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What will happen to reading as listening rises?

Abstract image of an eye listening via headphones and an ear using a magnifying glassSnuggling under the covers with only the dim flicker of a bedside lamp, cradling a treasured, well-leafed book, is a memory fast fading for some, and one that may never be experienced by many. Similarly, flicking through a glossy magazine while poolside or on our daily commute is an activity being relinquished for another, more technology-driven pursuit.

The vast majority of us are now perennially plugged into a portable device, listening to a podcast, an audio book, or news broadcast, often streamed, providing on-demand content at any time of the day or night.

According to The Infinite Dial 2019 research by Edison, Americans are listening to online audio for at least 17 hours per week, with numbers of online listeners growing from a third of the population in 2012 to two-thirds in 2019. According to both Edison and Nielsen research, up to 110 million people worldwide listen to a podcast at least once a month, with a staggering 750 000 podcasts available for our listening pleasure. Audiobooks are the fastest growing ‘book’ sector compared to print and digital, with some books being published as audio even before they go to print.

Will this audio phenomenon render the written form less valuable in future and what impact will it have on how we tell stories?

The audio influence

The rise of portable audio devices, content streaming and other technologies have certainly been enablers, but technology alone doesn’t create change. A combination of factors influences significant cultural shifts, including economic, social and environmental aspects.

The rise of time poverty, despite predictions that technology would shorten working hours and lengthen our free time, has created a perfect storm. The curse of ‘busyness’ is pervasive.

We constantly seek ways to combine many activities at once, to short circuit the never-ending list of tasks that crowd our daily lives – both personal and professional.

Working parents are the most afflicted ‘time-poor’ individuals, juggling the demands of climbing the corporate ladder, spending quality time with their children, staying on top of the finances, organising their social lives, and catching up with friends and extended family.

Listening, rather than reading, provides a short circuit solution to combine many of these activities at once, while also consuming content of interest or necessity, without having to find extra time in the day. Listening has become what we do when we are busy and ‘reading’ is what we do in our ‘downtime’.

Nowadays, listening is one of those activities we can undertake while doing other things – the ultimate multitasking enabler. We can walk to work while listening to an audio book; consume the latest news while making dinner; catch up on our favourite podcast while brushing our teeth. In fact, the BBC Global News Audio Activated Report 2019 found that 94 per cent of podcast listeners do so while undertaking another activity including carrying out tasks, relaxing at home or commuting.

Even more interesting, the research found that listening to a podcast while undertaking another activity increased engagement, emotional intensity and long-term memory of the content.

The highs and lows of listening

Will our obsession with listening to content curtail our ability to read? Or even worse, our ability to think or feel? Will we outsource all our ‘reading’ to a listening device? For instance, will the traditional bedtime stories parents have read to their children for hundreds of years become an exercise in shared or solo listening?

The impacts of listening rather than reading has not been widely researched, as opposed to the implications of staring at a screen for long hours at a time, which is causing some concern, particularly among educators. The Gonski Institute for Education is currently undertaking research called Growing up Digital Australia, which will delve further into previous studies, and complement global studies that have shown the negative impacts of screen time on children.

In 2015, Gonski research into ‘Growing up in Australia’ found that 30 per cent of a child’s time was spent looking at a screen. This coincided with the Mission Australia Youth Survey 2018 finding a significant deterioration in developmental well-being among children, including mental and physical health.

A new health trend – Problematic Interactive Media Use (PIMU) – has emerged. PIMU can be described as addictive, excessive or compulsive screen media behaviour. It has been shown that, without proper intervention, PIMU can have a detrimental effect on children, adversely impacting their educational, social and emotional development.

But how does this differ from listening?

Listening with intent is not the same as scanning a computer screen or other device, where we may be distracted by pop-up ads, sidebars and banners. These are strategically placed to move our attention away from the content we intended to consume to the attractions we are being persuaded to peruse and ultimately purchase.

Listening focuses attention in a way that scanning a screen can never do .

Storytelling is timeless

The demise of books has been much debated, much like the death of the cinema was lamented, with the advent of streaming. However, the rise in listening is actually creating a resurgence in reading by reminding us of our love of words – whether spoken or otherwise.

The origins of storytelling began with visuals in the form of cave drawings and hieroglyphics, and the oral practices of singing, chanting and word-of-mouth stories being passed down through generations.

Babies in the womb become familiar with their mothers’ voices, which studies have shown can contribute to the auditory and oral development of the growing baby’s brain. Toddlers learn to speak by mimicking the language of those around them and children first learn to read by listening to bedtime stories.

Listening is still a skill that is much lauded, and sadly often missing in our lives. Perhaps the rise of audio consumption will improve our ability to listen, to really focus on what is being said, and in fact enhance our understanding and empathy.

Even more interesting, listening may just be the saviour we need to reinvigorate our love of reading . It enables us to engage with that most basic of human needs – connecting with each other via the nurturing sound of another human voice. In doing so, it may also help us to disconnect from the digital scanning of screens and its potential to damage not only our eyesight, but also our ability to engage with the written word with intent and understanding.

For many people in our society – those who are blind or for whom reading has become difficult due to age or illness – listening is their only means of connecting with literature, current affairs, news and a human narrative.

While listening is the ‘new’ reading, it is also one of the oldest forms of communication known to mankind. So, while we are embracing it in its new form, it is also encouraging us to reconnect with our love of language and storytelling, much as our ancestors intrinsically did. Ultimately, it may just be the lifesaver humankind needs to re-engage with our love of ‘reading’. Perhaps the rumours of the death of books are greatly exaggerated after all…

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About Maria Rampa

Maria Rampa is the Season 2 podcast narrator or Aurecon's Engineering ReimaginedFormer journalist Maria Rampa is the Season 2 host for Aurecon’s Engineering Reimagined podcast.

Her communications skills and experience have been the ideal foundation for a successful career in professional services and B2B marketing, with her love of broadcasting now being indulged in her new podcast host role.

6 replies »

  1. Podcasts are great. Although for some the habit of reading paperback or hardback books won’t die anytime soon. A real book separates you entirely from technology and for some people that’s psychologically necessary if you read before bed. Sadly for newspapers and magazines, the same may not be true.

    • I agree Kate – I think there is a place for every ‘media’ depending on what mood you are in and how you like to consume content. Audio is a great option when multi-tasking but there is nothing like reading a book when lounging on the beach or lying in bed!

  2. Maria what a great article. Some really interesting thoughts around how the way we like to be communicated to has changed over time. I’ve become so used to getting everything, from news to entertainment, in sound bites that it becomes difficult to commit to anything longer than 15 minutes and I worry that this will ultimately reduce our ability to get deeper into the detail. Hopefully we’ll adapt to something that can provide both speed and depth.

    • Technology is changing so fast Chris, as we know! Voice-activated content is also on the rise – what impact will that have? I think we will have so many options to choose from and we will use different channels at different times. I love listening to audio books and podcasts while walking to work but still like opening a book in bed at the of the day…I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

  3. Fascinating article. As a lover of hardback books, I have found myself using the Kindle on my phone. While I don’t enjoy reading on the device, it means that the book gets delivered instantly, it doesn’t take extra space or weight and if I’m stranded anywhere I can just take my phone out and read. I do miss the feel and smell of paper and that notion of “me time” that goes with it, because reading “paper” is a deliberate action, something we have allocated time for. I have also enjoyed listening to podcasts while cooking dinner, although I find myself drifting in thoughts and having to “rewind” (do we still say that? :))

  4. Thanks Nathalie – I find I mix it up between audio books, podcasts, hardcover books, digital news and articles, magazines and newspapers – it all depends on what I am doing and what mood I am in! I find it best to walk while listening to a podcast as it provides just the right amount of movement with the ability to concentrate on the content. In fact, during these times of ‘lockdown’ having a podcast to listen to at the end of the day ensures I get outside for that walk! Reading a hardcover book is a great holiday activity – as you say, it is the deliberate act of creating ‘me’ time. There is nothing better than laying beside a pool reading a book…

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