How the coronavirus crisis is boosting radio's reputation
In celebration of The Future of Audio, Ray Snoddy looks at how radio has become more than just essential listening during the COVID-19 pandemic
It is the best of times and the worst of times for radio. If you are not an advertising director or already placed on furlough then there might well be a spring in your step.
Radio was almost made for a crisis, particularly local radio, because it is live, personal, supportive, informative and in a crisis the medium’s clear public purpose is enhanced.
It does of course help if your radio station has access to licence fee funds rather than facing a 40-45 per cent decline in advertising between March and April, and an improvement to a fall of “only” 30-35 per cent in May and June.
But that radio is having a good Covid-19 campaign in terms of reputation and usefulness there can be little doubt.
Radio tends to be taken for granted, except when a famous presenter loses the odd million listeners. Perhaps that is in a way a backhanded compliment.
Let’s remember what being taken for granted means in the form of the fourth quarter RAJAR data to the end of February: a weekly reach of 48.1 million or 87.5 per cent. At the same time all digital audio rose to a total of 58.5 per cent, an indication of how the radio industry, with a minimum of fuss, has quietly modernised itself.
We will now have to be patient for the first official lock-down figures to arrive later in the summer.
It is safe to predict that the already high audio listening figures will rise to new heights when the next RAJARs are released and it could well be that the BBC might close the gap with commercial radio, which has been setting the pace in recent years.
History suggests that in times of crisis, and when the Queen speaks outside of Christmas, the BBC tends to clean up.
Yet early numbers from commercial radio suggest a double-digit lift in listening with both Bauer and Global reporting a 15 per cent rise in digital reach.
LBC in particular believes it has had a 43 per cent daily lift – a proper public service.
Another prediction that can be safely made is that the proposals from Dominic Cummings planted in the Sunday Times in BV days – before the virus – to close down most of BBC radio, including local radio, will be quietly forgotten.
The plan was always bonkers but now it has been exposed as total absolute insanity.
Some of the right-wing futurologists are still bizarrely peddling such stuff on Twitter, along with even more dangerous nonsense such as the claim that 5G masts are somehow responsible for Covid-19.
Media analyst Alex DeGroote nailed the BBC local radio canard in particular in the best possible way, with a series of facts and numbers.
BBC local radio is highly differentiated and achieves its aim of reaching the mainly over 50s, who are not the most exciting audience for advertisers.
It is relatively cheap to run and reaches 15.3 per cent of all adults in England or 6.7 million people.
A further important point for the reach of the BBC is that 2.3 million listeners to local radio do not use any other BBC service.
Why on earth would you want to close down such a service which actually is given a vital role in Government plans to cope with even worse disasters than this one.
One hopes that the Prime Minister’s very special adviser will listen to some radio and contemplate such issues in a serious manner as he recuperates from the coronavirus.
Local is important. Radio is important – which is why the decision by Ofcom to choose this moment to push ahead with plans for new small-scale local DAB licences is not nearly as daft as it looks.
Now is a good time to plan for an AV – after virus - world and the one thing most people can get on with is filling in licence applications.
Ofcom is initially licensing 25 new stations, which use existing software and inexpensive computer technology, after a number of successful trials, with more to come.
Radio was, and is, the medium for the truly local broadcasting rather than television, foisted on an underwhelmed country by Jeremy Hunt when he was Culture Secretary.
Luckily Hunt is making a much better fist of chairing the Commons Health Select Committee, and might even be a Prime Minister in waiting should a vacancy occur, for whatever reason.
The Ofcom plan, however modest, is an example of real tangible green shoots compared with the imaginary sort which some claim to see everywhere.
As for advertisers, while everyone recognises the enormous economic impact of the current pandemic, the old advice is the best advice.
To the extent that you can, those who try their best not to take a hatchet to their marketing budget are more likely to benefit from the revival which will certainly come.
Television is a bargain right now with some slots 60 per cent cheaper compared with BV rates.
Radio advertising has always been much cheaper both to produce and transmit than television, and some would argue more cost effective.
The Radiocentre has unsurprisingly stepped up to the plate with an advertising campaign emphasising how radio ads can be created and recorded quickly and cheaply working from home.
Others should take to heart the Radiocentre tagline: “Business as usual, even when it’s not business as usual.”
Maybe there’s not too much point behind airline and foreign holiday ads at the moment, but just think of the opportunities offered by enforced changes in consumer behaviour – for everything that can be delivered to the home, from meals and booze to all forms of entertainment and the wonderful meat and vegetables that used to go direct from Covent Garden to restaurants.
As for personal listening, if you are not sleeping so soundly at the moment, don’t forget Outlook at 4am from the BBC World Service.
The latest extraordinary personal stories from around the world given the time and air to be told properly, including moving stories about the personal turmoil of top international rugby referee Nigel Owens coming to terms with his sexuality, and the horrific My Fiancée Jamal Khashoggi.
And maybe someone should start a radio reading – though maybe not as a book at bedtime – of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year published in 1722.
It might make everyone realise that things could be much worse than now and plan for the time when the plague and Covid-19 are history.
Between 6 - 17 April Mediatel is hosting The Future of Audio - a free digital event to experience during lockdown. Click here for the full agenda, which includes live-streams, presentations and audio-themed editorial.
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