Teenagers Are Teaching Their Parents to Stream, and Radio Is Nervous

Like leaving voicemails and watching baseball, listening to the radio is popular with older people. 70 percent of parents agree with the statement, “FM radio is for people your age,” according to the analytics company Edison Research. Just 34 percent of teens feel the same way.

But radio-averse teens aren’t content to just let their parents fiddle with pre-sets in the mini-van. Instead, teenagers appear to be slyly subverted their elders, convincing them to try new tech and stream music.

That’s the upshot of a recent presentation at the Country Radio Seminar, an annual event that brings together the best and brightest from country radio for discussions on trends in the format. Edison Research found that parents with teens are about 20 percent more likely to indicate that they streamed something in the last 24 hours relative to parents without teens. 

“Parents are still listening to radio, and teens are still listening to radio,” says Laura Ivey, who co-authored the Edison Research study with Megan Lazovick and Larry Rosin. “But the preferred way of listening for teens, around 70 percent, is smartphones. And now we’re seeing, with the parents of teens, that smartphones play almost as big a role for them as FM radio.”

In Ivey and Lazovick’s presentation, parents discuss their gradual adoption of streaming technology, with their kids serving as the agents of corruption. “They’ve introduced me to things like the aux cord, if I want to plug [in] my phone [instead of listen to the radio],” one mother tells the researchers. Another mother says of her children, “they’re the ones that told me Spotify would change my life. And it kind of has.”   

It may sound bizarre, but today parents and their teenage children actually attempt to hang out and listen to music together. This was not always the case. “Larry, the president of the company, likes to say how his mother thought that his rock and roll was not even music,” Lazovick says. “They could not relate at all about music. It seems generationally a lot different today. There seems to be a lot more connection over music with parents and their teenagers.”

Edison Research found that 76 percent of parents and 60 percent of teens agree with statement “listening to music is a bonding activity for you and your teenagers.” “I don’t know if that’s a sideways compliment — ‘you’re cool enough that you would like this,’” adds Ivey, a mother of two. “Or [the opposite]: ‘You’re not cool enough, you need to increase your cool-ness.’”


Either way, it suggests that radio is facing a new danger.

The equation is simple. Radio is roughly twice as popular with parents as streaming, according to Edison’s research. Radio is still the leading form of listening among teens, but its lead over streaming is rapidly narrowing. When the two demographic groups can mingle without embarrassing and infuriating each other, osmosis occurs, and parents start to stream more often. 68 percent of the 1,909 parents surveyed agree with the statement “your teenagers assist you with new technology,” while 52 percent say they learned about a streaming service from a child.

“They’ve simplified it for me [by showing me how to use Spotify],” another mother says in Edison’s presentation. “They’ve made it much easier for me to listen to the songs that I want.”

Ivey stresses that Edison’s new research “is not in any way to be seen as a pessimistic or looking-down-on radio type of study.” “A lot of listening still goes over FM radio,” she adds. “It’s easy to forget its massive reach.”

And it’s true that radio blankets every corner of the country. “Our company reaches 91 percent of Americans every month,” says Bob Pittman, CEO of iHeartMedia. “For teens, we reach 93 percent of teens every week. We get excited about the future [streaming], but remember, not everybody’s in the future with us yet.” He points to another study that indicates that the portion of respondents who say they listen to radio, 84 percent, remained unchanged between 2011 and 2018, even as the share of listeners who pledge allegiance to Spotify and Apple Music has risen by 13 percent.

When the future finally arrives, Pittman believes that streaming and radio will work in harmony. “We never viewed streaming as competition — the two go together,” he says. He likens today’s streaming library to yesterday’s collection of CDs. “A music collection’s not very useful if you can’t find an efficient way to discover new music,” Pittman continues. “About 70 to 80 percent of Americans, the main way they discover music is radio. People who have a music collection and listen to radio are ironically better listeners for us — we provide additional utility to them.”

Do Edison’s findings support this synergistic outlook? “For years I would argue that until the technology in the car catches up people are going to gravitate to the radio because it’s just one button on a car — there aren’t extra steps,” Lazovick says. “But after talking to teenagers, we realized that they think whatever contraption they need in order to use their smartphone is easier than figuring out what station to listen to.” Nearly half of teens agreed that using their phones was easier than messing with the radio.

Edison recommends two strategies to introduce youth to the wonders of FM. “Radio stations aren’t targeting teenagers or educating them about how to use radio,” Lazovick says. Because of that, “they’re not aware of the value that it brings,” Ivey adds. “After the presentation, we had a 22-year-old stand up and say, ‘I’m bombarded by ads from streaming services, nobody talks to me about radio. How would I know about radio in my town and what it offers?’”

Edison’s other suggestion goes out to parents. “60 percent of teens who listen to country say their parents got them to listen to more country — parents have some influence as far as music choices,” Ivey says. That means they can evangelize for radio just as their children lobby for streaming subscriptions.

Spotify may be a relatively new threat, but parents who love radio face an age-old challenge: Convincing their kids to like what they like.    

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