As excitement builds over the possibility that mobile phone makers will be required to add FM to their phones, it’s a good time to reflect on what an FM chip means.
Radio won’t will be able to hide behind the excuse of a decline in consumer access. Radio will be in the hands of almost everybody all day long.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that we won’t be competing just against the station across the street. Radio won’t even be competing with services like Pandora or Rhapsody.
Radio will be directly competing for attention with all that the Internet can provide: Google, Facebook, YouTube, and all the other Internet behemoths.
In a sense, it's true today. Computer users can listen to streamed radio while doing other visually oriented tasks. Multitasking on a cellphone is less likely. Competing for shared attention on a computer will give way to more of a winner takes all battle on cellphones.
Is radio really ready for that battle?
If the goal is to turn today’s smartphone into tomorrow’s radio, the industry has a tough hill to climb. And before radio can climb that hill, it has to climb out of the hole it has dug for itself.
We’ll return to the question, but first look at new research from Nielsen that illustrates radio’s challenge.
The chart below shows the average minutes per hour a smartphone user spends doing various tasks (click to enlarge).
Email takes up 25:00, nearly half (41.6%) of the hour. For all the capabilities of new app bedecked Internet enabled mobile phones, their greatest value remains the ability to read email.
Despite all the talk that social networks are making email obsolete, email actually takes up more of the hour today than it did in 2009.
Portals like Yahoo or AOL rank a very distant second at 7:00, 11.6% of the hour. Just seven minutes on the second most popular activity.
Half of the hour is consumed by email and accessing portals alone.
Checking social networks and blogs consumes 6:18, 10.5% of the hour.
Search ranks fourth at 4:12. News ranks fifth at 2:42. The remaining quarter-hour is shared by a wide range of tasks all taking two minutes or less.
Music manages to capture 1:54 of attention. Less than two minutes out of an hour, and that is an increase over last year!
The fact that smartphone users spend much of their time communicating through emails shouldn’t be too surprising. It has been true all along. Last year we wrote that even with smartphones, the primary value to the user is to communicate:
Today we can now communicate via voice, text, email, and so on. A smart cell phone has expanded our means to communicate, but fundamentally it just continues to provide the valuable service Alexander Graham Bell's invention provided.
With so much of the hour devoted to personal communications, there will be a scramble for the left over minutes.
Robo-radio, voice tracking and tired programming isn’t going to persuade a listener to switch her cellphone from email to the radio. It isn’t going to be enough to stop her from checking her Facebook status.
Unique compelling programming is the only thing. Unfortunately, creating unique compelling programming is going to be expensive.
For an industry that puts greater emphasis on hitting this quarter’s numbers than investing in programming, it isn’t going to be easy.
Radio should be careful for what it wishes for. Winning the FM chip battle will be just one victory in a long costly war.