Last week, my company (Edison Research) published some topline results of The Commuter Code, a groundbreaking study we conducted of in-car audio consumption amongst commuters. “Groundbreaking” is an adjective that gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, we were truly uncovering facts that had never been surfaced, using a methodology that has never been attempted.
We learned a lot in the course of this study about the audio consumption habits of commuters. We learned, for example, that AM/FM radio is still the “king” of the car—and not by a little. We also learned that the penetration of digital audio consumption in vehicles far outstrips the number of “connected dashboards” extant. There is a demand for in-car digital audio, and people are finding any number of ways—from Bluetooth connections to cassette adaptors—to meet that demand.
Here are the facts, as we know them. Most people listen to AM/FM radio in the car. That’s indisputable from any number of our studies, from Infinite Dial to Share of Ear to The Commuter Code. That’s a fact that isn’t going to change quickly, because we don’t buy new cars every year. Terrestrial radio has a distinct hardware advantage here. And lots of people really like AM/FM radio in the car.
Here’s another indisputable fact: Our study showed that people who commute alone in a car for 20 minutes or more switch around far more when listening to AM/FM radio (22x per commute) than people who listen to digital audio (including satellite)/streaming/podcasting etc (9x per commute.)
Now, there are many reasons WHY AM/FM listeners switch more. For one—it’s easier. Our cars have 4-5 buttons on the dash that make it incredibly easy to switch from station to station in seconds. And if you are listening to Internet radio in your car, you might well imagine that it is more difficult to switch stations while you are driving, given that your digital options involve manipulating your phone in traffic.
Still, it doesn’t change the facts of the case. AM/FM listeners switch a lot more than streaming/digital listeners. They often switch during commercials. No matter the reason, it is what it is.
But regardless of that fact, there have been some voices who have challenged our findings. You can read some of their dissent here. It’s worth thinking through what they are challenging—our central finding that AM/FM listeners switch more than digital listeners, and that commercials are often the reason they switch. The figure of 22 switches per commute for AM/FM listeners has also been challenged by some—but consider your own behavior for a moment. Often several stations are in stopsets (playing commercials) at the same time. If you take a quick scan through your presents during that time, that’s 4-5 switches right there in a matter of seconds. And the study was conducted amongst commuters who drove alone and had commutes of at least 20 minutes each way.
So is an average of 22 so hard to believe? And is it really so controversial to show that many people switch when a commercial comes on? The data also shows that many people don’t switch. Commercials are still being heard.
I’ve been trying to understand the passion behind these dissents. Challenging the status quo is always difficult. But that status quo is only a few years old, as it turns out. To better understand this puzzle, it’s worth a brief digression into the recent history of the modern radio measurement system.
For the past several years, major market radio stations have been measured with a passive measurement system called PPM (personal people meter.) This device “listens” to audio that has been encoded at the station level and records what stations people listened to, and when. Now, the PPM is recording every second, but Nielsen (the entity that controls the PPM ratings service) reports its findings in fifteen-minute blocks called “quarter-hours,” the universal standard for broadcast audio measurement.
One thing I learned early on in business school: you get what you measure. In the case of the PPM methodology, if a station is listened to for five minutes in a given quarter-hour, the station is given credit for the entire quarter hour. (And yes, it does happen that two stations get credit for the same quarter-hour. In fact, it is possible--but not likely--that three could. I didn't say it made sense.)
Applying my business school aphorism to this, it’s clear that PPM rewards stations that can engineer a great five-minute block of programming, and radio stations continually optimize to win the game that they have been handed. So, over time, spot loads have increased steadily, but because stations are still “winning” those five great minutes, the other ten get obscured. It’s not radio’s fault—again, they are optimizing for the rules of the game they have been given.
Imagine for a moment that radio ratings were reported and stations were assigned credit on a second-by second basis. Imagine that stations had to report to advertisers, with that data, exactly how many people heard each second of their spot. How do you think station behavior would change? Constraints are a wonderful thing, as first elucidated by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt back in the 1980’s in his book, The Goal. Focusing on a constraint is the fastest path to continuous improvement. And I suspect the radio station of tomorrow, operating under the constraints of real-time listening measures, will figure out pretty quickly just how many spots they can play in a row, what spots perform better than others, how to promote and sell that spot load, and ultimately just how taut they can pull the thread of a listener’s attention before that thread snaps.
How great would that sound?
Let’s return to the present, however. In the present, we have put out a study that shows people who commute punch around the dial and often do so to avoid commercials. This shouldn’t be so controversial, but apparently it is. Some of this punching around is due to individual tendencies, to be sure, but radio should ask itself how the industry might also be contributing to these behaviors, and what we can learn from them.
In a sense, the radio industry is like a patient who has just received some troubling test results. The patient has a number of choices: they can ignore the results. They can take the results seriously and make some lifestyle changes. Or they can find another doctor who will just tell them what they want to hear.
For 22 years, I’m proud to say, Edison (my company) has not been the kind of doctor that tells its patients what they want to hear. We tell them what they need to hear, and what they can do about it.
Radio: we’ve got your test results back. You have a spot load problem. In your heart of hearts, you already know this to be true.