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Wake-Up Call

April 29, 2020

This may fall under the heading of “too soon,” but the pandemic is serving as a giant wake-up call for the radio industry.

Across the country, we are seeing PUMMs and cumes decline for most formats except those that deal in information.

The good news is that listeners know where they can turn for vital, local information. Radio has always served this need and continues to do so in grand fashion. The audience for news and information programming has exploded. Why? Because listeners have an expectation that radio can deliver when needed. In a normal life this need is variable, but will we ever return to normal?

The bad news is that music radio is being perceived as a utility. For decades music radio has been the #1 source for discovery and entertainment. It weathered the 8-track, cassette, and multiple CD changers. Why? Because radio could always surprise, while also giving the listener what they expect. While listeners may have lamented that they “always” knew what song was next, in reality – they didn’t. Their personal media was predictable. Radio was not.

Unfortunately, listeners can now hear their favorite song anytime they want it – and in any location they choose. As we are seeing by the decline in drive-time listening, many believe radio has been relegated to in-car listening. While that will likely resume when the country gets back to “regular programming,” it has shown us that we are skating on increasingly thinner ice if we don’t adapt.

While the show must go on as we adapt to our new – and hopefully temporary – reality, we can take a moment to ponder the future. Many believe that now is the time to concentrate on what we do between the songs. This crisis has woken up many music stations as they have become a voice in the community. This cannot go away when this crisis ends.

How do we make radio more essential? How do we remove the stigma of our industry being “old and busted” and foster the image that we are the “new hotness?”

I don’t have the answer but I can get us started on that discussion with a few questions:

Surprise – Has radio lost the element of surprise? What can we do musically that, without breaking format, gets the listener to say “OH WOW.”

Personality – Let our personalities be personalities. Make them companions to the listeners. That is more important than ever before.

Structure – We know from the data that in just about every market there is more available listening in Afternoon Drive than in Mornings. Yet, we continue to put our “entertainment” programming on in mornings and revert to jukebox presentations the rest of the day. Right now, much radio listening is focused on the middle of the day. Have stations taken that into account or is it still about “the most music?”

Local wins – This is radio’s mantra but do we truly deliver? Being in the moment with our listeners and living their lives are where we can make that emotional connection. That connection is what we need to re-establish, foster, and maintain moving forward. The pathways we are developing during the pandemic should be our road map for the future.

In many ways has radio forgotten that we are in show biz? Our job is to delight, entertain, and inform – all the time. What we do may be mass media but it really involves a long series of individual contacts. What matters to our listeners is this moment, not what is “coming up next.”

One of the old radio saws I heard for years was that every radio station should showcase itself in every quarter hour. This was about music scheduling but should it not also apply to content?

When the pandemic abates and people start to return to their previous routines, what will radio’s “new normal” be?

We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

-Steve Allan, Programming Research Consultant