Listeners keep radio on air

Radio may still be a low-tech medium, but listening figures show that it is thriving in the fast-changing media market. Martin Croft investigates

Over the last decade, life for marketers and media planners has been made a lot more problematic by the accelerating fragmentation of the media market.

Today’s consumer is being bombarded with more and more television channels, while new magazines seem to hit the newsstands every week. Combine this media explosion with increasing levels of ad avoidance, and the future for some more “traditional” media might seem bleak.

While much of the attention in recent months has been concentrated on media fragmentation as it applies to digital television and Internet-based advertising, radio has already been through the fragmentation experience and come out the other side.

As recent research from the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) shows, almost all UK households are now able to choose from at least 12 radio stations, whereas the majority of households are still only able to receive four or five terrestrial TV channels.

Yet, despite the multiplicity of radio stations that they have to choose from, listeners turn out to have remarkable loyalty to particular stations, with adults in the UK having an average station repertoire of only 2.4 stations.

Even in the car, the levels of station switching are surprisingly very low, with only a small minority of listeners switching more than three times during their journeys to and from work.

The RAB argues that high levels of station loyalty are because radio is an unusual broadcast medium, as it is mostly programming-driven rather than programme-driven. Unlike TV, where people tend to choose channels based on specific programmes, the RAB claims that radio listeners generally choose stations for the mood they create.

So, whereas other media appear to be suffering from a knock-on effect of recent technological developments, with consumers being more elusive and harder to reach en masse, large audience segments can still be reached on commercial radio, despite the fact that new stations are coming on air all the time.

RAB research suggests that these new stations are bringing with them significant and definable audiences of their own, and, by and large, many of these new listeners have been moving over from the BBC. So for radio, it is more a case of audience segmentation rather than fragmentation.

In contrast to other media, radio is still a rather “low-tech” medium which most marketers at first may dismiss as old-fashioned and traditional. However, research shows that more than 12 million Britons listen to commercial radio on AM every week. Despite the sound quality on AM being poorer than FM, listeners are still drawn by loyalty and the quality of the station programming.

Furthermore, the majority of radio listening usually takes place on low-quality radios in the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen, where there tend to be no other competing media and people are more likely to be doing something on their own. Generally, more sophisticated radios are found in people’s living rooms, where TV viewing is more likely to occur.

The arrival of digital radio means that in the long term radio listening will switch from low-tech to more hi-tech equipment. Already, in-car listening tends to take place on more sophisticated equipment and it is here that the first penetration of digital radio is likely to happen.

Car manufacturers are likely to install digital radios into new models on the production line, although take-up of digital radio by consumers driving older cars will depend on price and good marketing by digital radio set manufacturers.

Plans for digital radio are already well advanced. Digital One, the new national commercial radio multiplex, is expected to be in operation by the end of 1999. This multiplex will broadcast all existing national services, plus new national stations for rock music, rolling news, sports, soft adult contemporary music, teen music, drama and comedy and dance music. Local and regional multiplex licences are in the process of being awarded.

The Internet will also help radio: both because listening to the radio and surfing the Net are complementary activities – unlike reading magazines or watching TV – and because the Internet will actually become a significant delivery channel for radio.

Radio listening through Web browsers is fast becoming a reality – with the paradoxical result that some extremely local radio stations for, say, the heart of rural England, have become cult listening for people in North America and Asia. Expatriates in particular can now use the Web to tune in to their “local” stations back home.

Microsoft has just released Internet Explorer 5, which has a new radio option where the PC user can receive and play the signal of any radio stations broadcasting on the Web. Already, Continental Research estimates that about 1.7 million adults have listened to a radio station over the Internet, based on findings within its recent report into current Internet users.

Radio also has much lower ad avoidance levels, as highlighted by research conducted by Western International Media. The survey indicates that only 16 per cent of respondents actively sought to avoid radio advertising, compared with 68 per cent who actively avoided advertising in newspapers.

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