Audience Dialogue

Radio listening environments and moods

Case study 8

Radio producers often like to think that their listeners hang on every word of the program, oblivious to their surroundings. Occasionally this does happen: for example, in a group discussion in Canberra, a man told how he was driving home on a weekend afternoon, listening to a radio play. When he arrived home, he didn't want to miss a word, so he sat in the car in his own driveway for half an hour, to hear the end of the play. If he'd got out of his car and gone indoors to listen, he'd have missed half a minute, he told the group members. That's engrossment!

But on most occasions, people are doing something else while they listen to radio. If you want your program to reach people while they are doing nothing else, it will have to be early in the morning - if they are listening to radio in bed while still waking up - or late at night, if they are listening in bed before going to sleep. The rest of the time, about 90% of people are doing something else while they listen - or 80% if you don't count driving as "something else".

These figures came from a study we did in Australia in the mid-1990s. This was a modified form of diary survey. A normal diary survey (see the next case in this series) asks, in effect "What station did you listen to? starting when? Finishing when?" In this survey, for each listening occasion, we added:

We found that different listening environments went with different types of program. People seemed to choose different programs for different activities. For example, pop music was usually preferred for energetic manual work, such as sweeping floors. Classical music was most popular as an accompaniment to work which was mentally stressful or needed a lot of concentration, such as driving in heavy traffic. People listening alone often preferred a spoken program: news, current affiars, or talkback, because it gave them a sense of company.

The mood that listeners were in had some effect, too. They seemed to choose

It was not always clear from the questionnaire answers which was the cause and which was the effect. Did listening to energetic pop music make people feel like sweeping the floor? Or did they choose a program of pop music when they swept the floor because it made them feel more energetic?

We explored this issue in a later series of group discussions. The consensus was that people chose programs to match their mood (when they were feeling generally happy) or to "lift" their mood if they were f eeling sad or stressed. If they couldn't find a suitable radio program, they said, they'd go to their own collection of tapes or CDs and find something suitable.

You could almost say that music took the place of smoking. One of the reasons for the persistence of smoking, despite the overwhelming evidence that it's bad for your health, is the mental effect of nicotine. If you are feeling stressed, a cigarette will calm you - but if you are feeling lethargic, a cigarette will liven you up. Other drugs don't have this differential effect: they only work in one direction - as does music, it seems.

Perhaps a pair of radio stations could be a substitute for smoking. One station would have lively music all the time, while the other would have calming music all the time. Though this runs against the usual music programming policy (which is to alternate fast and slow tracks) it might make an interesting experiment.

- Dennis List