The COVID-19 pandemic is the moment when listeners need radio writ unimaginably large.
And all these things are true:
This is an industry that has been multiply challenged in its ability to “do radio” and thus to serve. While other businesses got a recovery, broadcast radio came out of the 2008-09 economic downturn with a fast-growing rival in Pandora, then new competition on multiple fronts. Now radio must meet human needs in a time of economic decline without ever having fully recovered from the last one.
There is already a disruption of listening patterns taking place, particularly for any listeners who qualified for radio’s “92%-of-all-adults listen weekly” stat, but only by dint of in-car listening during a commute. Many will now be working from their homes — 32% of which do not currently have an AM/FM radio.
There is the need for information and companionship that radio provides in a crisis. And here is what will matter — what already matters — going forward.
Local matters. More specifically, having local information consistently available matters. Even in overnights. Even at 4 p.m. on weekend afternoons when the paid syndicated shows are running. When the tornadoes hit last week, a friend in Nashville was woken up by an emergency warning on his phone. He didn’t turn on the radio, in part because the last overnight personality in the market had just been laid off.
Because it has been a 20-year running discussion, exacerbated again by hundreds of recent layoffs, some will argue that it matters less where information is delivered from, or that it may even be easier to provide needed information from outside an affected area. Proponents of “better local radio through national resources” have always included the sincere, the cynical, and those managers just trying to make the best of what they have. Whatever their motivation, we are now going to see their hypothesis tested.
Companionship matters. UK-based consultant John Simon correctly tags any call to deliver “water cooler talk” as the first cliché of bad consulting. Veracity notwithstanding, the companionship of radio’s announcers will be replacing actual water cooler talk now for many. I glaze over each time a new season of The Bachelor starts, but I’m taking a kinder view this week about all those updates, not to mention your other binge-watching recommendations — as long as that is not all we talk about.
Read the rest of this Sean Ross column HERE.