Can We Finally Talk About Spotload?


No matter how bullish you are about radio’s future, two trends have become more glaring recently:

Time spent listening is down sharply, something that can no longer be hidden behind an (almost) stable number of people using radio at some point during the week.

By most observation, the percentage of those users who now consume radio primarily in the car, where it’s still the easiest or only choice, is increasing. And while it may take at least another decade for every car now on the road to be replaced by a connected car without an AM/FM radio in the dashboard, even our current stronghold is at risk.

So, perhaps it’s time to reconsider TSL strategy.

A few years ago, the revelation that the average occasion of radio listening was nine minutes long led to a new fatalism about the idea of trying to get people to spend more time with a station in any one stretch. “Stop fighting that battle and try to foster more listening occasions,” went the new programming mantra. Never mind that the big win was to have both more and longer occasions. Or that the “nine minutes” stat was probably camouflaging some longer usage punctuated by brief interruptions.

Under the new thinking, shorter listening stretches became almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The brief moment in which a top 40’s power rotation could  be 45 minutes has mostly passed. But there’s still an emphasis on instant gratification—e.g., all-news stations with traffic every four minutes, even if it means sending people on their way sooner.

But how many more occasions can you get from listeners if the three places where they might have consumed radio are down to one, in some cases? “At home” is diminished by the competition from morning TV and, increasingly, by the lack of a radio at home. “At work,” the usage that lends itself to long listening stretches, is threatened by other choices that offer even more continuous music and fewer interruptions.

That leaves “in the car,” the most likely place for nine-minute listening stretches. My commute, which is no longer daily, is 35 minutes and is unlikely to be given over to any one station. By comparison, when I listen to a station at home or at the office, it’s usually for a stretch of at least 45 minutes to an hour. 

No regular reader would describe my choice of radio stations as typical. But what I want from the radio isn’t so different from other consumers: music that’s energetic, but not distracting; a reasonable number of interruptions without the same PSAs over and over. For a lot of potential users, radio isn’t meeting that need anymore. And pestering existing listeners for a few more nine-minute occasions won’t in any way address that. 

Because our new Portable People Meter insights came at a time of sea change for radio, broadcasters interpreted un-trended data that should have been alarming—e.g., less usage than expected in the morning—as if they were uncovering the way people had always listened. And sometimes those “revelations” emboldened them to do what they wanted to do anyway, such as firing the expensive morning team. 

The net effect has been an odd tendency to sometimes “program to radio’s symptoms,” especially those shorter listening occasions. If you found yourself feeling increasingly faint and nauseous, you would go to the doctor, not alter your routine to allow for feeling faint and nauseous more often and celebrate it as a lifestyle choice.

At this point, radio needs both more and longer occasions of listening in a way that cannot be addressed solely through constant on-air appointment setting. It means looking at our rotations and library sizes, offering listeners more format choices—because when six stations are playing the same records, some listeners are disenfranchised and others leave after hearing their favorite song sooner—and fixing the streaming experience. It means outside marketing to foster more usage (and more occasions), not just asking for the next appointment. 

Finally, there is ultimately no getting around the spotload issue. A spotload that’s competitive with listeners’ other choices both extends existing occasions and ensures that radio is the choice they make when they listen for hours at a time, not minutes. Like doing more outside marketing, it’s not a choice made easily, but it’s a more logical solution than living with dizziness and nausea.