It was a question that the industry could have asked at any time in the last five years. Instead, it finally came in a study presented by my Edison Research colleagues on the panel "What's Working at Work" at the National Assn. of Broadcasters/Radio Advertising Bureau Radio Show.
Out of more than 1,000 full- and part-time workers who were surveyed, 28% listened to some form of Internet-only radio (as opposed to AM/FM broadcast radio, whether streamed or over-the-air) at work. Those listeners were asked where their time with Internet-only radio at work was coming from.
For years, many broadcasters have contended that time spent with Pandora, Spotify and the like was mostly replacing time spent with a listener's own music collection. And indeed, 28% of respondents said that was the case. Twenty-two percent of respondents said that their listening to Internet radio was "new time" that took away from neither broadcast radio nor their own collections. But 50% of those surveyed said that their time spent listening to Internet radio was "mostly replacing time spent with AM/FM radio."
In other words, 14% of the workforce are consuming Internet radio and listening to broadcast radio less as a result. It’s not the bloodbath that radio's detractors—industry or civilian—portray it as. Internet radio evangelists often believe wrongly that their friends and family represent the entire world. But it’s also not hearing that AM/FM radio has to lose—especially in tandem with the quarter-hours appropriated by satellite radio or TV. 65% of the workforce listened to any radio at work when Edison first surveyed it in 1997. That number is now 49%.
The Edison findings were presented at the Radio Show's final session. It would have been interesting to watch them immediately inform the next discussion of radio's digital future, although, to broadcasters' credit, that debate has been somewhat transformed already. And that debate has proceeded on two different tracks: public posturing and private pragmatism.
Even as Clear Channel chairman/CEO Bob Pittman sparked the Radio Show two years ago by energetically delineating the differences between broadcast radio and Pandora, his stations were on-air encouraging listeners to enjoy hundreds of broadcast stations or create their own Pandora-style stations. With the iHeart Radio festival taking place at the end of that week, Clear Channel and iHeart actually had a higher profile at Tuesday's RAIN Summit than at the Radio Show that followed.
The "us vs. them" reasoning wasn't entirely absent from the Radio Show and RAIN this year, but Cumulus Media president/CEO Lew Dickey, fresh from the purchase of Rdio, provided the unusual spectacle of hearing the words "it's all audio" on the group heads' panel.
Even before Dickey's cheerfully pragmatic appearance, it was easy to understand Cumulus' interest in Rdio—roughly the same motivation that drives the owners of a broadcast cluster to look at the three male-targeted rock stations and wonder what they might offer females. From the launch of deals portal Sweetjack to the recent acquisition of syndicator Dial Global, Cumulus is expanding its inventory. Being in digital radio because of the opportunity to reach new (or defecting) listeners or create something beyond AM/FM's limitations would have been a nice motivation, too. But this will do.
How long it takes every broadcaster to shut down the "us vs. them" debate depends a lot on the success of a major new "them." In its first 48 hours, critics (including my Billboard colleagues) were disappointed that iTunes Radio was not so different from other pure-plays, and broadcasters were undoubtedly relieved. But iTunes Radio still has a lot of built-in cume, and some critics were trashing the iPhone 5S until the lines started forming. What I heard about iTunes Radio early this week was often "it's no big deal, but my kids are listening."
My early review is that iTunes Radio's pop channels are what you'd want them to be—a little faster than major-market top 40. The mainstream oldies channels are pedestrian, but not inept (some similar stations are), and the channels that transcend typical formats are indeed creative. But iHeartRadio has creative channels, too. So do Slacker, Aupeo and Radio IO. There are a lot of online offerings that go beyond what is musically available on broadcast radio, but with little presentationally that goes beyond the songs themselves.
For that reason, iTunes Radio didn't have to be a hologram to be revolutionary. Hosted, well-produced national superstations that combine broadcast's excitement with musical creativity would have been revolutionary, too. Broadcasters haven't had the resources to make their Internet-only stations transcendent. Pure-plays haven't had the showmanship. Apple has both. That leaves the opportunity for broadcasters to deploy radio's authority and companionship—cited as two ongoing strengths in the Edison study—to their own Internet-only products once the "us vs. them" debate ends.