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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

What are listeners listening to - and how?

If you read some media press, it’s easy to form the view that live radio only has one listener left.

Thank goodness for the fine work from Rajar which pumps out seasonal reports indicating the real state of play in our changing audio medium. The fieldworkers pester over 2000 cheery Rajar respondents and invite them to share a little more insight into their listening habits for the Midas study - not only about radio but almost anything else they stick in their ears apart from a cotton bud.

The ‘audio share’ stat is a brilliant measure - and it suggests that, of all the hours of listening to anything we could choose to listen to, live radio enjoys the biggest slice of that fruity cake – commanding almost three-quarters (72%) of all the audio chosen. It rules daytime listening.

This dominance is not being relinquished any time soon - and there will always be a case for some live radio - but the proportion of ear-time is edging down slowly. Mind you, radio only used to be always live because it had to be. ‘Listen again’ was confined to playing back the Top 20 on AGFA C60 cassettes; the podcast concept was unthinkable; and talking books arrived from the postman in a Jiffy bag. Audio is simply now available in more convenient ways. Now, those near cousins of radio are super-serving their audiences by being available whenever - and whenever – listeners choose. They’re still using Tesco –they’re just having it delivered at home at 7.00 p.m.

This is not a failure of radio. The real job of great audio producers is to serve listeners, it should matter little how or when they choose to listen.

What the Midas study headlines do not elaborate on, although I imagine Rajar has the data, is the changing absolute size of this total ‘audio cake’. People now merrily wander round with white AirPods sticking out their ears - generating juicy listening hours. A generation ago, we didn't all carry round our hi-fi in a haversack. Rajar’s routine quarterly surveys suggest that since 2009, despite all the developments in audio – but helped by population growth – the volume of live radio listening hours has held just about steady.

Podcasting reaches 17% of all adults, up from 12% in Winter 2018. It’s by no means universal as some folk might have you believe, given that over 80% of folk don’t bother with it yet, but there is no doubt that it is growing quickly and it forms an exciting part of our changing audio world. A platform for more people to do more things which a limited number of frequencies could not accommodate.

66% of podcast listeners claim they listen to the bitter end of episodes; and 65% listen to mostly all of the episodes they download. Let’s remember this study is about recalled behaviour (a wholly legitimate research method) not measurement. As with listen-again, they mostly use their phones - so watch the size of your visual artwork.

Owned music is in decline. Despite the vinyl - and even cassette – revival, about which fond articles are penned, most folk are concluding there’s really not much point. They prefer to stream their own music. Almost a third (30%) of people now choose to do that; up from 25% in 2018, with the figure lying at 22% the year before that. The amount of hours of streamed music has almost doubled since 2016 – it’s mostly on a mobile phone - and 21m folk are happy to pay for it. Even having your own digital tracks seems passé, with the proportion of adults using them dropping from 21% to 15% in a year.

Live radio’s reach figures remain in the familiar early 90% territory for the age groups over 35; whereas its reach amongst those aged 15-24 falls from 84% to 78% in a year. More 15-24s are podcasting, up to 23% this time, from 16% (Winter 2018), 12% (Winter 2017) and 9% (Winter 2016). In the US too, Edison suggests much of the increase in podcasting has come from those aged 12-24 (The Podcast Consumer 2019, Edison).

The generation which has grown up with hundreds of targeted radio stations and streamed music of whatever flavour they wish appear a little puzzled about the concept of eavesdropping on radio stations in the hope they might bump into a talk item they might fancy. They are selecting specific stuff of interest off the shelf - and going back for more. For those of us who quite used to enjoy making spoken word radio, that’s good news.

Those 15-24s are certainly turning increasingly to streaming for their music – it now accounts for 27% of what they hear – and almost a third (31%) of all adult users (including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Prime Music) lie in that demographic.

Of all the demographic trends, these 15-24 changes in music provision - and podcasting - are the most significant.

The majority (71%) of listen-again is done at home. It's mainly speech-based material - and favoured by the older demographics, who are using more radio anyway. Given 42% of those listen-again hours accompany relaxation, there is a suggestion that this is genuinely attentive radio. Listen-again users also claim to listen to more live radio since they started using the catch-up facilities. As with podcasting and streamed music, listen-againers are more male than female, unlike the marginally female live radio audience.

Audio books are worth doing these days - reaching 8% of adults, although over 55s prefer to stick with their trusty paperbacks.

30 years on from the original DAB tests sparking out from Crystal Palace, the DAB set now rules as a radio receiver. Eureka! 66% of people use one in the course of a week, accounting for 44% of all listening.

Almost a fifth of radio listening is not now on a radio set (18%). Smart (voice activated) speakers are used regularly by 9% of adults – more than doubling from 4% a year ago - and under 2% (1.7%) the year before. This is getting serious. Maybe surprisingly, 15-24s still reach for their radio sets for much the same proportion of listening (80%), albeit their mobile phone rules for the huge majority of the remainder. Using the TV for radio listening has been dropping amongst all adults but this has stabilised.

As ‘radio’ programming approaches its second century, this burst of energy and enthusiasm prompted by content convenience is utterly good news. Never before have quite so many people been able to listen to quite so much, quite as often. For the people who manage to generate, fund, market and sustain the very best content, that’s excellent news. Whatever the future holds, people will still have two ears and want to listen to something.

Credit to all at Rajar/Ipsos for the fine work.

Radio Secrets is a comprehensive guide to contemporary presentation and production techniques in all formats, from writing to delivery, across radio and podcasting.

Read this book and gain insights into:

Tight contemporary music presentation-

Generating engaging talk content-

Developing authenticity and likeability- Handling double-acts, callers and contests- Understanding the audience and keeping them listening

Whether you are a newcomer or a seasoned performer, Radio Secrets is essential reading.

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