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How listening on the go impacts the engagement with audio contents?

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Listening to the radio while on the move is nothing new. The invention of mini transistor and battery-powered portable radios back in the 1950s generated the so-called new audio culture of mobile listening. But until now, the effect of mobility while listening to audio products at the very moment of their reception had not been investigated. The results of a recent study show differences between listening to a narrative while in motion or in stillness in terms of the psychological processes and the experience of listening, but not in terms of enjoyment.

Listening to the radio while on the move is nothing new. Theinvention of mini transistor and battery-powered portable radios back in the 1950s generated the so-called new audio culture of mobile listening. The appearance in the 1980s of the Sony Walkman and ghetto blasters to some extent redefined culture as a process that led to the current proliferation of mobile devices. The recent development of podcast andmp3 technologies, together with the popularization of cell phones, has produced a growth in the consumption of audio content by different aged people, as well as an increase of radio audiences and greater revenues in audiobook industry. We are all familiar with the use of headphones by people in urban spaces while using public transportation. We all realize that listening to audio content on the go (e.g. music, radio, audiobooks of different genres) is a regular practice nowadays.
Some researchers think that everyday mobile listening embellishes one’s own environment, marks frontiers, and controls time and/or learning. Some others consider that people use the sounds that accompany their everyday actions as a tool for the appropriation of experiences. There are investigators who claim that mobility inevitably changes the way we relate to both sound and space, since listening to audio contents is considered a system of holistic interconnection between the sound, the listener and the ambience. Thus, mobile urban listening, produced in physical places that are not designed for broadcasting sounds, could affect the resulting perception.  Some other researchers suggest that the specifity of the social setting in which listening occurs affect the actual sound due to the spatial characteristics of the surrounding urban geography, and the complexity of sounds produced by the spatial and temporal simultaneity of occurring experiences, agents or events. Finally, some researchers believe that audio content could alter behaviour (e.g. moving in rhythm to music) or the psychological treatment of content or of one’s environment (e.g. reduce attention and/or affect spatial or temporal position). However, in spite of all that, there is no research that experimentally explores the effect of the mobility during listening to the reception of audio products. Hence, there is a need to understand the new dynamics of the mobile consumption of audio contents of different genres and their effect on cognition, affections and behaviours.
Researchers of psychological processes associated to media entertainment have made considerable progress in describing the factors explaining the main responses by users to the consumption of different genres of audiovisual narratives. However, they have mainly studied the audiovisual worlds of cinema and television, while ignoring the audio-radiophonic. In fact, there is little information on audience responses to audio fictions, despite many public and private radio broadcasters around the world still producing and transmitting narratives in different genres (e.g. theatre, fiction, dramatised readings).
As a result of the previous arguments, this study focuses on three different purposes. First, it aims at exploring whether the modality of consumption of an audio narrative (stationary or moving) affects psychological processes associated to the consumption of narratives by media entertainment researches. Second, it explores whether relevant concepts that explain the reception of audiovisual fictions (particularly engagement) could be used for explaining the experience of listening and enjoyment of radio phonic-audio fictional products. Finally, it also seeks to expand the knowledge of the variables that predict enjoyment of audio-radio products.
In order to achieve these objectives the present study was conducted a quasi-experimental research, in which 327 UAB students (58.7% women and 41.3% men) were randomly assigned to one of two listening conditions (moving vs. stationary) and two horror very engaging narratives (s1 vs. s2). For mobile listening, participants were asked to listen to the story while walking around the Faculty of Communication building and back to the place they started. For stationary listening, they were asked to listen while seated in the same place where the moving condition started. Right after the listening, all the participants answered a questionnaire containing scales that theoretically define engagement and questions about enjoyment.
The main results of the study show that mobile listening affects some of the factors that predict engagement. Generally speaking, and compared to stationary listening, mobility reduces the degrees of the identification with the characters, the attention to the narrative, the perception of realism in the narrative, the perception of spatial characteristics of the story, and the cognitive involvement.
For the specific results on identification with characters, listening on the go not only reduces the overall general identification but can make the listener less able to understand the events of the story as the character does, and less able to comprehend the character or the reasons for his/her actions. Regarding the realism perceived on the story, mobility causes narrative realism to be lower: dialogues are considered less credible, there is less perception of characters being similar to known-familiar people and the likelihood of the story happening is real life is lower. For Spatial presence, mobility causes attention to the audio product to be lower: listeners pay less attention to the story, concentrate on it less and capture fewer of their feelings. Furthermore, spatial situation (the capacity to imagine the layout, the precise the spatial environment, the calculation of time and the specific mental image of the spaces presented in the story) is lower when the user moves while listening. Likewise, due to motion, there is less imagination of things related with the story, relation between things in the story itself, activation of thoughts and perception of the usefulness of the story.
The results of the project also show that mobile listening does not diminish the enjoyment of the narratives. Participants enjoy audio narratives to a similar extent while moving or being stationary.  Results also inform that enjoyment turns out to be predicted by the perception of narrative realism in the story, the empathetic-absorbent-behavioural identification with the main character, the attention to the story, the high cognitive involvement with the story and the fact that the narrative corresponds to the specific terrain of interest of the listener. Finally, results additionally inform that the desireto hear other similar audio stories is predicted by the high cognitive involvement with the narrative, the specific interest in the topic of the narrative and the enjoyment.
The above results of this investigation represent a first attempt to characterize the reception of audio fictions to the light of the factors that psychologically explain media entertainment.  They also validate, in an audio-radio phonic context, the measurement of factors that were originally formulated for audiovisual products, together with providing indications of the weight of each of these factors in predicting enjoyment. Finally, they bring much-needed information about the effect of mobility on listening in terms of engagement and enjoyment, which is relevant, both for researchers of different disciplines, and professionals in the radio and audiovisual industries. 

Mara T. Soto-Sanfiel
Department of Audiovisual Communication and Advertising


Soto-Sanfiel, María T. Engagement and mobile listening. International Journal of Mobile Communication. 2015, vol. 13, num. 1, p. 29-50. doi: 10.1504/IJMC.2015.065889.

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