James Cridland: Radio should be where the speakers are

NPR One app on Amazon Echo smart speaker. Photo: NPR

James Cridland: Recently, my columns have been quite full of numbers and figures and statistics, so instead, this week, I’d like to do some thinking aloud instead. I have a theory. It has almost no science behind it – yet; and probably very little proof – but nonetheless, I think it’s true.

I think that, for live radio, we should be focusing on getting our output on speakers, not headphones. Our distribution strategy for live radio should be carefully honed to make sure that we get on as many speakers as possible.

So, why would I say this?

Well, look, it’s only a theory. But it goes a bit like this.

Radio is built to be a multi-tasking medium. You typically listen while you’re doing something else, like driving, cooking or working in a store. Headphones are impractical in these situations, for a variety of reasons – the wires get in the way, the earbuds block out noise and stop conversations. Speakers work quite nicely in this environment.

While many computer programmers wear headphones to help them concentrate, a more typical office worker has more interruptions: the telephone, colleagues asking questions, popping over to the coffee machine, etc. Headphones don’t work well here, since you need to pull them off in order to interact with others. Speakers, though, are typically not loud enough to interfere.

Radio’s highly processed audio is designed to work well on speakers, and produces a constant, clear and intelligible sound. On headphones, however, it’s quite a tiring experience. A long set of commercials, particularly, is a difficult listen on headphones (try it), while on a radio in the corner of the room you tend to deal with it rather better for some reason.

Most importantly, using headphones mean we are tethered to our audio device – by wire or by Bluetooth. That therefore inevitably means that we are within arm’s reach of the device. In those circumstances where headphone-wearing works well, like sitting on public transport or waiting in a queue, our devices are specifically close enough to fiddle with, and our eyes and fingers also need something to do. This lends itself to interactive experiences on a screen (like YouTube, or a game, or Facebook); and doesn’t work too well with a live but otherwise unchangeable stream.

So: what does this mean in a practical sense?

First – smart speakers, like Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Sonos? These devices are the new radio: they’re here to build your TSL. Ensure you’re available on them (in most cases, you should be thinking about a country-wide technology like Radioplayer, which has all this stuff built-in and the radio industry ends up owning the platform).

That also means trying to get your station onto the telly – which is just a speaker in a box in your living room. Any country with digital TV potentially can shave a little tiny bit of bandwidth off a TV channel and sell it to you, so you can get your audio on there too (and a place in the channel listings). 14% of Brits listen to radio on the TV every week – it’s a proven platform.

This might also mean that you should focus on a really good tablet app. Yes, tablets are nowhere near as popular as mobile phones; but they have decent speakers, and are often used without headphones. Put the live stream front-and-centre here, perhaps, rather than lots of opportunities for on-demand content.

Column continues under the image.

Norwegian radio station P4 and their AppleTV app.

And your mobile phone app? Absolutely it should still have your live stream on it. But perhaps you might want to focus more on on-demand content: clips and shows, video bits and stuff to read, things for the eyes and fingers rather than just concentrating on a live stream.

But all the above is based on a bit of a hunch. I can’t find much research about speakers vs headphones, but here’s a little I’ve dug up.

A bit of old work by Edison Research – Infinite Dial 2014 – said that 13% of urban-format listeners do a majority of their AM/FM radio listening (including streaming) through earbuds/headphones – so, with these listeners (who are younger and more tech savvy than most), 87% listened most on speakers.

And a bit of bang-up-to-date work from the UK’s RAJAR seems to show – slide 10 – that on-demand audio is much more popular on smartphones (“headphones”?), while on tablets and laptops (“speakers”?) live radio is the most popular stuff we listen to.

So – should radio be chasing speakers, not headphones? I’d be fascinated to get more data to back up, or disprove, this theory. If you know of any, or just fundamentally disagree, I’m at the end of james@crid.land.

Editor: You may also use the comments section below of course.

James Cridland is a radio futurologist – a writer, speaker and consultant working with the brightest radio brains in the world. He has worked for the BBC and Virgin Radio in London. Join over 2,500 other radio professionals and subscribe to his free weekly newsletter (in English) at https://james.cridland.net

10 Comments on "James Cridland: Radio should be where the speakers are"

  1. Endre Lundgren | August 16, 2017 at 06:10 | Reply

    I have wondered about listening and measurement. In PPM markets particularly headphone listening is not registered, something that must hurt certain formats very hard. Not to mention listening at certain times of day, i.e. the fiddling and headphone listening on the bus, tube or train.

  2. Radio is about evolution. At the beginning costs reduced the amount of sets and size restricted movement.
    Jump forward to the 1960’s and radio became free from mains tethering – just technology moving forward.
    My point being, radio of the future will evolve further. The winners will be those that look to where the audiences are and provide them with something interesting – the later is not that which many old fashioned stations do.
    Looking to the future means physically looking at platforms – to make claims about the future, or in fact assist your station(s), you need to be out there looking. IT’s not something old fashioned reports will supply – how can they, the people move faster than research.
    There is one thing for sure, old style shoutcast streams are a thing of the past. It’s not where the next generations of audiences are.
    As to chasing audible devices – that not the question of value. The question is, ‘dear listener how would you like to receive us?’ Radio people should never forget working in radio doesn’t mean you a clue where the next generations of audiences will be unless you go and ask them yourself.

  3. Jonathan Marks | August 21, 2017 at 09:04 | Reply

    I agree with the speakers strategy. But it also affects the content. You should build a strategy for the Ip connected speakers which will depend on the format. If you are BBC News, for instance, then offer a latest news summary service and a stream option for Radio 5 live or Radio 4. I can get that on the echo. But I am surprised that the BBC News summary on Tune-in does not have a time stamp. A few weeks ago things got stuck and I was hearing Marion Marshall read a 3 day old bulletin.

    • The Australian ABC do put a timestamp on it, and that means I regularly hear an “old” (over two hours) bulletin when I try it on Google. Perhaps that’s why… ;)

  4. You’re onto something, James. Here’s what we know: more and more audio is being consumed on headphones/earbuds today than it was 20 years ago. And if radio wants to be part of that slice of the expanding pie, it needs to understand and adapt its offerings to that more immersive experience. For example, podcasts produced to be podcasts tend to work well for the headphone/earbud experience. Six-minute (or longer) stop sets don’t.

    Following your thinking, radio in its current form should prosper as Alexa and her ilk expand the pie yet again by giving us easy-on access to audio over speakers. But of course, easy-on access to speakers is also a boon to on demand audio.

    Stay tuned. We’re in for an exciting, if bumpy, ride.

  5. I wonder was there ever a focus on the headphone?

    Where there is focus on breakfast time it is a focus on the commute the kitchen and the car. While my early tests with radio was with a crystal set that drove a earpiece with AM audio, my next venture into earphones was the walkman or imitation knock offs of same. While FM stereo was pushed harder in the mid 80s the focus of programming was still on communal listening. 90s and 2000s the shift was to individual listening but non broadcast radio options were on the rise for the listeners Cassette DiscMan MiniDisc RealAudio MP3 Podcasts.

    Daytime radio music is beamed into shops and waiting rooms and offices and talk radio is beamed to the home and car. I think there would need to be a great importance to the programming coupled with an external environment need for privacy to choose headphones over speaker. As you say the processed audio can be a drag on the ears to a point of being uncomfortable reducing listening hours for comfort reasons.

    I don’t know if “speakers” can be a theory if “headphones” weren’t the dominant listening choice of the past. It has always been speakers.

    I now cast internet radio from phone or laptop to chromecast to my TV where it is heard on surround sound speakers (in stereo). Headphones are for after dark so I don’t wake the rest of those sleeping.

    • >I don’t know if “speakers” can be a theory if “headphones” weren’t the dominant listening choice of the past. It has always been speakers.

      I think I’m saying that speakers should be the theory, and that perhaps over the past five or ten years we’ve been so keen to focus on mobile phone apps (‘headphones’) that we’ve forgotten that our audio works better on speakers…

  6. I listen to less and less radio these days as I am increasingly switching to podcasts. I also have a large data allowance on my phone and all my music stored on Google Play, so I don’t even need to store it on any kind of mobile device, and I have instant access to music of my choice, not that of a stranger. BUT, my main use for a radio is Test Match Special, live radio that goes on for a very long time. I sometimes listen to it online, but when I do that I am conscious of the delay, and much prefer to get it closer to live. Maybe cricket will be the saviour of radio in the long term?

  7. If this was 1952 we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    Radio in it’s purest form was everywhere that people could hear it emanating from a physical radio plugged into a power outlet. In those days there were less commercials and more entertainment. Commercials have killed the radio star and the listening experience. We need to go back in order to move forward. The most listened to radio station in my area is CBC. It’s non commercial public radio supported by the government of Canada. The issues facing radio today can be summed up in one sentence. The over commercialization of a radio station has killed off the very people it should be catering to, the listener.

    We need to give radio back to it’s original owners, the listener, and take it away from the sales guy or gal, the general manager, and ultimately the corporate media conglomerate that could care less about the ratings. They are more concerned with the profit margins and keeping their jobs.

    None of the programs on my station have commercials. They are hosted by veteran radio broadcasters who know how to put together a quality program that entertains the audience. It’s the content of that show that holds the listener’s attention. It’s not about the device they listen to- it’s about the program they are listening to.

    When I told people that I was going to bring back “original” radio with new technology, the millennials didn’t get it -but the Boomers did. They remember the way radio used to sound and they want to feel that magic again. When radio was king, there was only one way to hear it , and it did in fact come from the speakers you are talking about. But that speaker was in the middle of a REAL radio. It’s symbolic and ironic that REAL radio has been replaced by a “cloud” and a bunch of tech gadgets that have zero interest in a magical experience.

    Radio has lost it’s way. For those of us that grew up with radio at an early age and before television, the “theatre of the mind” was the stage on which radio personalities played. That stage has now been replaced with a robotic sound that resembles Musac. Only problem is that it’s not music you’re hearing in elevators and stores, it’s six minutes of mind numbing commercials that are now interfering with the enjoyment and pleasure of hearing that familiar voice that really matters, the radio host. He only gets 7 minutes of every quarter hour to hold your attention.

    AM/FM Commercial Radio today is not dead, but it is on life support in many ways. I did the first internet broadcast in Canada in 1997. Now 20 years later internet radio has been legitimized , and we’ve gone beyond amateur hour with Blog Talk Radio and we’re streaming live shows. The big radio boys would laugh at us and advertisers would treat us like the poor cousins of terrestrial radio. Boy have things changed. When internet radio went digital with it’s stereo sound, we were no longer the Rodney Dangerfields of Radio. And now we have podcasts the best of two worlds.

    And now for the final nostalgic message to all those that share my love and passion for the craft and the medium to which we still believe in and hold on to it as our true purpose. If you grew up as I did in those magical times of radio in the 40’s and 50’s you will appreciate the final irony of this radio jigsaw puzzle that so many are trying to figure out. They call it a podcast, and we called it a tape recorder. They call it a smart phone and we called it a transistor radio.

    I started in radio when I was ten years old, broadcasting to my Mother in the kitchen. Today, I’m 75 and still in love with the craft. The craft is still thriving with the voices that were the soundtrack of our lives, it’s the business of radio that has lost it’s way.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.