Headphones vs Smart Speakers

Here’s hoping that you got everything you wanted for the holidays. We’re also hoping that Smart Speakers outnumbered Bluetooth headphones as holiday gifts. We’ve shown plenty of data over the past few years about Smart Speaker owners using these new devices to listen to radio. They’re important devices for radio listening and can be helpful getting radio a more prominent position in the home.

Headphones on the other hand are problematic. There’s the near-impossibility of getting PPM credit for listening done via wired headphones and the true impossibility of getting PPM credit for listening done via Bluetooth or other wireless headphones. Then there’s data in the Autumn 2019 MIDAS survey from RAJAR, the audio research company best known for radio estimates in the UK, showing that just 12% of people in their survey who use headphones or earbuds use them to listen to live radio.

While some believe that people are less likely to listen to radio using headphones (or earbuds) because listening on headphones is more intimate. Of course, 49% of the headphone users in the RAJAR study have listened to On-Demand music services (think Spotify, Amazon, Apple, etc.) on their headphones. We don’t think these music services are particularly intimate – nor are the ads on the unpaid versions.

Done well, radio can be a very intimate experience, with hosts talking very directly to the listener. Commercials, while more numerous on terrestrial radio than on unpaid versions of Spotify and Pandora, can be produced to be intimate and entertaining to listen to on headphones. Until or unless Nielsen solves capturing headphone/earbud listening for PPM, however, it’s probably for the best that radio may be addled among those listening on those teeny, very personal speakers.

While we’re on a subject that includes Spotify and Pandora, we note that some broadcasters dismiss these services as merely replacing time people spent with their CD collections or MP3’s. But, both services have well-crafted recommendation engines to showcase music the user may like and both are set up so that the music continues playing … after the thing you set out to listen to ends. In the studies we conducted for clients in 2019, we continued to see shifts in workday listening. In many markets and especially among female demos, the routine #1 workday choice was almost invariably Spotify or Pandora.

We urge stations to take this competition seriously. Broadcasters can’t match Internet pureplays for low commercial inventory, music quantity or music variety. But, those high-tech services don’t have people to impart the high-touch, human element to which many of us are drawn. For broadcasters, it’s a matter of giving the humans on the air the latitude to be human (while giving them direction so that they don’t turn these finesse elements into a talk show).

Here’s to 2020 (and more Smart Speakers and not so many headphones)!