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How the medium is changing the message

Podcasts, smartphones, Spotify and the implications of advancing technology, new commercial opportunities and modern work habits

Barely noticed, outside a few articles recalling its early days as pirate station Phantom, alternative music radio station TXFM announced at the end of March that it will shut down before year’s end.

Unfortunately, despite a recent rebranding, TXFM was never able to attract more than 19,000 listeners according to JNLR surveys, a number which made it unsustainable as it could not attract advertising revenues. Even Denis O’Brien and Paul McGuinness cannot afford to subsidise a loss-making music station forever.

The problem TXFM faced was a simple one. When its potential audience can programme Spotify or similar apps on their smartphones to cater to even the most eclectic of musical tastes, why would they listen to a radio station where the music is constantly interrupted by a stream of adverts, DJ patters, weather and station idents, and news bulletins? No matter how mission-focused a station is, those interruptions, to raise revenue and satisfy Broadcasting Authority requirements, are a necessity of business.

TXFM is a straw in the wind for other radio stations. “Smart” as in “Smartphone” is almost a redundant term for millennials. A Google survey last year showed 97% own a Smartphone. As podcasting becomes more accomplished, growing out of the same garage roots romanticised in Phantom FM obituaries into swanky professional studio surroundings, it too will challenge over-the-air broadcasters.

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From the Irish Times to the New York Times publishers are adding audio offerings to their websites. And while most products remain studio-bound and indistinguishable from the radio broadcasts they compete with, the best are moving out of studios and exploring new formats a public-service bureaucracy like RTÉ cannot easily adjust to.

Sponsorship opportunities; sponsored- content podcasts – embracing advertorials and commercial features; and new software allowing easier advertising inserts and listener measurement, all make it likely that the current generation of talking-heads podcasts will find itself quickly moving into the territory of drama, location reporting, and edited news and documentary packages. The medium even lends itself to a renaissance in fiction drama, and comedy, and access to niche audiences rarely catered to at present outside the community-radio sector.

But the disruptive impact of “phones” goes beyond radio and podcast.

Newspapers, having first adjusted to the death of in-depth and at-length reporting as their readers moved from print to computer screens, have spent the last decade learning to cater for attention-scarce readers. So it is we see brief news reports rarely going above 300-400 words – roughly the number of words that can fit on a computer screen without scrolling), and increasing use of listicles, quizzes and click-baiting headlines.

And yet, just as news outlets have adjusted to the new paradigm, a new report from the American Press Institute (API) shows that phones are changing how readers consume news once again.

Readers checking the latest headlines on their favourite news websites on a computer screen are typically doing so at work. Behaviourally, they feel they are “stealing” some time from their employers to catch the latest update, whether that’s an Indo or Irish Times column, an RTE news report or a Broadsheet joke. According to the study, readers minimise their guilt over this “stolen time” by only catching up on news in quick bursts.

When it comes to phones though, that behaviour changes. The phone belongs to the reader, not to an employer and so when readers choose an article there they are much more willing to invest time in a longer story. Stories longer than 1,200 words, got 23 percent more engagement, 45 percent more social referrals and 11 percent more pageviews than shorter stories in the API study.

Similar research findings may be behind the decision by the Sunday Times/Times of London to abandon “Breaking News” on its website, instead recreating an old-style emphasis on “editions”, with new stories updated three times a day, at 9AM, midday, and 5PM. It cannot be a coincidence that those times match the beginning of the workday, lunch-break, and the end of the workday: the times when people are most likely to check their phones.

Of course, not everyone will get off the news carousel. The Times, already one of the more successful paywall sites, can afford not to chase every click, while advertising-only free sites will still tumble over each other to be the first with breaking-news flashes and hot takes. But, combined with an audience already willing to invest more time in individual stories, it may herald a widespread return to considered and in-depth reporting.

By Gerard Cunningham