What Do Taxi Drivers Listen To?

For itinerant radio managers, the go-to petri dish for in-car listening has long been the taxi ride from the airport. The focus group of one. The individual depth interview with a guy who drives around all day (often listening to the radio). Sometimes there’s the serendipity of the cabbie listening to the station you were coming to visit. That happened once for me and I asked the taxi driver what kind of music they played on the station – and was surprised when he gave me the music positioning slogan from … a competing station.

In places where the cabbie (or Uber driver) is primarily an English speaker, the hired car remains a microcosm of what’s going on with in-car listening. It was nearly 20 years ago when I got into a taxi driven by a guy who’d hooked his laptop up to the cassette player in the cab to listen to his collection of MP3’s. He remarked that it played exactly what he liked with no commercials at all. Today, the way cars interact and connect with your smartphone has become an important consideration in new car purchases, with buyers buzzing about Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Given the demographics of cab drivers in many cities, a taxi ride has often been an opportunity to hear the local rock or sports talk or just talk station (or, in some places, foreign-language radio). A recent cab ride home from the airport began with the driver declaring that he listens to podcasts while he drives and asking if I had any objections. He didn’t get to listen to much of his podcast on that run, since I peppered him with (possibly annoying) questions about why he doesn’t listen to the radio.

Under age 40, but not much of a music listener, he does listen to sports talk at times, but says he gets bored after a while. He turns on the local all-news AM at the start of his shift to hear traffic conditions (or checks in to grab a report when he doesn’t have time to map his ride on Waze). Some of the shows on public radio are good, but he doesn’t connect with them all (and as a long-span listener, is completely turned off by fundraising drives). I asked, “What about talk radio?” He laughed and went on a rant about the “agenda of the national hosts,” the copycat nature of the few local hostsHe la and that he didn’t need more info about how to save money (referring to the syndicated show on the local talk station in the evening).

Eventually, his answers were getting short and I sensed that I should shut up and let him focus on Adam Corolla for the remainder of the ride. At the end of the ride I apologized for too many questions, tipped him well and walked into the house thinking about how many quarter hours were being given up by terrestrial radio for not having enough options to grab his listening.

When questionnaires crafted to diagnose problems in spoken-word radio focus myopically on whether or not respondents like or dislike personalities and if shows are getting better or worse, we miss the broader picture of how consumers interact with terrestrial radio alongside other media. We miss complaints about repetition of topics and themes. We miss the broad range of their interests. Most of all, we miss their quarter hours.