Tuning in to car listeners

There are 22 million cars in this country and the vast majority of them have a radio, which makes it unsurprising that in-car listening accounts for about a fifth of all listening hours.

But who are the in-car listeners, and what do we know about their listening habits behind the wheel?

Rajar surveys in-car listening, including listening in vans and lorries. The profile of in-car listening might not seem particularly upmarket, but in fact it is, and significantly so.

Rajar data tells us that while nearly two-thirds of us listen in cars in the average month, the in-car audience overall (see chart one) is disproportionately likely to be upmarket, male and middle-aged. Perhaps this explains why automotive brands are to be found among the top twenty advertisers on radio (as well as on posters, for related reasons).

This demographic bias is not static across the day, and the efficiency with which upmarket men can be reached is actually at its peak during evening drive-time, although the morning show as ever will deliver higher outright ratings.

Rajar also shows that people listen to an average of 1.9 stations a week in-car, the same as the average number of stations they tune to at home each week.

This seems counter-intuitive. Surely the fact that presets are within easy reach would encourage drivers to switch around between stations in the car more than anywhere else: it’s just that much easier to do. There is also plenty of anecdotal evidence in the advertising and media business about people surfing between stations to a significant extent.

This question was the starting point for our ad-hoc research into the in-car listener: to what extent could we close in further on the in-car experience and find out what is really going on in detail behind the wheel? After all, Rajar is designed to record listening that takes place only for meaningful periods of time – five minutes or more – and does not track highly promiscuous listening behaviour.

So, to what extent are drivers flicking between stations? Does this depend on the level of equipment which they have? Is it only the people with pre-sets who switch around? What prompts switching? How big is the repertoire, and how does this vary by journey type?

Our study was conducted in April 1998 and was based on a sample of 500 people who described themselves as the main driver of their household’s car (this is slightly different from Rajar as it excludes listening in vans and lorries).

One of the first aspects we checked was level of equipment – in short, the finding is that the listener is well equipped these days (see chart two). Over 90 per cent of car radios now have pre-set frequencies themselves, so the options are definitely available for the restless listener).

But as chart three shows, actual levels of station switching in-car are much lower than we would expect.

Over a third of drivers just don’t change stations at all, and typical levels of switching amongst the rest are shown in chart three – this is based on journeys to and from work, which are more male-biased and show higher levels of switching than (for example) shopping trips. Even so, among those who do switch, about 80 per cent of drivers are switching once or twice only.

There are drivers who claim to switch seven or more times, but these are definitely in the minority – three per cent of drivers. The overall pattern of behaviour is very conservative – if this were represented by a comet-style graphic it would be a very fat one with a very slender tail indeed.

So the vision of drivers surfing up and down the wavelengths is clearly an exaggeration – a fact which is backed up by the finding that only 13 per cent agree they are “the sort of person who switches stations a lot while driving” (when the full report comes through it will be interesting to see exactly who these 13 per cent are – one suspects many of them are in the advertising and media business).

There is a category of journey which attracts higher levels of station switching – namely, long journeys often involve retuning to find a better signal.

We also looked at the reasons why people change stations. This tends to be for “push” rather than “pull” reasons – there is some station-changing in order to find specific programmes or content, but on the whole it tends to be low down the list in sixth equal position as a reason for changing stations.

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