Young people are turning to devices that put the control in their hands.
By MARC FISHER
WASHINGTON -- The story of entertainment technology today is the story of control. TiVo lets you skip TV commercials, broadband lets you download the music you choose, iPods give you the ability to program your own portable music and satellite radio grants you a selection of dozens of musical genres.
All of which leaves traditional broadcast radio sounding like something from the era of three TV networks.
Four formats -- news-talk, adult contemporary, pop hits and black-oriented -- account for more than half of all radio listening in the nation. For more than a generation, the radio industry has attributed this to listeners, saying they demand that narrow focus.
But the on-demand media revolution has revealed that argument to be little more than corporate spin. Younger listeners, at least, are grabbing hold of the idea that they can control their media landscape, and they are choosing a far more varied menu of music and other aural entertainment than the big radio companies have been serving up.
About half of Americans age 55 or older have bought "Me Media" devices, such as TiVo and iPods, that put the consumer in the control booth, but according to a new survey by the Arbitron ratings company and Edison Media Research, about 90 percent of everyone younger than 55 is already on board. And though iPod users do download monster hit songs online, they buy and trade a much more varied mix of music than can be heard on the air.
For radio, that means a huge generation gap is developing. The iPod, Apple's digital music player, is more like the transistor radio than any other gadget in media history, in that it is making a powerful entrance into the American home mainly through the teen market. The Arbitron/Edison study found that about a quarter of American teenagers own an iPod or other portable MP3 player, a far higher percentage than in any other age group. That's what has led Infinity Broadcasting, one of the nation's largest radio companies, to convert an AM station in San Francisco to KYOU. Starting Monday the station adopted a format (they call it "all podcast") in which anyone who cobbles together a radio show can upload it to the station, which will pick its favorite submissions and throw them on the air.
That experiment is way off at the fringe of the industry. Most radio executives are nowhere near such a radical move, taking comfort instead in the finding in the Arbitron/Edison survey that 8 in 10 Americans say they will not listen less to broadcast radio even as they adopt other technologies.
Adapting to iPods
Hoping to find a way to co-exist with iPods, traditional radio is just now starting to overcome its ostrichlike reluctance to admit on the air that listeners are becoming savvy about programming their own playlists. A vigorous internal debate among radio executives about whether it makes sense to mention iPods on the air seems to be drawing to a close, and more stations are starting to let deejays refer to what's on their own iPods. Some stations are even taking a page from radio's history and giving away iPods loaded with music and promotions for the station. (In the 1960s, as FM radio took its first steps toward common acceptance, many stations gave away FM receivers.)
But is it too late? Although iPod users tell pollsters they won't put aside radio in favor of their iPods, the Arbitron/Edison survey finds that iPod listeners already use less broadcast radio than do others. Perhaps the more telling finding comes in the percentage of people who say they "love" their iPod (35 percent) or their satellite radio (40 percent) versus those who "love" over-the-air radio (19 percent).
Popular awareness of satellite radio is soaring, and one in five Americans told Arbitron/Edison they are likely to subscribe to one of the two satellite services, XM or Sirius, in the next year. Twenty-two percent of Howard Stern listeners said they are likely to follow him to Sirius when he leaves broadcast radio next year.
In the past five years, most of the once-worrisome digital divide has vanished as the percentage of Americans with access to the Internet has jumped from 50 to more than 80, the study says. Still, in that time, the portion of the population that listens to Internet radio has climbed from 5 percent to only 15 percent.
The far greater threat to radio's status as the ubiquitous medium of pop culture -- it's the only medium people use in relatively equal parts at home, at work and in the car -- comes from the iPod, which shares that portability. Station managers and deejays complain that teenagers, especially in more affluent communities, seem to have tuned away from radio entirely. But the study says there's still time for radio to respond: Only 20 percent of Americans own an iPod, subscribe to satellite radio or listen to Internet radio, whereas 95 percent of the country regularly listens to radio.