We are all struck by the speed at which technology is moving—in general, and particularly around the automobile. Some recent studies predict that the autonomous car will dominate roadways by the year 2030. Sooner than that, new digital dashboards featuring Apple Car Play and Android Auto will be in almost every car, offering much greater choice beyond traditional FM radio.
Is in-car listening, one of the last safe havens for radio, about to go the way of the hand-cranked window? While the threat to radio listening in vehicles is certainly real, there is also reason to believe that the world may not be moving as fast as some may think. No matter what the future holds, we believe the best course is to follow the consumer to understand what they really want. The consumer should be our guide to understanding the new rules of car dashboards—and in audio entertainment in general.
Listening to consumers gives us reason for some optimism about FM radio’s importance in the car. First, the average Joe’s car does not look like the autonomous electrics we’ll see at the Consumer Electronics Show next month. Joe’s car is about 12 years old, with an FM radio, cassette deck and CD player. That was the basic layout of the entertainment system in most cars until the 2010 model year. That means many consumers will have an FM radio and a cassette player for at least another five or ten years.
Second, consumers have rejected new dashboards that lack a knob for the volume or the radio—even missing a CD player. Manufacturers have learned that consumer satisfaction drops significantly when they try to replace these basic features with newer technology. Honda, for example, backtracked and put a volume knob back into the design of its new cars after hearing complaints about their new dash concepts. Just because more streamline technology exists does not mean consumers want to learn to use it or be distracted by it at 70 mph.
Third, more choices in audio entertainment in the car is not necessarily a good thing—or a desirable one—from the consumers’ perspective. The masses do not always want boundless choice; it often overwhelms them. This is a phenomenon known as the tyranny of choice. We might think that more choices make people happier. After all, they have a greater likelihood of finding what they really want. The opposite is often true. Too many choices leads to greater misery!
Curation and somebody to tell the people what is good remains highly important. While we might say we want infinite choice, often times what we really want is somebody combing through the choices and making a few good recommendations.
None of this suggest we should put our heads in the sand or ignore the threats that surround us. Certainly our industry needs to fight hard on two fronts. First, we need to continue to build strong brands and great content. That’s the part of the success equation we control as an industry. Listeners who really love your product will continue to seek it out regardless of the distribution means, as long as we don’t make it hard for them to find us.
Second, our industry must continuously remind the auto industry that the consumer wants radio. The delivery technology may change, but the auto industry cannot afford to get too far ahead of itself, or the consumer, and we must remind them of that.
So long as the consumer is driving—literally and figuratively—let’s give them what they want—great radio and an easy way to hear it.