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WARMED BY THE AIRWAVES: RADIO REACHES OUT
IN PANDEMIC TIMES

 I started my career in radio, so no matter what else I’m involved in, tracking the health and direction of radio is always an important part of my mindset. (In case you were wondering why I left, it’s because I was tired of waiting for my FedEx package from Beer. ’Nuff said.) Naturally, I’ve been curious about how they’re pivoting in these extraordinary times. While many have predicted the death of terrestrial radio for 20+ years, those reports are greatly exaggerated. Radio listenership is up during the pandemic as people look to local broadcasters, their favorite songs and a bit of morning comedy to offset the week’s grim headlines. We spoke with two heavyweights of the medium, iHeartMedia Chief Programming Officer Tom Poleman and Cumulus EVP Brian Philips, for a bit of context.

“It underscores what radio does best in a time of need: provide information, companionship and entertainment,” Poleman notes.

 “People are still turning to radio as their content provider in big numbers, in some cases more than before,” Philips acknowledges. This even as time-buys from hospitality, restaurant chains and other foundational advertisers are seriously disrupted.

While acknowledging that “There is no rule book,” Poleman praises the members of his resilient team, who are extending their hours. “We’ve seen a 43% increase in web listeners,” Poleman says, “as well as a 20% increase in podcast listening on the iHeartRadio app and an 11% increase in smart-speaker usage, with big spikes in digital listening in those extra hours they’re on the air.”

“We’re really talking about two buckets of listeners,” he explains. “It’s the essential workers who are keeping their early schedule, and that six o’clock hour is serving them. Then, as you go on through the show, the audience starts to shift. You have people who are working from home, homeschooling their kids. Some have been furloughed and are trying to keep a routine going.” It’s imperative, he insists, not to neglect any of these listeners.

Philips says, “Middays having more listeners was a big change—along with the fact that there are people listening in morning drive who have never listened to morning radio shows. They want local info.”

“It’s important to be a little news, a little escapism and definitely familiar,” Philips elaborates. “Affectionate, earnest, sentimental tones pull people in. Compassion and companionship are the keys.”

Poleman says the information quotient on music stations is higher in a crisis. “We see the feedback from listeners about how much they appreciate a sanity check from their local radio station,” he points out, with familiar comedy bits and true-life stories providing depth and color.

Achieving this ramp-up amid a pandemic required some logistical finesse. Poleman says that before the restrictions went into effect, equipment was rushed to the homes of on-air personalities. “We were fortunate that we’ve been able to have that continuity on the air, but it’s different,” he reflects. “We’re learning how to operate differently and use technology in different ways.”

Philips, too, points to “the rise of this perverse version of Hollywood Squares we’re all dealing with multiple times a day,” but notes some 5,000-plus team members have navigated the process of “finding a way to broadcast from their dining-room tables and bedrooms.” The closest precedent, he adds, is “after 9/11, and how our spirits were bonded. Hopefully, this will last a long time as we move forward.”

“There’s certainly an appetite for music and to connect with listeners’ favorite artists and new-artist discovery,” Poleman affirms. “How we bring it to consumers has to adapt, but there’s no reason for us to stop it coming. I encourage artists to continue to release music. We’ll certainly come up with creative ways to bring it to consumers.”

Then there’s the live aspect. “We’ve been heavily involved in live shows, such as the iHeartRadio Music Awards and Music Festival, Wango Tango and our Country Festival,” Poleman points out. “How do we do the living-room version of an album-release party?” He adds that in the spirit of iHeart’s Living Room Concert for America, live on-air performances drive new features like “First Responder Friday” and a living-room concert series. “It’s a way for Lewis Capaldi to still do a performance that gets heard by millions of people,” he explains.

“We’re just taking our playbook and doing that in a different way,” Poleman adds, “because of what the times allow us to do.”

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