FM Chip in Cell Phones means More Radio Listening? Don’t Count on It

Last week Edison Research released its always excellent “Infinite Dial” study of audio listening habits in the U.S. I’m a big fan of this study, so this post is intended more as observation than critique.

I was troubled by only one chart and the headline drawn from that chart, which was widely trumpeted by the trades almost verbatim:

“FM Tuner in Cell Phones Could Lead to Increased Listening among AM/FM Listeners.”

FM Chip in Cell Phones means More Radio Listening? Don’t Count on It

But is that really what consumers are saying? Or is that just what we think they’re saying?

The question: “If your cell phone had an FM radio tuner, would it lead you to listen to radio a LITTLE more than you listen now, a LOT more than you listen now, or would it have NO EFFECT?”

Now if there’s anything I know how to do, it’s how to write a question and interpret an answer. And here’s what I have learned: Sometimes what consumers mean is different from what they say. Especially when it comes to predictions of future behavior.

In this case, for example, the consumer might ask “…compared to what?”

The question is framed as if to offer consumers a “gift,” and it’s hard to turn down a gift. Unless, of course, we have other gifts to compare this one to or the opportunity to make real-world tradeoffs. And when abundant media choices collide with limited time, the world is full of tradeoffs.

So do consumers really mean they would listen MORE if an FM tuner were built into their mobile phones, or do they mean they would embrace more choices if their mobile devices made more choices possible, no matter the source of these choices?

I think it’s the latter. And I set out to prove it with a small study of my own.

There were a few methodological differences. Edison’s study was by phone and mine was randomly recruited online. Theirs was 12+ and mine was 18-54. Theirs included 2,000 interviews and mine was 500.

I created a couple of intentionally “dumb” research questions to show that what consumers mean is bigger than what they say in a world of alternatives.

Here’s the first one:

“If your cell phone had an online radio app built in that would enable you to listen to almost any radio station you want, would it lead you to listen to radio a LITTLE more than you do now, a LOT more than you do now, or would it have NO EFFECT?”

You can see what I’m doing here. I have taken the same form of question that was applied to a pre-installed FM tuner and applied it to a built-in online radio app.

So what was the result?

FM Chip in Cell Phones means More Radio Listening? Don’t Count on It

While 33% of respondents in the Edison study say they’d listen more to radio if their phones included an FM tuner, 48% of my sample – nearly half – say they’d listen to more radio if their phones included an online radio app.

I’m no mathematician, but it appears that an app would yield much more incremental radio listening than an FM tuner!

So why is this a “dumb” question?

Because this is not some imagined future scenario. For some devices this scenario is here now. And for the rest, an online radio app like TuneIn or iHeartRadio is only a few taps away from the closest app store. Installing it yourself requires no more effort than turning on your radio and programming in your favorite stations. It is effectively built-in.

So what consumers are really saying is they want choice. And the more choice a solution provides, the more they positively respond to it. This isn’t about “FM chip or no FM chip” – it’s not about distribution channels at all – it’s about choice.

But I topped that with a much “dumber” question. And this one is mind-numbingly dumb:

“If tomorrow your car had a SECOND FM radio, would it lead you to listen to FM Radio a LITTLE more than you do now, a LOT more than you do now, or would it have NO EFFECT?”

FM Chip in Cell Phones means More Radio Listening? Don’t Count on It

This is a question with a patently absurd premise. And yet, almost 30% of respondents say they would listen to MORE radio if their car came with an extra radio. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a car here – not a mobile phone. Picture two radios on the dashboard!

This is almost exactly the same percentage who said they would listen more to radio if an FM tuner were installed in their phones. And without dealing with all those pesky mobile device makers!

So by this logic, the best bet for the radio industry would be to build two or three additional radios into cars – maybe that would double radio listening!

Or maybe consumers are responding to a “gift” by saying “yes, I’ll take it. Thank you.”

Want to test whether an FM chip actually increases radio listening? Don’t do it this way.

Instead, take a large sample of listeners with such phones and a similar sample without such phones. Then measure and compare their total listening to radio.

What people mean isn’t always what they say and they don’t always say what they mean.

That’s why interpreting research is as much art as science.

Posted in edison, fm chip, FM on Mobile Phones, fm tuner, infinite dial, Internet Radio, mark ramsey, mark ramsey media, Media, mobile phones, ramsey-blog, research

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