Radio in a post-Internet world


Do you sit down in front of the television and marvel at the technology that sends pictures through the air? Probably not. Do you call friends in another part of the world and marvel at the technology that connects telephones throughout the globe? Probably not. Each was transformational in its time and had a profound impact on the people who first used it. Yet, today each is taken for granted. We use them without thinking, never considering what life was like without them.

Boosters always over-sell the importance and transformational impact of a new technology. Then, as the innovation matures, people begin to realize that maybe it was not quite as transformational as first thought.

Such is the case today with the Internet. The Internet and new-media are the latest transformational innovations to grab all the headlines. Boosters tell us that everything is different with the Internet.

Yet there is growing evidence that very soon (perhaps even now) the Internet is joining steam engines and incandescent bulbs as yesterday’s transformation.

So it isn’t too early to start thinking about radio in a post Internet world, a world when people think as much about the Internet as we do about electricity. To understand what a post-Internet world might look like, consider how the next generation, the so-called net-natives, are using the Internet.

A recent Der Spiegel article gives us a glimpse:

Older generations may consider it a revolutionary medium, enthuse about the splendors of blogging and tweet obsessively on Twitter (but) the first generation that cannot imagine life without the Internet doesn’t actually consider the medium particularly important, and indeed shuns some of the latest web technologies.

The story goes on to cite research raising questions about whether the next generation will be as net-centric as new-media “visionaries” think:

The findings show that the image of the “net generation” is almost completely false — as is the belief in the all-changing power of technology.

The next generation resembles the last generation a lot more than new-media boosters want to admit. They have integrated the Internet into their lives, like their parents and grandparents integrated previous innovations into their lives. This is a cycle that has played out many times.

Growing up is about becoming a social animal, developing networks of friends, and sharing experiences.

Today’s kids have new tools and a greater ability to stay connected to their friends, but one could make that argument about the first generation that traveled by car, or spoke on the telephone, or flew to see distant friends.

The magazine article points out something that should be painfully obvious. The Internet will change future generations far less than it has changed us.

Further evidence comes from Pew Research. The Pew Internet & American Life Project has been studying Internet usage among Millennials for many years, and pundits have been using Pew’s research to bolsters their claims that the Internet is creating a new and very different generation.

The longer the project proceeds, however, the more evidence accumulates that net natives, those who have grown up with the Internet, don’t seem quite as enthusiastic about many aspects of Internet 2.0 as their parents.

Virtually all teens (93%) now have access to the Internet, and nearly 80% of these teens have a high speed connection. Over three-quarters of teens also have a cell phone, nearly as many who own an mp3 player.

Three-quarters of teens are also members of social network websites, over half have profiles on multiple networks.

Yet usage of a broad range of social network activities is declining among teens. Posting messages, emailing through the networks, and similar activities are in decline.

Teen use of twitter never took off and has already dropped in half. Blogging too was never embraced by teens, and interest has fallen by half in the past three years.

Yes, social networking is important, but the notion that our children will be connected 24/7 may overstate the case.

The Internet may be a marvel to those who didn’t grow up with it, but to future generations, it may not be.

The Nielsen study on smartphone use we reported on reinforces this point. Watching videos, listening to music, all the things we are told the next generation of radio listeners will be doing with their mobile phones is a tiny fraction of their phone use.

We can see that directly in the impact of mobile phone usage on Pandora usage. Pandora was one of the first online music services to embrace smartphone apps. You can find a free iPhone, Blackberry, and Android app for Pandora.

The convenient access of Pandora has impacted usage of Pandora in a somewhat paradoxical way. While millions of new users have signed up, and session starts are up, the average session exposure has stalled.

Rather than grow the service, mobile phone apps have simply moved usage from the computer to the smartphone. Since people spend less time listening to radio with their smartphones than their computers, their listening to Pandora has declined.

So what does that mean for radio?

It means that radio will change less then we think.

As we recently pointed out, radio’s success is based on its convenience and ubiquity. You turn it on and it’s there. It is portable, and can travel with you, regardless of the availability of hotspots or a mobile Internet connection.

The Internet is changing the definition of convenience and ubiquity. In the future, the scales may tip in the direction of a hotspot and internet connection, but the product that listeners are looking for will be less transformed than pundits predict.

–Glenda Shrader Bos & Richard Harker of Harker Research