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Radio Listeners: Is “Free” All That Matters?

“When it comes to mobile devices, we need to remind listeners that radio is FREE – that its use does not sap so much precious battery energy and even more precious data plan bandwidth.”

So argue the folks I call the “freeks.”

These are the well intentioned folks in the radio industry who believe that listeners do not have their own best interests at heart. That listeners are, as a group, a bit dull-minded. Thus, listeners must be marketed at and advertised to in order to convince them of what they surely would be better off knowing: That free radio is better than any other radio-like alternative simply and primarily because it’s free.

This is precisely the argument you hear from the NextRadio folks, for example, as demonstrated in statements like this:

People still don’t understand the difference between streaming and the over-the-air signal…streaming drains a smartphone battery three times as fast as an FM chip. We know there are billions of hours of listening to local radio stations on data networks. If these chips were turned on, every American could listen to the same content for absolutely free. Just look at the research: Every time people understand it, they fall in love with it.

Leave aside that this is not what the research shows at all. It’s also not quite logical (a chunk of streaming happens well outside the signal radius), nor is it what the actual behavior of consumers who have access to FM-enabled mobile phones seems to show (the uptake of these devices is tepid). Nor is it even what the usage for NextRadio itself shows, if the relatively meager average listening audience is any measure.

The premise wrapped up in this statement is that “free” is an argument-stopper. If only consumers understood that radio on their mobile devices could be free, they would “fall in love” with the idea.

Tell this to the consumers who buy water in bottles rather than pour it from the tap for free.

Tell it to the consumers who pay for cable TV rather than watch over-the-air TV for free.

Tell it to the consumers who buy their songs on iTunes rather than steal them for free.

Tell it to the consumers who ride bikes in a gym rather than on the open road for free.

Tell it to the consumers who shop at a supermarket rather than grow their own food for free.

Tell it to all of us who see “free” as one measure of value but not the only one. Recognize that we know what we like and what we want and we are prepared – happy, even – to pay for it. 

“Value” is a bundle of attributes, and “price” is only one.

Give us what we want.

Let us decide if it’s worth the price or not.


A couple of interesting comments since this post was published.

The first argues that while “free” is certainly not all that matters, it is a big tie-breaker for “like” products, with the dominance of YouTube being a good example. Sure, I say. But another way of describing “like” products is with the term “commodities.” In other words, the more alike everything is the more advantage there is to be “free” since, by definition, there’s nothing else that differentiates the offerings. But is this our goal? To be the least costly audio commodity? That sounds like a very vulnerable place to me.

Meanwhile, this is not a game for radio stations alone. We assume, for example, that Pandora is viewed by consumers as “costly” due to bandwidth, but I don’t believe consumers see it that way. If you ask those who are not on Pandora’s premium plan whether it “costs them money” to use Pandora, I think the vast majority would say “no.” That is, Pandora is viewed as “free” or very nearly so if we spread the “costs” of bandwidth across every application we use that bandwidth for. So when it comes to “free,” checkmate.

It’s telling that cable operators and TV producers never proclaim the virtues of “free,” even though their over-the-air platforms are even more beneficial to consumer data plans than the over-the-air platforms of radio broadcasters.

The second comment came from a Christian radio broadcaster who explained that his station, in fact, is not “free.” Indeed, they depend for their support on their listeners, so they consciously design their products to be “unlike” other “free” offerings so as to make them worth sponsoring. Exactly right!

Mark Ramsey is a veteran media strategist, researcher, and trend-maker who has worked with numerous media, publishing, and digital brands. Ramsey has consulted with and delivered projects for numerous media, publishing, and digital brands over his career, including Apple, Clear Channel, Pandora, CBS, Bonneville, Sirius XM, U-T San Diego, EA Sports, and more.

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