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Urban Headphone Listening and the Situational Fit of Music, Radio and Podcasting

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Many people wear headphones during movement through their city, and they listen to a variety of sound genres like music, talk, lectures, etc. This study focuses on the pedestrian headphone listener who may spend an hour or more traveling every day. It explores the situational fit of three media; music playlists, live radio, and podcasting, during public transit.

A field trial was conducted in London, UK in December 2013. Ten adult iPhone users were exposed to a music playlist on Spotify, live news from London’s Biggest Conversation (LBC), and educational podcasts from BBC Radio 4, while simultaneously going about their business in Central London. This study discovered informants were more interested in curating their music, and less interested in engaging with the social concerns of live radio, or the learned address of educational podcasting. Music was felt as relaxing while radio and podcasting were felt as more imposing on their concentration. In sum, the participants found radio and podcasting to have weaker situational fit than music during pedestrian headphone listening.


This study analyzes the activity of listening to sound media in headphones while simultaneously navigating a big city on foot. The activity can be considered a human-technology relation, as it requires miniaturized technology for storage and/or streaming of the sound information, most commonly a smartphone, and a pair of headphones or ear buds funneling the sound to the human’s ears. Millions of people engage in this type of urban or pedestrian headphone listening every day. All inhabitants of densely populated environments that make use of public transport are likely practitioners of this type of auditory culture.

Headphones are nothing new in media history. The earpiece of the early telephone was often built as headphones. All listening to radio signals from the wireless had to take place with headphones until the amplified loudspeaker became widespread in the 1920s (Nyre, 2008, p. 180ff ). For many decades various types of mono and stereo loudspeakers dominated, but in the 1960s stereo-headphones became popular as an interface in the hi-fi music culture. Listeners enjoyed their Pink Floyd album in large, ear-covering headphones that maximized the frequency and timbre nuances of the recorded sound. In the 1980s there was a great outdoors evolution in the way headphones were used. The Sony Walkman and a range of similar devices allowed listeners to bring their music along in almost any situation. In the 1990s the iPod and MP3-player became widespread, and allowed for thousands of songs to be collected on the same little device. In the 2000s music collections as well as streaming audio and downloadable podcasts could be accessed from smartphones like the iPhone. The accessibility and acceptance of headphone listening is greater than ever before in history, and there is good reason for research on its many consequences for media habits and everyday life.

Radio researchers traditionally refer to reception in terms of the domestic situation and the workplace, although there are studies of listening practices in the car (Bull, 2003). Headphones are implied in a large number of studies of music listening via portable devices like the Walkman, iPod, etc. (Bull, 2000; du Guy et al., 1997; Simun, 2009; Sterne, 2006). Researchers have documented the solitary and individualistic character of headphone listening. Simun (2009, p. 922) shows how people in London use the MP3-player to shape their environment, and build a protective shield around them. Burns and Sawyer (2010, p. 97) show that people use the portable music player as a defense mechanism against encounters with other people. Bull (2007, p. 5) reminds us that the experience of the solitary individual is wanted, and considered positive. ‘‘The desire for solitude in the automobile is mirrored in the desire for solitude in the street and the home as many retreat into the most private spaces of their already privatized home.’’ Groening (2010, p. 1331) argues that ‘‘the contrary impulses of moving through the world while retreating from it’’ are produced by the economic and social structures of corporate media.

This article does not have a critical agenda, but rather tries to understand the hermeneutics of experiencing sound content in mobile, urban listening situations. Through field trials we exposed people to specific experiences and interviewed them about their opinions, evaluations, and judgments afterwards. In the next paragraph the hermeneutical framework for the notion of ‘‘situational fit’’ is presented, and thereafter the method section explains how and where the field trial was carried out. The main body of the article consists of four analyses. The first addresses informants’ general evaluation of listening while walking and commuting through London, while the others deal with the felt situational fit of music playlists, live radio, and educational podcasts during such movement. In the conclusion we particularly discuss the tendency for live radio to be marginalized in the urban pedestrian situation – at least among the informants that took part in our trials.

Hermeneutics of Pedestrian Listening

A situational fit occurs when the human experiences a harmony or reinforcement between his/her ongoing situation and the informational characteristics of the sound production. It regards what Scannell (2010) calls the ‘‘listenability’’ of the auditory production in various situations.

This study is oriented to a particular type of listening, namely that of listening to sound content in headphones/ear buds while moving through a big city. It is important to acknowledge the exigencies of just this type of communicative situation. Burleson (2011, p. 28) argues that listening includes ‘‘interaction coordination,’’ the process of synchronizing listening activities with message production so as to achieve smooth and coherent social interchanges. The same goes for the physical surroundings. There is synchronization of listening to sound content with the coordination needed to cross a busy street, trying to locate an as yet unknown address, or emerging from an underground train system at a busy station and having to find your bearings before walking in the right direction. These types of geographical exigencies are likely to influence which types of sound content is considered suitable to listen to.

Ihde (1990) presents a theoretical perspective that helps to clarify the role of headphones in this setting. He distinguishes between embodied and hermeneutical technology relations. Glasses are embodied to the extent that they are not themselves an object of attention, rather, they help the seer to focus sharply on whatever he wants to look at. Headphones are partly comparable to glasses in that they are not typically the object of attention, but rather they present sounds that are the intended object of attention. However, the sounds in headphones are special. The headphones present us with humanly produced sounds that we experience in what Ihde (1990) calls a hermeneutical technology relation. These sounds are produced with the explicit purpose of being listened to by other humans. Music, talk, radio plays, reportage – they are all researched, dramatized, performed, transmitted, recorded, and curated, in stark contrast to sounds from the street, the underground train, and other sources that just happen to make sounds. Like the act of reading a book (Iser 1991); the act of listening to media sounds is largely an interpretational act, with listeners knowing enough about the implied positions, genres, and textual connotations to become engaged in active interpretation. The type of listening under study here is to a large extent a matter of adequate responses to genres of sound content, but with the added complexity of navigation and outdoors interaction coordination. Stockfelt (2004, p. 89) presents an analysis of ‘‘adequate listening,’’ and argues that daily listening is more conditioned by the listening situation itself than with the music (or other sound content). ‘‘The symphony that in the concert hall or on earphones can give an autonomous intra-musical experience, tuning one’s mood to the highest tension and shutting out the rest of the world, may in the cafe give the same listeners a mildly pleasant, relaxed separation from the noise of the street.’’ Stockfelt suggests that there is a continuum of listening from strictly musical experiences to hearing the music as a sonic environment for doing other things. What Stockfelt refers to as ‘‘autonomous intra-musical experience’’ can be taken to include professional audio productions of all sorts. Whether we refer to music playlists, radio programs, or podcasts they will all be listened to with greater or lesser content-orientation depending on the ongoing situation.

Audio productions have an in-built position for listeners to take up. Narrative theory (Chatman, 1980) as well as hermeneutics (Iser, 1991) argue that cultural products have an ‘‘ideal position’’ that the real listeners should take up in order to get the most out of the communicative event. The real listener will respond to the address in a more or less congenial way depending on his situation. It is vital to the present analysis that this rhetorical construction of listener position is considered. The three genres of audio production under study have quite different implied listener positions, and I will present them in some detail.

It is necessary to start with live radio, because it has the most distinctive implied listenership. The way a radio program typically addresses its listeners has been described as the ‘‘for anyone-as-someone’’ structure (Scannell, 2000). The host speaks to you as an individual someone, but at the same time thousands of other people also feel that they are addressed as someone special. Listeners are supposed to be socially and politically engaged in the topics under debate, and for example call on the phone or take part in a quiz. The listener is furthermore positioned as being a responsible citizen, with a thirst for knowledge and understanding ( Jauert & Lowe, 2005). This is the case in news bulletins; which presume that you have a need and interest in being updated on what goes on locally, regionally, nationally, or internationally. In the study reported here, informants were asked to listen to the commercial radio station LBC News in London, and while it relies on the ‘‘for anyone-as-someone’’ structure, it also positions the listeners as being interested in purchasing the products that are advertised on a regular basis.

Podcasting does not have the same well-defined listener position. To some extent it positions listeners as interested in ‘‘enlightenment’’ much like traditional public service radio does ( Jauert & Lowe, 2005). Although podcasts can come in all shapes and forms, they tend to be informative. Many of the dominant podcasts deal with social issues (NPR’s This American Life, NPR), history (BBC’s In Our Time), science, languages, and other topics related to learning and education. It is worth noting that since podcasts are recorded and can be accessed voluntarily, they don’t have the same focus on shared concerns as live radio. Podcasting is a mixture of editorial content like news, reportage, and documentaries presented by broadcasters like the BBC, andWeb sites where independent producers or private individuals collect and recommend podcasts. There is a strong element of curation of the podcast offer, and a large online archive of audio products in this genre. Podcasters can be said to address only those people who are interested in the topic at hand, and modifying Scannell’s name it could be called the ‘‘for-anyone-as-interested’’ structure.

Music playlists are made by assembling music that has typically been produced and recorded by somebody other than the assembler (Yakel, 2007). While recorded music in general implies a listener who loves and enjoys the given genre of music, the playlist operates on a curatorial level. Playlists imply a selection of high quality music, presented in an aesthetically pleasing order, and relies heavily on the good taste of the host, the DJ, or, significantly, the individual listener himself. Macek (2013, p. 299) points out that curation is normally a self-performance to others, with extrovert motivation and a want to be visible, unique, and trusted. It is therefore very important to notice that Spotify and iTunes users mainly organize the music playlists for themselves, either playing entire albums as if they were playlists or gathering together single songs from different artists into a playlist. In lack of a better term this activity can be called ‘‘self-curation.’’ The implied position of music playlists is vague, and it has an element of self-reference. When somebody plays his ‘‘workout playlist’’ the implied listener is someone who reacts to the music with energy and eagerness, and since the listener is the same as the curator the whole experience can be considered a form of self-reference. The playlist curator tries to steer his own mood and behavior with the playlist.

It seems reasonable to argue than none of these genres (radio, podcasting, music playlists) address the pedestrian situation in an explicit way. They are mainly constructed without any particular regard for the physical listening situation, except that during rush hour radio stations like LBC News imply that the listeners drive a car and are in need of updated traffic information.

Method: Field Trials in London

The researcher conducted a field trial in Central London in December 2013. Informants were asked to test listening to sound content using state-of-the-art noisecancelling headphones. The content was pre-selected, representing three genres – music, live news, and educational podcasts. The analysis focuses on the informants’ opinions about the content they had heard, and not the usability of the novel headphones. For an analysis of research experience related to noise-cancelling headphones, see Tessem and Nyre (2015).

A field trial applies a research method to examine an intervention in the real world. Outcomes are observed in a natural setting rather than in a contrived laboratory environment. Field trials are becoming more common due to the ‘‘mobility turn’’ (Urry, 2007) in cultural research and anthropology. Mobile methodologies include interactional and conversational analysis of people as they move, following objects, and co-present immersion in various modes of movement (Fincham, McGuinness, & Murray, 2010, p. ix). Included in the perspective are not only physical movement, but also potential movement, blocked movement, and forms of dwelling and place-making. Waiting is a good example of this. A field trial neutralizes important aspects of voluntary behavior. In the present case, the primary researcher (with occasional research assistants as needed) curated three batches of sound content (each lasting approximately 45 minutes) in the genres of music, live news, and podcast lectures, and asked the informants to listen to them outdoors and/or in transit. The researcher organized the ingredients of an experience in advance, and required a specific listening behavior instead of allowing the informants to pick and choose content according to their own taste. This approach neutralizes for example what Bull (2007, p. 22) calls the ‘‘filtering process’’ of the enthusiastic listener. The project is not based on grounded theory, but is ascertaining responses to very specific experiences.

The consultancy Indiefield in London was charged with recruiting ten informants.
The researcher had a limited network of contacts in London; the firm specializes in recruitment of informants for research and marketing. Indiefield recruited informants according to the following characteristics: all must be journalists, designers, architects, musicians, artists, and of similar professions. They live in Central London, are adults, own an iPhone, and should be an even mix of males and females. They were not selected to be representative of the demographics of the population of London, but for their likely willingness to engage with sound content in headphones, and describing their experience. See Table 1.

The group under study in this article is ‘‘creative professionals’’ who live in Central London. Table 1 shows their main characteristics, like age, occupation, and place of residence. The youngest is 27 years, and there are no children, teenagers, or students. The oldest is 50 years old, and there are no grandparents or pensioners. They are all working adults with good reason to travel across the city, some every day, and others a few days a week. They all listened to the selected sound content in the streets, on the bus, and in the Underground transit, and some also while jogging, driving a motorcycle, or riding a bike.

Table 1 – Profiles of 10 Informants (Alias, Age, Occupation, and London Residence)

Alias Age Occupation Residence
Laura 27 Hair stylist Notting Hill
Virginia 29 Interior designer Clapham Common
Elisabeth 32 Owner of juice company Hammersmith
William 36 Map designer Wimbledon
John 38 Music producer Hackney
Catherine 39 Fashion designer Fulham
Isaac 41 Grammy nominated songwriter Sheperd’s Bush
Diana 47 Mural painter (w/ law degree) Battersea
Richard 47 Tour guide and teacher Wandsworth
Agnes 50 Designer and lifestyle coach Chelsea

Informants wore their personal iPhone 5s and a pair of Bose QuietComfort15 noise-cancelling headphones supplied by the researchers. It should be noted that the iPhone does not have an FM receiver, so the radio trial was based on streaming audio and mobile data.

As Figures 1a, 1b, and 1c illustrate, the mobile phone has a visual interface that is integrated in all forms of control and communication. Figure 1a illustrates the Spotify playlist; Figure 1b being live news radio LBC, and Figure 1c presents a historical podcast from BBC Radio 4. Spotify invites selection and choice by its very interface, which opens up to a number of options, like sharing, saving, and deleting. While LBC has a visual interface with lots of choices, the buttons typically lead to other visual features, like written news stories, while the sound selection is very limited. They have two stations; one for news and one for talk, and that’s it.

Figure 1 A. Screenshot of a Visual Interface That the Informants had to Interact With in the Field Trial.

The podcast interface has lots of choice to which programs to listen, but is only on/off. The headphone listener is faced with at least two extra-auditory challenges; navigating and selecting on the touch panel, and in addition the phone might ring, a SMS ticks in, one writes an email, and so forth.

After 3–8 days the research team talked with the informants about their headphone experience during a 1-hour interview. This procedure is related to ethnography and audience studies, where in-depth dialogue with a few people is preferred (Bull, 2007; Behrendt, 2012). The semi-structured interview was guided by a prepared soundtrack with city noises and audio content; and the researcher played and discussed three to four such sound clips during the interview. This can be considered a form of memory jog, nudge, or priming, and the resulting conversation was governed by what interaction designers call ‘‘think aloud protocols.’’

Qualitative research projects often challenge people to formulate quite precisely thoughts and experiences that they may never have formulated previously. Some researchers are skeptical about this slightly confrontational method (Gentikow, 2005), but for this project it seemed a fruitful approach. Many themes do not surface until people are asked about them. For instance, many statements arose when the informants were asked to reflect upon topics, and they responded initially, ‘‘I’ve never really thought about that before, but…’’.

On the Move in Central London

The first analysis of the data material aims to clarify the empirical setting of the informants’ perceptual situation, and show which ‘‘adequate listening positions’’ are possible while being on the move in a big city.

The members of the informant group all travel a lot internally in London, going to the workplace and where their different commissions take them. They all use the Underground rail system frequently. Some of them have to take a 5–10 minute bus ride in addition, and some commute farther, for example to Oxford which is approximately 60 minutes away. This analysis has focused on typical situations of listening, and indicate how informants dealt with types of noise accompanying them (Hendy, 2013).

Figure 2. Routes of 10 Informants Through Central London. Illustration by Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås. © Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås. Reproduced by permission of Stig Hovlandsdal Øvreås. Permission to reuse must be obtained from the rights holder.

Figure 2 shows the regular commutes of the informants. The thickest line means commuting 5 days a week (e.g., Isaac) and the thinnest scales down to 1 day a week (Virginia). Some informants travel every day, while others work a lot from home. The informants describe commutes of between 30 minutes and 1 hour, which suggests that there is plenty of available time in headphone-friendly environments. Also, the informants describe that they routinely listen to music on these travels. Richard (47) from Wandsworth has the special habit of riding a motorbike, and he listens to music and podcasts during his daily drive time from Battersea to Waterloo. Virginia goes to Glouchestershire once a week, and enjoys long sessions of quality listening during these trips.

Walking the streets is a very active experience, with cars, buses, and lorries making a lot of noise in narrow, centuries-old street plans. There are high-pitched, high-volume sirens from emergency vehicles, and crowds of people walking past one another from all directions. Taking the bus is less noisy than being in the street, but one is still part of the motor noise of the city, and will have to jump out into the street again after the bus ride. Regarding preferences, no style of music is seen to be more suitable than the other for walking around. John (38) says, ‘‘I listen to anything really. All different styles at any time.’’ It’s not the location of their walking, but time of day that guides listening preferences. Along with other informants he expresses a need for loud, aggressive stuff in the morning, ‘‘to help wake me up a bit.’’

Taking the Underground is also a very noisy experience, especially at the stations. There are loudspeaker announcements, accelerating trains and breaking trains, wind sounds, busking with drums and saxophones and portable amplification systems, and lots of other people all the time. Catherine (39) says,

Sometimes I know the Tube is going to be really crushed and hectic. I’ve got to weave through all the different tunnels and make lots of changes, and sometimes I can switch off and be ‘‘led.’’ I can be led by directions; I can be led by the Tube; I don’t have to use my own faculties, as it were, and can go into my subconscious.

There is not necessarily a lot of noise inside the carriages, especially not during rush hour. Laura (27) says that ‘‘the Underground is one of my favorite places to listen because everyone is so silent, especially early in the morning. I would hate to be on the Underground and not listen to anything.’’

Running and exercising is common in public spaces, along paths, and to some extent in the streets. London is full of parks and river paths, and people spend leisure time walking or running outdoors. Catherine (39) uses headphones while running. ‘‘Running with some music,’’ Catherine says, ‘‘is my escapism. That’s the equivalent of me going to a night club and let off a bit of energy.’’ Richard (47) says it makes him keep going. ‘‘I don’t actually enjoy running; I do it because it’s good for me, and for the dog. You can’t beat disco from the 1970s. It’s euphoric, it’s highly rhythmical, it’s great fun.’’

It is not commonly accepted to wear headphones while riding a bike. Catherine (39) says, ‘‘If you’re a cyclist, my goodness, you’re on a battleground and should definitely not wear headphones. I’ve seen people doing it, and it’s like a suicide mission.’’ However, she concedes that as bikes become a more common means of transport in London, one would expect that listening habits are transferred and transformed. William (36) often rides a bike while listening in headphones:

You’ve got your own soundtrack when you’re going along. And it emphasizes the visual, and becomes somehow cinematic because you can’t really hear what’s going on around you. On the other hand, you have to ride very defensively. If you can’t hear someone hooting at you, and they’re in your blind spot and about to hit you, I don’t think that’s a good thing.

The commutes and routines of the ten informants are illustrative of most people who live and work in Central London.

Controlling the Playlist

In this listening trial, informants were asked to listen to a playlist of ‘‘urban music’’ curated by the research team, and that they should listen with the BOSE noisecancelling headphones while they were out walking and transporting themselves around. It was stated explicitly that they could not listen at home, and that they should spend at least 1 hour on this activity.

The curated Spotify playlist lasts for approximately 60 minutes, and consists of classic and contemporary soul, funk, and hip hop tracks; several were recorded by London artists like Amy Winehouse and Finley Quaye. The tracks have a contemporary production sound. First the informants were asked to evaluate the playlist in relation to walking, and afterwards talked more generally about their music taste.

The informants found the playlist pleasing, and agreed that the songs were suitable for walking around in the city. Virginia (29) says, ‘‘Yeah nice, really nice. Nina Simone’s amazing. It kind of takes you out of your zone. It’s nice to have a soundtrack as you’re going through busy streets. I like the music!’’ Elisabeth (32) was more reserved, but still rather positive. ‘‘It didn’t make me want to go to sleep, and it wasn’t screaming death metal in my ear, that would made me want to kill someone. It was quite nice to walk around the city with this music.’’ These people are characterized by high genre literacy, and can sense what musical genres fit with different times of day and locations.

Informants regularly listen to this type of soul, funk, and hip hop, and are immediately attuned to its mood. They curate playlists based on what actions are to be done next. Music is a secondary medium during navigation, and informants describe it well. Catherine (39) says such playlists help ‘‘speed up your pace, it motivates and uplifts you. So you feel efficient. You feel like you’re just going to cruise through the crowds, you’re going to get all your jobs done. You feel streetwise because it empowers you slightly.’’ It comes across that music doesn’t interfere with navigation in the same way as talk does. Bull (2007) and Simun (2009) discuss this acoustically enhanced navigation as being solitary and private.

And indeed; this is not just about music; it is about the personal mood of the listener, a private experience. Diana (47) describes the difference between herself and her husband, and she fits into the mood-listener while he is a typical musiclistener:

My husband will download all there is, but I’ve had the same on my music list for years. I might listen to the same music again and again and again. You know, I never really change my playlist. Whereas he has thousands and thousands of songs, and he’ll think about what he’s going to listen to. He’s a real avid music lover, I don’t call myself that.

In her study of London commuters, Simun (2009, p. 935) compared DJs and ordinary listeners, and found that the latter group rarely or never changed the music on their MP3-players, and that they found the maintenance process ‘‘a bit of a chore.’’ They mainly used the music to control thoughts, emotions and experience – and use it as such (Simun, 2009, p. 935). The DJs, on the other hand, listened to the music, and habitually update their music reservoir and edit their playlists. Several of the London informants are very conscious about to what they listen. Catherine (39) is very systematical. ‘‘When you invest with a playlist, you have to invest quite a lot of time with the selection process. Because for me when I have a playlist, it has to go in a sort of order. I don’t do a random one.’’ Three of the informants work professionally with music, namely John the music producer and Isaac the songwriter.

William (36) is constantly buying new music on iTunes. ‘‘It’s about 90,000 songs, so I’ve got smart playlists, and I have rated all my music, and I use the playlists to organize my music. For example I have one that says, ‘Jazz + rated five stars’ or ‘Hip-hop’ or one that’s a certain number of beats per minute. The program looks like an Excel form, and scientifically filters stuff out.’’

The interviewer asks about curatorship: ‘‘You’re curating your own musical life, or everyday experience of music?’’

‘‘Definitely,’’ William answers. ‘‘You hear a good tune, it puts you in a good mood. I want the soundtrack to my day to be music that I like.’’

Interpreting these statements, it seems that the participants find it deeply meaningful to organize the music for themselves. This self-curation intersects focal practice; an activity that adds meaning to one’s life and helps to center the individual (Borgmann, 1984). The experience is highly individualized, with personal gratification at the core.

It is interesting to note that this privatization of cultural experience doesn’t fit very well with the implied listener position of traditional radio, since engagement with the public interest requires a degree of extroversion.

Engaging With Live Radio

In the second trial, the participants were told to listen to live radio news and actuality from the local radio station LBC – London’s Biggest Conversation – while being out and about. The rules were the same as for the Spotify playlist: spend at least 1 hour on this activity, and you are not allowed to listen at home.

More specifically, the task was to listen to a live radio program from the Londonoriented station LBC News. LBC is a commercial, local news radio station that has existed for decades in London. It turned out that none of the informants listen to LBC on a regular basis, but they all know about the station, and most have heard it a lot in the car, with parents in particular. It’s FM and AM coverage goes well beyond Central London.

Several informants have negative responses to the implied position of ‘‘being together’’ with the talk show hosts.William (36) says, ‘‘I was sitting there thinking – oh, this is just rubbish! It’s trash! Nick Ferrari thrives on being controversial, and TalkSport are giving die-hard football fans a platform for tribalism.’’ Informants didn’t like the radio personalities, and didn’t want to be part of the specific public of which LBC comprises. They were also annoyed with LBC’s agenda-setting. Elisabeth (32) is not a big listener to news. ‘‘I think there’s a lot of scaremongering and trying to keep everyone in terror. It’s just an onslaught of negativity.’’

She doesn’t like news about burglaries or murders in the local area:

I don’t read things like the Daily Mail or the Evening Standard. They’re constantly feeding you news about every little thing, and half of it I’m not interested in. I don’t care about sports. Politics I also have no interest in. So mainly, anything world crisis-related I’m interested in, but the rest, no.

This is a resistance to LBC’s editorial profile, but also to the very notion of being told what is important, and being forced to relate to something you may not be interested in. Laura (27):

LBC is slower than music. They’re talking about serious topics, and you’re learning about something. It triggers your thoughts, and do you know what do I think about this topic? It provokes different emotions from when you’re listening to music. I should probably be a bit more serious and listen to the news a bit more.

Interestingly, she feels guilt for not listening to local news more often. Listening to LBC is a negative experience to Laura (27). ‘‘If they’re talking about something I’m not interested in, then I’ll have to literally just switch off, two seconds later. It sounds so bad, but I want to be doing something fun.’’ Laura explains that her father always listened to LBC in the car, and that she hates it!

In contrast to the music task, informants reported that they rarely, or indeed never, listened to radio from their iPhone. They listen to radio at home and in the car. Except for Laura, they were all avid listeners to radio, including staples like the The Archers on BBC Radio 4 and pop music on Radio 2. Nevertheless, nobody had a habit of listening to radio while walking in the city, and their explanations were practical, most significantly they complained of expensive data transfer and long time periods spent in the notoriously offline Underground rail system. While music was something everybody had listened to while on the move, and could talk about from personal experience, radio was completely different. In most cases they were talking about the test experience on the basis of their experience with ordinary, domestic radio listening.

However, the informants had many positive things to say about listening to local radio while being on the move in London. Diana (47) felt that she was taking part in a live experience of the local community. ‘‘Especially listening to news and London radio, I suppose I do feel very much of the moment. I listened to LBC walking down here [to City University], and LBC is definitively a London community-based station.’’ Radio’s liveness can put the listener in strong emotional contact with the surroundings, the people and public events. John (38) describes the intimacy of this liveness:

I felt like I was round the table with them all in the conversation. The first time the news did come in, it did sort of make me jump. I was suddenly aware, ‘‘Oh, I’m not in the chat show room now.’’ Because it felt like I was in a room with these other people. It felt like you were more part of it rather than just listening in.

And, ‘‘you do end up wanting to respond to them, which I don’t think I ever did before when I used to listen to it normally.’’

This is an eloquent description of what Scannell (2014, p. 93) calls the ‘‘sociability’’ of radio. Elisabeth (32) says, ‘‘And I got quite sort of caught up in the topic they were talking about and listening quite sort of intently. So that was probably my favorite little bit of the whole thing.’’ Catherine (39) makes an interesting remark about how the voice of the radio personalities influenced her. She learned that the actor Peter O’Toole had died, hearing the news spoken by another person instead of reading it in the paper. ‘‘Sad news became sadder,’’ she says. Agnes (50) is more pragmatic about relating to the larger community:

I suppose it depends on how involved one needs to be with the community, and how much information I need to get on board to be able to run my life. It’s driven by what I need to do in the day, and at the moment I’m doing lots of things where I don’t really need to know what’s going on in London.

The descriptions quoted are sensitive, but they are not directly related to the act of moving through the city. However, Isaac had an interesting such experience. He was walking down Shaftesbury Avenue in the evening when he heard a news flash about an accident at the Apollo Theatre, located in the very same street. Seventy-six people were injured when part of the ceiling came down during a performance of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time. The accident has later been accounted to weak and old materials (BBC, 2013). Isaac talked about his ‘‘breaking news’’ experience in some detail:

It was a very weird experience. Like, walking down Shaftesbury Avenue, where the theater collapsed, and listening to someone talking about it, being in there. It was almost like having someone next to you telling you: ‘‘Guess what? This happened.’’ It felt very connected. I felt like I was really up to date on what was going on. I didn’t have to ask anyone, ‘‘What’s happened?’’ I knew more than 99% of the people there ‘cause I was hearing someone talking about it live. And it kind of gave it the personal touch. When you read it on the Internet, it’s very informative and up to date, but this was a personal account. And it kind of put a different perspective on it. They also spoke to a witness who was driving home from the theater, and she was just with her husband in the car, and she was talking about their experience. I was listening to it, really intrigued. And she said, ‘‘Oh, got to go, there’s a tunnel coming up.’’ And that was it. I didn’t even know she was driving a car up until that point. But yeah, it was very good. And when I went home I didn’t turn on the telly, because I’d heard everything already.

Isaac (41) was being continuously updated about the events while himself being at the scene, and when he came home he was already well informed. The editorial content was directly relevant to his urban situation, and the journalists and witnesses report on something he has an urgent need to know more about. The Apollo Theatre incident as reported on LBC News was a good match between a dramatic event that was editorialized in a classic way, and an authentic listener who gladly took up the implied position of the news because he was in the right place for it. This was the clearest case of ‘‘adequate listening’’ in the corpus.

Learning from Podcasts

In third and last trial, the informants were asked to listen to a podcast lasting at least 45 minutes while out walking or transporting themselves. As before, it was forbidden to listen at home, and the BOSE headphones should be worn. This was uncommon for several informants. William (36) says,

For me podcasting is something I’d do at home while doing some paperwork or something. It’s less on the move, for me. Maybe if you’re sitting on the Tube, but it’s not something I’ve done before so it did feel a bit strange. Not in a bad way, but just a bit different.

While live radio comes from the public to you as a listener, podcasting is described in quite different terms. It is self-selected in the extreme, and the engagement starts on the inside, from the listener’s interests, and grows outward. Aside from the trial, the informants reported listening previously to podcasting in a variety of situations and many different genres, and their cultural sensitivity to podcasting came across as high. Informants listened to film review podcasts, yoga classes, portraits, news, and actuality, although mostly at home or on the train, but less often while walking in the street.

Laura (27) differentiates podcasting from music. ‘‘Does podcasting put you in another kind of mood than the genres?’’ the interviewer asked. ‘‘Yes, completely,’’ responds Laura:

Because it’s history, it’s learning. Someone is talking to you so you’re listening to what they’re saying. It’s one-sided. Basically all there is just to suck up the knowledge. The same is with the news. You’re being fed information. Whereas music provokes emotions you feel like you can play with it, if that makes any sense at all?

The research team curated a selection of podcasts for the informants from the large archive of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. It has aired since the early 2000s, and several dozen episodes are available as podcasts. In each episode Mr. Bragg tackles a historical phenomenon along with three experts from the UK university system. The episodes last 45 minutes, and have titles like ‘‘The Dawn of the Iron Age,’’ ‘‘The Neanderthals’’ or ‘‘The American West.’’ These programs are dense with information, and require sustained attention from the listener. The implied listener is generally interested in learning and knowledge, and researchers wanted informants to pronounce their opinion on that.

How did the informants feel about the pressure of learning on which traditional public service radio builds its identity? Their responses were mostly negative, and they identified three problems: these BBC podcasts were too authoritative in tone; this type of content requires enhanced concentration; and, third, it is difficult to listen carefully while on the move.

Informants complained about trying to keep up their concentration for 45 minutes of sustained conversation including elements of narration and discussion, with lots of uncommon or unknown words, references, and trying to envision the historical progression across the millennia. This is difficult intellectual work.

Several informants said that podcasting isn’t something they would do on the move. Laura (27):

I think it’d be more, um, while I was cooking at home, for example. You know, chopping things but listening to something at the same time. That’s something you could do together, but maybe not crossing a road or where a platform is or [seeking] what time a train is. These are new things, whereas chopping carrots and celery is something you know how to do already, so it’s automatic.

John (38) says he would lose the thread of the podcast story if he listened to it while walking around. ‘‘I was finding myself, every now and then having to rewind because of the subject, and I guess because it’s all the same thing. I was finding myself turning off inside, a little bit.’’ This is a good description of listening to something which really doesn’t fit with the situation. John (38) also doesn’t like the paternalistic dimension of podcasting:

I downloaded a random three. I didn’t know much about hardly any of the subjects. It’s definitely more of an educational thing. Maybe that’s why I felt slightly removed from it. I was finding I was having to listen in and concentrate more. So I definitely wasn’t going about my usual business. I had to listen to it all for this research project. It did feel a little bit like: I must do this, so got to listen to it all intently in case I get quizzed on the subjects.

Interestingly, the researcher was perceived to be taking up the same moral platitude as public service broadcasting, urging informants to concentrate and learn. But since the informants really only wanted to learn things that they themselves found interesting, it seems clear that podcasting should be considered alongside music playlists as fostering a ‘‘curatorial listening position.’’

Conclusion: Survival of the Fittest

In sum, the study reveals pedestrian headphone listeners with little willingness to be told what to do, little acknowledgement of the expertise of others in presenting high quality content, and a great deal of confidence in their own selection of music, news, and learning. The London informants organize the sound content they like, and in this way maintain a steady flow of sound content with situational fit in their everyday life The self-curated lists come from the privacy of the home, and can be considered a kind of sonic file migration, not unlike the very commute that the listeners themselves embark on. This curative activity is creative even though it does not consist of producing music or talk, and it is communicative even though there is no public audience. Everything is organized for one person only and this can be called ‘‘self-curation.’’ Regarded strictly on its own accord, this is a valuable cultural activity that enhances people’s lives , and is perhaps more meaningful to some than if all the time spent commuting and walking was unaccompanied by audio productions.

While podcasting and recorded music seem to thrive among audiences comprised of ‘‘self-curative’’ pedestrian headphone listeners, traditional live radio doesn’t have the same fit. Consider that the dominant distribution technologies for live radio are still FM and DAB, and on these platforms there is no way the listeners can ‘‘selfcurate’’ the output; they can only change the station, or switch on something else. If radio is not included in the menu of audio productions that people listen to while being on the move through the city, this might in the long run marginalize the live public community that radio has always been good at assembling. And if being addressed as a collective makes listeners turn off, there are serious challenges for all audio production that relies on such an approach.

While it is not in the task of this article to propose business strategies, it should be noted that there are ways for radio stations to achieve a better situational fit with urban headphone listeners.

1) Find out what topics work well in pedestrian situations, and address headphone listeners directly in programs. Hypothetically, a station could send live feeds from Piccadilly Circus in London, and there would be enough topics for round-the-clock coverage.
2) If the station is also streamed on the Internet, it could cater to the need for self-curated music. The company Capsule FM, for example, produces a hybrid mix of content: editorial news, traffic, and weather reports are read aloud by synthetic voices, and these are interspersed with songs extracted from the listeners’ Spotify, iTunes, or Tidal accounts. Technically, it would not be very difficult to combine live editorial content with self-curated playlists.
3) Although it has not been analyzed here, radio has a rather ineffective distribution infrastructure in big cities. DAB and FM signals disappear in the train tunnels, and there are signal shadows around high-rise buildings. While radio stations are typically available on the Internet, it costs quite a lot of money to transfer data to mobile phones, and in any event the signal will disappear in tunnels and under bridges, causing either poor sound quality or buffering events.

If these three issues were addressed by the radio industry, there would be reason to expect a better situational fit for ‘‘urban headphone’’ listeners while on the move in metropolitan areas.


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