Tom Webster, writing and speaking

A Failure To Communicate

Added on by Tom Webster.

We recently posted an interesting factoid on the Edison blog about the decline in teen phone usage - for actually talking. As the graph below illustrates, the amount of time teens reported talking on the telephone has declined 40 minutes per day since 2000 - a drop of 38%.


Why this is so should be obvious. Today, over 80% of 12-24s have their own mobile phone. According to the same study referenced above (the Edison Research American Youth Study 2010), texting is by far the dominant mobile activity among young Americans, with Internet browsing, games and social network usage also widespread:


The fact that mobile social network usage is so high, by the way, should also come as no surprise, given the fact that the vast majority of younger Americans are using social media to connect with their friends - in this study, three-quarters of all 12-24 year olds use Facebook alone.

Some of this shift is attributable to the economics of mobile usage - as younger Americans cut the cord, they find their talk minutes rationed, but today's smart- and feature-phones allow 12-24s to send potentially hundreds of texts and dozens of social networking updates every day at minimal cost. Increasingly, however, the sense of real-time connection is what is truly driving this behavior - witness the physical manifestations of anxiety that withdrawal from constant, ubiquitous contact with peers can cause (ever left your phone behind and felt the panic?)

All of which leads me to this finding. We presented part of this study at the NAB Radio Show in DC a while ago, so this particular question has a bit of a radio slant - but the broader point holds true for other mass media channels, as well. Take a look at this graph, which shows the percentage of 12-24s who have communicated with a radio station using various means of contact:


Here, when we asked 12-24 year-olds if they had ever communicated with an AM/FM radio station (or one of its DJs) using various communication platforms, we saw that the number one answer by far was the telephone at 22%, with texting, Facebook and Email well behind at 7-8%. If you saw this graph in isolation, you might conclude that AM/FM radio should continue to focus on phone interaction - call-ins, request lines, etc. If you look at this in the larger context of how young people want to communicate in 2010, however, there is only one way to read this data: broadcast media isn't communicating with its younger listeners they way they'd rather be reached.

Given the ubiquity of text messaging in this demographic, the fact that texting isn't number one by a significant margin is nothing short of a communications failure by broadcast media in this country. If you are in radio, or indeed any mass media industry, and you are attempting to cater to younger demographics, it isn't enough to simply talk about SMS, or add Facebook as another channel. Radio stations - and their personalities - have to live in these channels, authentically, to reach mainstream 12-24s in America.

Of course, radio stations will continue to run phone promotions, and listeners will continue to call in - but the 12-24s who are calling in are becoming increasingly less representative of the middle of the bell curve. The next time a DJ plays a song and reports that "the phones are going crazy," they might be closer to the truth than they realize. In any case, there may come a day when "the ninth caller" is essentially a census, not a sample.

A version of this piece originally appeared at