26% of Americans Get Their News By Phone

This is what happens when you sit back on your transmitters and towers while consumers embrace their telephones.

A new Pew Research Center study indicates that over one-fourth of all Americans now read their news on their cell phones.

This is major.

Technology is enabling consumers to get their news when they want or when they need to have it while radio stations seem to be conceding the battle for the digital frontier.

If you factor in the 40 million Pandora users, whatever listening radio stations can manage (typically one to three percent of their audiences online), increasingly available WiFi Internet streams and personal iPod-type devices, it begs the question – is radio ready for the digital future?

It’s hard to argue yes when consolidators have been sitting out the Internet revolution for the past ten years while they played nice with their bankers.

In that time, the world has changed.

For example:
  • Television is no longer a lock for viewers. They can access parts of Jon Stewart, episodes of “Lost” online while they ignore the pre-roll commercials and their laptops have been converted into multimedia devices. Anyone with a teenager or college student knows parents no longer have to buy TVs for their rooms, just a laptop with which to watch video. And with the iPad coming out April 3 (remember, I’m saying mail it in – it’s a smash hit), the traditional television mindset will have to change. It won’t. But it has to.
  • Newspapers have failed to stuff their print pages onto a website and make money with it. In fact, they are losing online readers the way they are losing print readers. Duh! Time to reinvent the newspaper as a multimedia product redesigned from the ground up. Text. Audio. Video. All together. I get breaking news sent to my iPhone by AP. It makes a sound. I pull the phone out of my pocket. I read. See. Hear.
  • The record industry is mired in its old ways starting with the misconception that it creates the hits, then gets exposure (usually on radio – for free) and then sells something – a CD, a digital download, a piece of merch. What a loser in the digital world. The record industry should be using its music to help grow other businesses. That is, reasonable royalty rates for streamers. Reduced rates for radio airplay on new music. That’s right. Reward more music discovery.
  • Radio is letting its irreplaceable audience advantage slip away – local personalities and local news and community involvement. The move to cutback expenses and turn local radio into a national commodity with local transmitters and signals is a non-starter. There can be no comeback when you can’t get your listeners to consider you so valuable that they want to invite you into their cell phone or mobile device.
The Pew study does not have a comparable earlier research finding.

But looking into the just-released results it appears that younger cell phone owners are the most likely to turn to their Blackberry, iPod or smart phone for news. That is, 43% of respondents under 50 years old – a prime advertising demographic group – said they were mobile news users.

Only 15% of older respondents said they turned to their cell phones for news.

Interestingly, weather is the number one thing phone users get from their mobile devices – a big component of radio programming. I believe this number is probably higher. Why wait for a radio forecast when you can dial it in on your iPhone?

Of the 37% of cell phone users who said they use the mobile Internet, a whopping 72% check the weather.

Current events was next at 68% -- again, a radio staple of morning shows – you know, the kind with morning personalities and the residue of show prep. And the kind being fired in cost cutbacks all across the nation.

There may still be some hope as almost 60% of the respondents say they get their news both online and offline with 46% saying they use four to six different types of media a day.

Radio also has to deal with the loss of “you heard it first” advantage as over 80% of the Pew study report getting news via email.

While radio CEOs are squandering their chance to make content available in this major technological and sociological audience shift, new sources are coming along to feed the consumers desire for news.

CBS is beginning to merge its television, interactive and radio platforms together because CBS owns strong traditional news radio brands. This makes sense economically but more importantly, the CBS move is cooperating with the inevitable.

The next time Pew surveys consumers and their news preferences it is likely cell phone usage will increase again for news and information. Therefore, as I have been saying for years now, the ah ha moment should be now even for CEOs who believe the economy will solve all their problems.

The fact is – a major reinvention of radio’s purpose, formatics, marketing approach and pricing is mandated or else even a strong economic recovery in advertising will not save radio’s lucrative brands.

For an industry that doesn’t have one company that budgets even 3% of their operating expenditures to Internet and mobile Internet, if I am in this for the long haul based on the evidence we are now seeing, I’d be afraid.

Very afraid.

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