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We're listening to smartphone audio in our cars more than ever now

March 19, 2012 - 10:28 AM
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(Photo: flickr/erocsid)

Why tune into your car's radio when you have an iPhone you can plug in right there? More and more Americans are content to ignore the dial and hook their smartphones up to their stereos. The trend has begun increasing dramatically in the last year or so and is perhaps captured in no better way than a new report's banner headline: "Will car listening tip the scales toward digital?" Good question.

Today the Pew Research Center released its annual report on the state of journalism, The State of the News Media 2012, and its findings suggest Americans have changed the way they consume radio and online audio in their cars.

"One of the most important battlegrounds over the next year will again be the car, where a good deal of traditional radio listening occurs," write Laura Santhanam, Amy Mitchell, and Tom Rosenstiel in the Pew essay "Audio: How Far Will Digital Go." "And the momentum continues to shift."

The Pew numbers suggest people will keep listening to audio, be it music, podcasts, or books on tape, more and more in the next few years. What's changing is the medium.

Chocolate strawberries
(Photo: Pew)

The car dominates the way we listen to radio and other digital audio so far. We're used to hopping in the car and turning on the AM/FM radio, and the advent of digital devices hasn't changed where we consume audio. This makes plenty of sense when you consider the way media has evolved in the last half century. Our eyes have to remain locked on the road during our commutes, which create a natural entry point for listening to WAMU, WTOP, or any music, from disco to hip hop to rock, that may be on the radio. The immersion in radio feels more complete in a car, in my experience. The Pew report notes that two-thirds of what it calls "traditional radio listening" happens in the car.

Except now people don't need to rely on the arbitrary power of the radio itself.

When you rely on the radio, you never quite know what you're going to get. Sure, there may be a terrific interview on politics or something that draws you in ... but you can't count on that. You're subjugated to the broadcasters' schedule out of convenience. Little more than a fifth of people said they "loved" their AM/FM radio channels, according to a 2011 survey. I never have used a smartphone to listen to any audio in my car, but I did begin realizing the virtues of plugging in my iPod years ago. In college, I would listen to podcasts of PRI's This American Life during long drives. My iPod allowed me to listen to longer audiobooks like The Bell Jar and Game Change when I drove across the country more recently. In those scenarios, I chose the content I listened to. Smartphones provide that same freedom, as does digital streaming of online music and radio services. 

In 2011, 11% of American cell phone owners listened to audio by streaming it through the automobile stereo system, according to Pew, compared to 6% in 2010. The numbers just about doubled. Unsurprisingly, younger drivers tapped their smartphones to listen to audio most frequently, so the trend "may grow as more of this tech-savvy cohort hit driving age." The researchers suggest as many as 38% of Americans tune in via some digital device every week, already a high number. Automakers also realize the virtue of adding wireless to their new vehicles, which will only add to the capability and amount of online streaming. The car companies have tried to push HD radio but the evidence suggests few use it regularly. Most ad dollars still go to traditional radio but as the chart above shows, mobile and digital audio services will likely continue to gain more in the years to come.

"With smartphone ownership projected to eclipse that of personal computers in 2012," the report notes, "online audio may stand the chance of competing even more with AM/FM broadcast radio."

Meanwhile, the campaigns against distracted driving only continue to get louder. Will all this multimedia create a distraction that our nation's drivers can't afford? The trend suggests a future of liberated, open listening in our automobiles but turning a radio dial is, I would suggest, far less distracting than flipping through a smartphone or an iPod.

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