This is not about earbuds

If you show a ratings chart that pulls people out of their comfort zone, then inevitably their reaction is to focus on what is missing and what was not counted.  After all, that would explain the demise in the ratings.

From afar, this has been the reaction I have seen to the RRC‘s recent report on broadcast radio listening trends for US public radio, as well as trends for all radio.

The chart below is a wake-up call for the entire radio industry because it shows that there has been a steady (but also alarmingly quick) decline in the percentage of persons aged 6+ who listen to any measured media, which in this case is effectively any measured FM/AM/HD station.

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The chart shows that radio usage has fallen by 13% on weekdays in the past three years across the 30 markets measured by Nielsen Audio’s PPM.

This naturally alarms anyone working in radio.  As a presenter of this type of “bad” news for many years in many settings, the reaction from readers and from those in the room is part-defensive and part-wanting to understand.

The defensiveness or denial stems from the worry that one’s own livelihood is on the line, that the data confirms their worst fear that though their own media behavior hasn’t changed, the mainstream has, and that change is permanent.

This is a very human reaction, but as Mark Ramsey points out “In order to rally and fight a problem, we must begin by recognizing its existence“.  Holding onto the standard claims about the near universal reach of radio conveniently sidesteps the critical issue of engagement with radio.

The “wanting to understand” entails listening to each of the theories proposed that explain the ratings demise.  Some have credit, which should be acknowledged to aid understanding, but many can be debunked where necessary, in order to help people focused on what is real or not and what is within their control.

Don’t get me wrong, the ratings chart above effectively does not include headset listening; the workaround provided is simply not used by the ‘average Joe’.  But if you see someone wearing a headset, are you willing to say that person is absolutely listening to a local FM/AM station?  Probably not.

Yes, streaming is growing exponentially and it is the future for audio.  But take a 1-minute look at the Triton Digital Rankers report and you’ll see that the “Pandora train” has already left the station, leaving other pure-plays and broadcast networks holding only steady, and far, far behind, at best.

True, podcasts are not counted in the ratings.  Sure, it alters listening behavior so that I can listen to a show when I want to, but I haven’t seen any data yet that justifies the claim that if it weren’t for podcasts, my numbers would be much, much higher.

What’s left is what’s within your control.  Not how media consumption is measured.  Not about what content is or not counted. Not whether there was an election this time last year.  It’s about making what you do – audio, video, words – the very best it can be and the most compelling for your audience. Again and again.

Ratings tell us where we’ve been and can project where we’re going.  They can also show whether what we currently do has a future.  By all means, absorb them, understand them, and go ahead and poke holes in them, but don’t sit still in your comfortable seat and blame it on the earbuds.

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