The 2-Minute Radio Listener

Arbitron VP of Programming Services Gary Marince, according to Inside Radio, told the Jacobs Media Summer School at the Conclave in Minneapolis that the average radio listening occasion lasts ten minutes.

And, the most frequently occurring duration is only two minutes.

Marince was quoted as warning “against over-promoting an upcoming feature or teasing the wrong features”.

Again we are getting lost in the rating device of the radio industry's own creation – The Portable People Meter.

Why do you think listeners spend so little time listening?

One reason is the technology that Arbitron employs to generate PPM numbers. They encode radio signals. Then build portable devices that respondents carry around on their bodies. These devices pick up any encoded signal it “hears” and thus reports it as true listening.

So, if you’re 75 years old and love oldies, but you walk past an encoded signal wearing a meter that picks up an r&b/hip-hop station, then you are Ludacris listener whether you really are or are not.

Putting that little slight of hand aside, the real message is that radio is simply catching up to consumers in general who have shorter attention spans and want what they want when they want it.

Remember when I shared how my USC students rarely listened to their iPod tunes all the way through – they listen to as much as they want or can and then move on. Teaching the next generation requires new skills as well. You can’t just stand there and talk no matter how interested they might be. Heck, everything is changing.

A world in which short attention spans dictate content.

The media business has a difficult time understanding the changes that are taking place. Radio CEOs just want new media to go away – and take that Internet with you – and everything will be fine. And take the recession with you at the same time. That’s the real problem!

No, I’m afraid it isn’t.

Traditional media was slipping before the recession and now when you are hit in the face with clusters of two-minute radio listeners, it should serve as a wake-up call.

What to do?

1. Not voice tracking. That’s a poor person’s iPod programmed by someone in corporate radio. Yet radio CEOs keep opting for cost cutting measures like voice tracking and it is hard to find a radio group these days that doesn’t use voice tracking at sometime in their broadcast week. Don’t do it, is my advice, or say hello to the one-minute listener "occasions" in a few years from now.

2. Put personalities back on the air. You can see some personalities getting hired back by radio groups that are concerned with the vanilla programming that obviously isn’t very compelling. Personalities who keep up a tempo that cooperates with increasing short attention spans are probably the best defense against wandering listeners.

3. Consultant Alan Burns, speaking at the Conclave, points to his research that says 25% of all women who listen to the demographic’s core adult contemporary or CHR stations feel that the stations do not understand them. Imagine that? Listeners now actually want to be understood! Of course they do and Burns says this type of disregard leads to audience erosion. Good rule of thumb: understand your consumer. Apple does. Even when they make mistakes.

4. More interruptions. Stay with me here. Study our society's inability to concentrate and by trying to get listeners to listen longer you are actually going to lose them. Therefore the features, formats and personalities that are aimed at your audience should be many, short and sweet. More interruptions is against our grain because we radio people still think forty-minutes of commercial-free music is most appealing. It may have been one day but now it all runs together. See the next item.

5. Frequent commercial breaks. Bill Drake had it right even before short attention spans became popular. Song, commercial, song, commercial & programming element, song, commercial and then a few songs in a row without interruption. Today, stopping and starting is desirable. But radio people have it in our DNA to do the opposite and stretch those music sweeps out.

6. More variety. The reasons my students told me they rarely listen to an iTunes song on their iPod all the way through is because they’ve heard it so many times and are tired of it. Hint. Clue. Music discovery helps keep their attention.

Ironically, an industry that made a virtue of winning as many quarter hours of listening as possible in the diary days of ratings may have to challenge itself to think about doing the things that cooperate with how today’s listeners now listen.

And, if you think there is safety in programming to older listeners, you may want to think again. Their attention spans have been compromised – ours have – which is why we, too, bury our heads in mobile devices, connect to social networking and can’t live without TiVo.

The revelation that radio has so many 2-minute listeners is not as worrisome as the fact that radio stations almost always program content to a vanishing listener who no longer drives to work with only the radio on (think, phone calls, email and texting).

It forgets that traffic and weather is not a monopoly of radio and that winning the attention of listeners going forward will take some new thinking that isn’t backwards.

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