Editor’s Notebook: What the “FM rules the car” meme should mean to radio

Let’s call it a meme. The number of “FM Still Rules the Car” headlines this week signifies a thought trend. The headlines have been induced by two new studies — one by Ipsos, and one by Edison Research. Both report on a high percentage of survey respondents saying they listen to AM/FM in the car. The Ipsos survey was commissioned by iHeartMedia, and included a data point about user preference for button-and-dial radios in cars.

As we noted in our reporting of the Ipsos study, American cars are 11.4 years old, on average, and button-style radios taking up a portion of dashboard real estate were prevalent until recently. We all tend to like what we know.

Aside from the old-car context that informs how we should interpret survey results about in-car listening,watching trendlines is important. That’s where Edison’s The Infinite Dial 2015 study, released yesterday, comes in. Edison revealed trend movements for each type of in-car listening:

infinite dial 2015 in-car listening sources trending

Radio definitely rules in this chart. Keeping in mind that the average American car has a pre-digital dashboard and zero built-in connectivity (only 10% of the Edison sample drives an Internet-connected car), it’s also worth remembering that the 80-plus percentages above for AM/FM listening do not represent time spent. They represent a simple “ever use” statistic.

Now notice the trends. AM/FM slipped from last year’s survey, while Online Radio jumped by 50% — and that jump should also be interpreted in the context of a survey sample that includes old cars. The “FM rules the car” meme could be restated as “Online radio leaps forward in cars whose average age makes it difficult to listen to online radio.” Not catchy, but a perspective worth noting. It’s true that most of that jump might have occurred in newer cars. But that just emphasizes the point that as the American fleet modernizes, so will listening habits.

The very slow turnover of American autos causes in-car listening trends to move more slowly than mobile and computer listening trends. Car companies are sluggish technology developers too, when it comes to dashboard operating systems, which has slowed things down more. (Google and Apple are rushing in to help with that.)

Radio will always be an important piece of the in-car audio platform. Radio is local; most driving is local. As cars slowly become as personalized as smartphones, the key for any competitive audio entertainment source is to deliver customizable content. Button-dial radios will not last in cars, and AM/FM will lose its legacy ease-of-use. As an app competing with other apps in a digital dashboard, bringing distinctive content and user choice is essential.

Brad Hill