones into an anywhere communication device for streaming live music and information but it is still in its infancy and data use is expensive, unlike radio, a broadcasting medium that is free.  

Radio was so popular that even during the Great Depression in the 1930's radio sets were sold in great numbers. It achieved the status of a universal household appliance during the Second World War. The public adoption 'curve' of radio was more pronounced than the telephone's in these early years, with the latter not becoming universal until late into the 1960's. Of the three older, universal communications appliances, radio, TV and the telephone, television experienced the fastest growth rate. TV, of course, was introduced in the post­war economic boom years. The newer communication devices, the home computer, the internet and the cell phone, have also experienced significant acceptance but have never been universal, although all three are close to being in every home.

Music is an essential feature of radio. The universal appeal of music, which can be listened to while performing other tasks, is our companion at work, play and almost all activities. Music envelops our lives, whether it is on the radio, TV, CDs, iPods, in the movies, the concert hall, church or on a street corner. No one has ever quantified it but we spend a very large proportion of our waking lives with music either in the foreground or background. Music is one of our psychic stables, perhaps as necessary as language.  

There are some in the radio business, including but not only CBC, who think that the internet can compete with radio, a stream can be an ocean.  Their focus is on streaming music, which Apple and dozens of other vendors started doing in the late 1990's.  However, there is strong evidence that internet music streaming will face some insurmountable hurdles. For the past decade CMRI's Media Trends Survey, the only survey in Canada that has tracked attitudes and usage of TV, radio and the internet continuously in this period, has asked Canadians to report how they use the electronic media.  99% of people use TV and radio at least once per month but not everyone uses the internet. The chart below shows the trend in the percentage of Canadians using the internet and downloading/streaming of music (and video) on the net at least once a month.

Even by the mid-2000's the internet had a very substantial monthly 'reach', the proportion who used the internet for an hour at least once per month. However, internet use on a monthly basis has stabilized at about 80%, having grown from just under 70% in 2004-05.  Downloading/streaming was practiced by less than 1 in 5 people in 2004 and grew to about 40% by 2009 but has stabilized at that level in the past two years.  Barring some unforeseen new technology and a reduction in data costs, it would seem that downloading/streaming may have peaked at about 40% of the population.  Demographics, i.e., the aging of the population, will work against further growth. 

The introduction of Netflix and Apple TV has had an impact on tonnage, the frequency that people download/stream, but these new services do not seem to have affected reach, the proportion of people who are downloading/streaming for an hour at least once a month.  By the way, audience reach, using a minimum time period such as one-hour, cuts through the dazzling (and often misleading) statistics that techies toss around such as page views and unique visitors (sometimes based on as little as a few seconds of use in a month).  Reach rigorously defined tells us the real potential and impact of any service.

In part 2 of this post we will examine some of the deeper reasons why people listen to radio and examine in more depth who is downloading/streaming music on the internet.  Who are heavier downloaders/streamers?  Who are least interested?

The 2011 results are from CMRI's Media Trends Survey conducted November-December 2011 among a representative national sample of approximately 900 Anglophone respondents aged 18-plus.  Margin of error +/-3.3%.  The Media Trends Survey has been conducted for ten consecutive years and has surveyed over 15,000 Canadians in total in this period. 

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