Monday, 1 August 2011

The relevance of radio traffic news

My friend, the radio futurologist James Cridland posted an interesting link on Twitter on Friday asking if radio traffic news was still relevant.

I gave a very short comment on the site, alongside current and former colleagues defending the continued existence of the content on air. Having had a good think over the weekend, I thought I’d expand on the issue here today.

Firstly, as Will Jackson stated, although traffic isn’t necessarily right for every station, Ofcom research suggests seven out of ten people say local traffic and travel information is important when deciding whether to tune into a radio station. Furthermore, I’ve spoken to makers of in-car traffic units and they’ve found in their own research that respondents’ most trusted place for traffic information is Radio 2 - a national snapshot of information rather than detailed local content.

This suggests to me that, when you get experienced people providing traffic on a popular station, they are trusted by the listener. So the answer to whether traffic and travel news is relevant needs to take into account the way it’s delivered on air. If you get someone fresh off work experience to come on air to gabble a few roadworks and guess on the regular queues, your traffic won’t be relevant. If you actually put some effort in, you’ll get your reward with listener loyalty. Think back to the days of Flying Eye Russ Kane on the amazingly popular Chris Tarrant show – he was a major personality on air, but alongside the banter, he was also allowed up to two minutes to convey the information.

Traffic information has come on SO MUCH over the past 20 years. It used to be largely collated from check-calls to Police control rooms and – let’s be honest – a fair degree of (albeit educated) guesswork. Now you have national, regional and local traffic control centres, access to cameras, three or four different ways to gather extremely accurate traffic speed and flow data plus thousands of your own listeners who will call in with tip-offs. There’s no real excuse for not knowing what’s going on.

So when people say “the radio doesn’t talk about the roads I’m on”, then that shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. That is an implied confirmation that your road is OK, or certainly no worse than normal, so you’re OK to use that route. But when you hear something that does affect you, you can amend your plans accordingly. What other part of a radio show actually leads you to change your plans? The news is generally about other people, the personality content is entertaining but doesn’t affect what you’re doing today, the weather may lead you to change what you wear, but it’s the traffic which means you change your route, or mode of transport, or means you don’t bother making the journey in the first place.

If you have a nav unit, it’s great (I use a TomTom HD Live unit in my car, and it’s generally correct) but it won’t warn me half an hour before I’m due to leave that there’s a problem on my route – the radio will.

Notice I’ve not even got into the monetary advantages of having traffic as a sponsorship vehicle on air, because I think that it offers so much more than that. Check the RAJAR figures for Eagle Radio in Guildford and how they grew over the six months from the summer of 2008. That happened to coincide with them launching the Eagle Eye in the Sky spotter plane and having a greater focus on traffic. Listening hours rocketed as a result. Now I’m not saying all the rise was down to a traffic plane, but given everything else (station line-up, rivals’ line ups) was constant, it must have had a positive effect?

I think those of us in radio land, with super-fast broadband, the latest smart phones and tablets and every in-car gizmo you can think of, sometimes forget that for many the world is nowhere near connected as it is for us. The majority don’t have smart phones, a significant minority still don’t have broadband, and if they have a sat nav, it probably won’t have traffic on it. For them, our radio audience, the radio remains the way to receive traffic and it’s up to the radio industry to provide them with something decent to rely on.

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