Smartphones: Time for Radio to Panic?

At next week’s Radio Show in Washington, a reality-style video study will shine a light on how consumers use mobile platforms.
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Does radio have a future in the mobile world of smartphones? Not if broadcasters continue to think in 1970s-style paradigms such as “favorite radio station,” “new hit music” and “most popular radio personalities.”

That appears to be the lesson of reality TV-style videos produced by Jacobs Media in association with Arbitron. They were shot when Jacobs Media interviewers and camera people tracked 18 members of the 18–49 age group as they used their smartphones at work and at play. The videos will be screened during the Radio Show “Goin’ Mobile” Super Session on Sept. 30.

“Arbitron was interested in providing our customers with the insights they need to stay ahead of the curve,” says Ed Cohen, its vice president of research policy and communication. “Studies like this will help shine a light on consumer use of mobile platforms. The findings will assist broadcasters who are investing time and money into mobile to plan for the future.”

The findings startled the researchers.

“We expected to simply capture when people were texting and what sites they were surfing to,” says Paul Jacobs, general manager of Jacobs Media. “But what we witnessed was something far more profound: We documented people whose lives are intimately integrated with their mobile devices, who interact with them constantly in numerous ways, and who always keep them close at hand.

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Teams of interviewers and observers followed people at work and play to learn more about how consumers are using mobile devices.
“What we recorded was a shift in people’s relation to and integration with personal technology — and the implications go far beyond what audio stream they’re listening to.”

Timely

For radio people struggling to understand their medium’s place in this Brave New World, the Arbitron/Jacobs Media study offers insights.

“It’s not enough to simply throw your on-air content onto an iPhone app, and hope that people tune in,” says Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media. “If you want people to access your brand, you have to give them a reason to do so. This may be something like creating a station-branded ski report that you offer as a separate free app, to get your name in front of this audience.” His company develops such customized apps.

Further, says Paul Jacobs, “Radio people have to stop thinking about their medium in terms of towers and transmitters. Smartphone users don’t think in these terms, nor do they select their media based on any technology-first definition. They choose content based on what interests them. Who produces it and how it gets to them really doesn’t matter, as long as they get what they want.”

Based on the Arbitron/Jacobs Media research, people are still tuning to local radio when they get in the car. But as Internet radio makes its way into this preserve through iPhones and Blackberrys, this edge could be lost.

“When local TV stations first moved to cable, kids in those markets were able to tell you who was local and who was not,” Paul Jacobs says. “But today, as brands such as TBS and CNN have become familiar, most don’t know who their local broadcasters are. When this happens, those stations get lost in the 200-channel universe. All that makes them stand out is their content, not where they broadcast from.”

Collectively, the anecdotal videos confront radio broadcasters with two options: Get serious about working in mobile, or prepare to abandon younger audiences to other competitors — not just Pandora and iTunes, but the myriad other mobile apps providers clamoring for attention.

Lifelines

In the world of smartphones, there are no broadcasters, aggregators or third-party vendors, only content providers.

“This is why just providing a 24/7 simulcast of your on-air stream just isn’t good enough,” says Paul Jacobs. “With so many personalized providers coming into this space, broadcasters have to step up and match this level of selection, and more.”

According to Cohen and the Jacobs, the users view their mobile devices as “lifelines.” Smartphones are their personal electronic link to the world of friends, entertainment and work. As a result, broadcasters who want some of these people’s time need to offer apps that suit this audience’s wants and desires. The apps should be easy to use, free and offer services that consumers might actually use, like individually configured news and entertainment reports, sports scores and promotions that matter to them.

Broadcasters can be forgiven by feeling intimidated. In response, “Arbitron is looking at several technological advancements to address growing research needs,” says Ed Cohen. “In our latest PPM 360 technology, we have migrated Arbitron’s latest electronic measurement software to a mobile platform. We can now facilitate wireless data transmission and are creating a potential path to enabling Arbitron to collect audience data using multiple mobile devices including smartphones and net books.”

Meantime, “Your best bet is to see these videos at the 2010 Radio Show and draw your own conclusions,” Fred Jacobs says. “There’s no substitute for seeing real people interacting with their smartphones and witnessing for yourself just how important this technology has become to their lives.”

“Goin’ Mobile” is Thursday Sept. 30 at 9 a.m.

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