“JNLR” are four letters that pain the ears of the Irish radio business. The Joint National Listenership Research figures, a massive rolling survey of our listening tastes, are the industry’s “quarterly Leaving Cert”, as Beat 102-103 chief executive Gabrielle Cummins puts it. Not everybody passes.
After the last set of figures were released in July, survey compilers Ipsos MRBIpublished a colourful infographic captioned “Irish people spend more time with radio than any other medium”. It would have comforted even those radio executives who had spent the day staring at spreadsheets littered with minuses.
“When that infographic came out, we were jumping up and down, pleased with ourselves,” Cummins admitted to the Radio – But Not as You Know It conference in Dublin’s Mansion House.
There was, however, a note of caution in her voice. Few radio bosses at the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland event are complacent about the future of their industry. For some, agitated would be closer to the mark.
Happily, Ipsos MRBI account director Karen Hall was on hand with more reassurance. Irish adults listen to radio for an average of 229 minutes per day, with this stretching to more than 250 minutes for the 35-plus age group and clocking in at a more modest but still lengthy 180 minutes for 15-34-year-olds. Crucially, these patterns of consumption have been more or less steady in recent years. If listeners are deserting radio for streaming services, a long tail of podcast options or other media altogether, the damage is not showing up in the broad data. Not yet.
But because Irish radio needs to know both its enemies and itself as much as it possibly can, it has begun commissioning research into the Irish audio landscape. Who listens to what, and why? Should it panic now, later or at all?
According to an Ipsos MRBI Omnipoll survey, conducted in June, some 1.2 million people in Ireland, or 33 per cent of the adult population, use a streaming service. The pollsters categorised 277 of its 1,101 nationally weighted sample as “regular streamers”.
Regular streamers are not necessarily radio refuseniks. They are not all 17-year-olds with zero interest in anything as old-school as FM radio. Indeed, Ipsos MRBI’s study suggests that people who use music streaming services or play music they own (physical copies or downloads) are often the same people who also claim they “trust” radio to bring them new music. Live FM radio still scored higher than “other audio” in the survey for helping people stay informed, giving them something to talk about, influencing opinions, broadening musical horizons, lifting moods and providing an escape or distraction.
It is the human being in the studio who distinguishes radio from the automated competition, as Nessa McGann, programme director for Spin SouthWest argued. “Who wants to cuddle an algorithm?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question. “Spotify is never going to kiss you goodnight. Spotify is never going to commiserate with you on your break-up.”
Never say never. If Apple can launch Beats 1, the rest can surely follow suit.
“Other audio”, meanwhile, came out on top in the Ipsos MRBI survey for helping people relax and for adding atmosphere.
This oddly makes a company such as Spotify, valued at $8 billion-plus, sound less like an industry-killer and more like a scented candle. And certainly, for many music radio stations aimed at younger listeners, it can’t help but give off an unpleasant smell. The appeal that all streaming services offer, however, is a serious one summed up by one word: control.
While radio has long competed with recorded music, as Hall pointed out, the difference now is price. Once a vast library of music, collected with love and discretion, came at a cost. Now it is available for a nominal monthly sum, or free in exchange for just the occasional ad. A music lover will find it easy to bypass the sympathies of a DJ and cuddle an algorithm.
Control, or the illusion of control, is available to a generation of listeners like never before. Forget “move the dial”. What’s a dial in a world of shuffle? It is now more logical than ever for listeners to avoid an endless churn of news updates and birthday shout-out blather.
So all the positive surveys in the world won’t stop the radio industry lamenting the challenge of recruiting new listeners and fretting over each lost one come JNLR time. For all the popularity that the medium retains, music radio will have to work especially hard. It can continue its current marketing strategy of uniting Ed Sheeran with every single one of his adoring young fans. But what then?
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