Radio and the Sounds of Silence

I was listening to radio this morning. That is actually tuned in and listening as opposed to cruising around with a bit of muzak in the background, dodging taxis and trying to time my lane-changes so as to pass through the Nazi-tolls with my car perfectly centred on the dotted lines. To be honest I don’t know if that actually works in terms of confusing the gantries but it’s really good fun watching the drivers in your rear-view mirror attempting the tactic once they’ve figured out what’s going on.

So, because I was listening I was really intrigued by the evidence led by acoustic engineer Ivan Lin at the Oscar Pistorious trial today. He reminded me of something truly fundamental about the broadcast industry. Something we’ve basically forgotten even though Simon & Garfunkel sang about it a long time ago …

People talking without speaking

People hearing without listening.

The difference between hearing and listening. You know what I’m talking about.

butt hurt

Hearing is simply the passive act of perceiving sound via the ear. If you are not hearing-impaired then “hearing” simply happens.

Listening on the other hand is something you consciously choose to do. Listening requires concentration so that your brain processes and constructs meaning from words, sound & sentences. Listening leads to learning and is arguably the pre-cursive state for “theatre of the mind” to exist. And as we all know, “theatre of the mind” is the cornerstone of creative radio. Or so the RAB keeps telling us anyway.

When we consider that one the most fundamental assumptions in media planning is that people consume media despite the presence of advertising not because of it, we come to understand that, when we are talking radio, most people are “hard of listening” rather than “hard of hearing”.

When it comes to using media research data however, in our desperate desire to win over the hearts and minds of procurement executives, most media decision-makers have become obsessed with the reliability of the data rather than applying their minds to understanding the validity. And if you don’t know the difference between reliable research data and valid research data, I’ll see you at the AMASA Weekend Workshop next month.

Most of us are so used to accepting the standard definitions of media consumption that we have forgotten to interrogate what they actually mean. If we consider the current definition of radio listenership embraced by the industry …

“By listen we mean that you personally listened to the radio. It may be all of a programme or only part of it. It doesn’t matter whether it was your own radio or somebody else’s. Nor does it matter where you listened to it.”

we have to wonder whether we are not in fact measuring “hearing” rather than “listening”.

Of course one of the key advantages of reporting the “hearership” of a radio station, rather than some measure of active listenership, is that the reported audience figures will remain high. And as we all know, the higher the hearership the higher the advertising rate. It’s a grand system. As long as you keep the data reliable (and radio data in Mzansi is reliable to the point of terminal predictability) and control the qualitative variables, you can be sure nobody is going to derail the procurement train. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to the print industry’s firm commitment to a definition of readership which has almost reached the laughable point where there is an inverse correlation between circulation and readership.

Best way to do this of course, is to own the research data.

So when the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Mzansi gives the marketing, advertising and media industry the middle finger, as they have done, and sets off to create a new audience currency that better suits their commercial needs, you have to question whether it’s their intention to continue measuring “hearing” (which will keep those audience numbers & ad-rates nice and high) or whether they intend to catch the ROMI train with the rest of the media world by attempting to measure the actual impact of radio (which is a function of active listening) on any communication plan.

On reflection, I’m pretty sure I can work out which route the NAB will favour, despite the fact that increased radio audiences will translate into an increased expectation of in-market response amongst agencies and marketers. And increased expectation will lead to under-delivery (not in procurement terms but in marketing and advertising terms) and ultimately the demise of the medium as an effective communication tool because radio stations are selling listeners and delivering hearers.

Actually advertisers are beginning to figure this out but many have arrived at the wrong conclusion in response. Witness to this fact is the almost complete erosion of the traditional 30s radio spot in favour of massively expensive activations. Most radio activations are little more than advertisers paying a premium to convert hearers to listeners, by giving away their margins, in order to fund payment for the total audience, which of course includes the hearers the advertisers weren’t interested in the first place.

It’s a sad indictment of the media industry in Mzansi that it remains so firmly committed to selling (and I guess buying for that matter) the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator) of so-called listenership, viewership and readership at a discount, when they should be taking a leaf out of the digital book and selling the HCD (Highest Common Denominator) at a premium. If the digital industry was run by broadcasters in Mzansi, they would still be trying to flog page impressions to advertisers.

But hey! We’re all fans of the next shiny thing. It’s so much more fun starting something new than it is to polish up the previous, and admittedly tarnished, shiny thing. As Paul and Art sang …

And the people bowed and prayed, To the neon god they made.

And the sign flashed out its warning,

In the words that it was forming.

And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls.

And whispered in the sounds of silence