Radio Is Switched On Again

Radio is suddenly more vital – and by that I mean music radio. The human factor in radio programming and presentation has been clearly demonstrated in the weeks and months of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the national ‘lockdown’ periods imposed by country authorities. Radio programmes have been  trending on Twitter for the first time in years. Radio listening has increased (along with TV streaming) at the expense of music streaming. 

Radio networks around the world – both commercial and public service – are seeing audience reach and listening hours increasing in double digits. It’s surprising that the voice-based companies have not yet released stats on voice requests, since in-home speakers must be central to the current boon in demand, sucking demand away from mobile. One phenomenon of the lockdown is the more communal listening situation in households replacing individual commute time, for example. 

Radio everywhere has faced existential challenges: ageing audiences, competition from global on-demand streaming services, and global social networks moving into content and taking up every spare moment of consumer attention. 

But, this highly unusual pandemic situation is proof of concept for broadcast radio. The connection, comfort, companionship – or the sheer live broadcast experience – works wonders for passing the time in isolation and, of course, being a more effective backdrop to working from home than most ‘isolation playlists’ can manage.

How is radio responding? This is perhaps the more interesting question. Currently, most stations and shows are in their element, stepping up to the plate with what MIDiA has termed “Pandemic Programming”: from comfort songs to paying tribute to key workers on the frontline (I have heard Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ more times in the past two weeks than I have in the previous two years). Radio’s ability to tell stories of people’s experiences both serious and trivial is second to none, and so there are more messages being read out than usual. 

But what next? As the lockdown continues, programming will develop, from paying tribute to those who have sadly succumbed during the time of the pandemic (and perhaps we can wonder why we were not hearing more of Bill Withers or John Prine on the radio before?) to begin to play more optimistic, awakening music as we begin to leave our houses again in a few weeks, or months time. 

How can radio follow through when things get back to ‘normal’? 

Having been either reminded about, or introduced for the first time to the charms and power of radio as entertainment, when people return to their commutes, schools, workplaces and third places (gyms, coffee shops etc.), will they simply fire up their mobile apps and forget radio? Is radio doing enough right now to get its digital services and apps onto devices? Is radio getting its top performing formats and personalities across social media now to still be trending when the pandemic passes?

As a tastemaker, radio is still playing a fundamental role, if diminished. However, as streaming services are driven by data and leading metrics that indicate streaming hits, artists and labels have a frustration that this can limit music that is different or new, and they want a platform that takes more risks in terms of repertoire choices. This opens up a major opportunity for radio once again, to revive the idea of “total station sound” – a concept that has worked very effectively for UK stations BBC 6 Music and Magic among many others around the world. 

During the pandemic period, it seems that radio has found this “total station sound” in response to this most rapid change of circumstances. Maybe radio can move faster than we think. Given the industry’s slow and uncertain migration to digital formats and its identity crisis in the face of competition from on-demand streaming services, perhaps what radio really needed was less of an existential creep in technology changes and more societal shock and awe.

In the words of one immortal song about radio, we may not be living “through wars of worlds invaded by mars” but we are going through something with a strangely cataclysmic feeling.

And radio is coming through loud and clear.  

Leave a Reply