Monday, 4 June 2012

Why Do People Listen to the Radio? (Part 2)

Who can forget when they first became aware of radio? My first exposure as a boy was a riveting play about giant ants which consumed everything in their path, including people. The horror was as real to me as to those who listened to the original War of the Worlds' broadcast. Our first radio experience is usually associated with the spoken word.  The human voice is the primary feature of the radio that attracts listeners.

Male voices, female voices, local and foreign accents; old and young, intelligent, witty, knowledgeable, worldly, dignified, average working people's voices, considerate, tolerant, angry, bellicose, excited, sarcastic, remorseful, soothing, funny, sad, sexy, authoritative, energetic, inquisitive, opinionated, mocking, gossipy, condescending voices, the human voice is the essential feature of the radio listening experience. The voice, expressing facts, ideas, meaning and emotions, is compelling and it draws us to the radio.

Voices on radio tend to be more natural and intimate than on TV. Radio is conversational, often filled with interruptions, short pauses and other features of a normal conversation, whereas TV hosting and interviews are more scripted and formulaic. Michael Enright often says to his guests, nice to meet you on the radio, something he wouldn't do on TV. In TV the players are more conscious of the camera, which represents the audience, and people tend to perform for the audience. The radio audience is in the background, unobtrusive.  

The spontaneity of radio is another critical feature that draws the radio listener. Music, uninterrupted by a host and other spontaneous elements, is not an appealing alternative. On the radio the very fact that the listener doesn't quite know what's coming next is a major attraction. Radio, more than other electronic media, attempts to break with tradition and cross boundaries: pop music when it was sinful, outrageous hosts, sex talk, call-in shows were all invented for radio.  My favourite radio host here in Ottawa was until recently CFRA's Michael Harris, a journalistic encyclopedia, always able to surprise you with his insights. Radio is here-and-now, telling the listener the time of day, the weather throughout the day, when community events are to take place and continually makes other chronological references. There are references to music or interviews "in the next half hour" or "after the news at the top of the hour."  Radio listening is a live, current experience, placing the listener in time and space.

There are some in the radio business, most recently the CBC, who seem to think that internet streaming of music can compete with radio. An interesting experiment and worth doing, yes, but not even close to radio. In the first part of this post we looked at data provided by thousands of Canadians from a national representative sample to show that internet downloading/streaming of music had seemingly peaked and was unlikely to reach the universality of radio any time soon. But there are some sub-groups in the population more likely to download/stream.

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 or streams music. The chart below shows the trend in the percentage of Canadians downloading/streaming of music (and video) on the internet for an hour at least once a month among different population groups in 2011-12.

Interestingly, there is no significant difference between men and women when it comes to downloading/streaming. However, as expected, there is a substantial difference between younger and older Canadians.  Persons aged 18-34, who account for 29.7% of the population, are far more likely to stream; 65.3% of them do so.  Older people, aged 55-plus, who account for roughly the same percentage of the population are far less likely to stream, only 17.8% do.

There are other groups in the population more likely to stream internet content, as shown in the chart below.

Twitter users, iPod and iPad owners and tech-savvy people who own smartphones are more likely to download/stream music and other content.  Note that only 7.3% of everyday people actually use Twitter.  CBC Radio 1 listeners, who make up 31.4% of the population are not heavy streamers in relative terms; 40.4% download or stream, about the average.  CBC Radio 2 listeners, who represent about 9% of the population, are also much less likely to download/stream from the internet than techies; less than half do so.  Thus, a CBC music streaming service, as was recently launched, is not a viable replacement for CBC Radio 1-2 listeners.  It may be an interesting niche service to attract a small number of new listeners but it is not an alternative to CBC Radio.

A week after launch the CBC music streaming service reported that about 60,000 people had downloaded the free app, about the number of people who live in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and this was after being heavily promoted on iTunes, CBC Radio and TV and many print outlets that week.  How many apps do you have on your iPhone or iPad that go unused?  The numbers are an early indicator that this is a limited market.

By the way, CBC listeners here are defined as persons who tune to Radio 1 or Radio 2 for at least an hour per month; so the monthly audience 'reach' of Radio 1 at over 30%, or some 6 million Anglophone Canadians, and Radio 2 at just under 10%, or roughly 2 million Canadians, is substantial.  Audience reach, using a minimum time period such as one-hour, cuts through the dazzling (and sometimes misleading) statistics that techies use to tout web services such as page views, hits and unique visitors (sometimes based on as little as a few seconds of use in a month).  Reach based on an hour of use is a much more telling metric for rating the impact of a service.

CBC programmers must be cognizant of their audience and not risk alienating the large CBC radio following that has been cultivated over many decades.  CBC radio listeners, who are attracted to the essential features of radio, including CBC's program hosts that speak to and for them, on the easily accessed, anywhere medium of radio are a treasure that CBC should value.  The only thing that really matters in radio is your audience.

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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