Community Broadcaster: Movin’ and Groovin’ With the Times

Research reveals our need to be flexible
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The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at www.radioworld.com.

Think radio is fading? Data just issued hints that community radio has several avenues before us for growth.

A new Edison Research Infinite Dial study came out late last week, offering some compelling information on changing listener habits. Since 1998, the Infinite Dial has been a bellwether of trends and media’s new normal. Podcasting and smart speaker adoption are among the big takeaways this year. Scattered in this survey, there are several notable statistics for community media.

What are some of the encouraging things you can take from the new release of this 20-year research?

First and foremost, streaming remains popular. While the death knell is still being sounded for the venerable medium, online radio streaming retains a consistent crowd. Sixty-four percent of Americans use a variety of applications such as Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora to hear their audio favorites. Amazon’s Alexa devices are also driving a lot of traffic. Although those numbers are most certainly tilted toward the music streaming side, radio is essential to this strong showing. Second, your community radio station’s chance to jump into podcasting is right now. Forty-four percent of Americans today say they have listened to a podcast — that’s up 4% from last year — and 64% of Americans know what a podcast is, also up by four points. Maybe those are not game-changing numbers, but consider that the number of Americans who use Facebook stands at 63%, and that’s dropping. The steady growth of podcast listenership across all demographics tells you podcasting has not reached its ceiling yet. If anything, it seems the world is primed for the next “Serial” or “S-Town” to become all the rage.

And finally, smart audio is a refreshing way to connect your station with audiences. Voice-activated audio caught fire over the holiday season and remains red-hot, according to Edison Research. Consumer awareness is phenomenal, with 71% of Americans who say they are familiar with Amazon Alexa. The astonishing part? Only 57% knew what Alexa was a year ago — a 14 percentage point jump from 12 months prior.

[Read: Smart Audio Trends to Watch in 2018]

The smart audio spike squares up with the new Voicebot study, which suggests 20% of Americans now have a voice-activated device. Researchers audaciously forecast smart speaker adoption may hit 50% of Americans before year’s end. As for radio stations and other media, Greg Hedges of the RAIN Agency, one of the teams involved in Voicebot’s survey, remarked, “The question for those sitting on the sidelines can no longer can be, ‘When should I start thinking about this?’ but instead, ‘What’s the best way to get started now?’”

For community radio, the lessons to be gleaned from the Infinite Dial are many.

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One of the biggest stories is the decline of social media. For stations that have invested time and money into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like, audiences that are drifting away is going to be something you will want to watch out for. Inside Radio drills down into the findings. Snapchat and Instagram saw growth, but Facebook usage took a 5% dip. If your station has put most of its energy into Facebook, but less into platforms like Instagram, maybe this is your chance to pivot to a different flavor of social media than you typically use. There has been plenty of teeth gnashing over the Facebook publisher tweaks in late 2017 and early 2018; with the eroding user base and changes making it harder for you to reach your loyal fans, this spring may motivate your station is explore your options.

[Read: Community Broadcaster: Trust Issues]

Another big deal is finding your home on smart audio. Physical radio ownership, according to the Infinite Dial, is crashing. Consider the fact that only 4% of Americans 10 years ago said they did not own a radio. Today, that number of radio non-owners is almost 30%. This probably explains why so many commercial stations actively promote their availability on smart speakers; if your listeners do not have radio in their homes, but have an Amazon Echo, you’ll do your DJs, underwriters and future a favor by making sure the audience knows how to listen.

Lastly, if you have not seen my past beating of the drum for community radio podcasting at Radio World, the latest Infinite Dial research reminds you that the growth arc for podcasts is still vibrant. Maybe you can do what Lincoln, Neb.’s KZUM is doing, formulating local podcasting out of an area festival. However, your community radio station works its way into podcasting, there is no time like the present to get started.

Some may pore through the Infinite Dial’s findings and see cause for alarm. Indeed, there is a great deal here that should serve to warn community radio not to freeze in one place. Rather, community radio, from full- to low-power, must remain adaptive to the new media environment we reside in.

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