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Roundtable: the future of audio in the time of Covid-19

14 Apr 2020 
Roundtable: the future of audio in the time of Covid-19

Steven Scaffardi, head of Mediatel Events, speaks with seven key figures from the audio world to discuss how they have dealt with the coronavirus crisis - and what they think is next for radio, streaming, podcasts and voice technology

Steven Scaffardi (Chair):

Welcome everybody to this special virtual roundtable debate for the Future of Audio fortnight.

With us we have Ollie Deane, Director of Commercial Digital, Global; Rak Patel, Regional Head of Sales UK, Spotify; Siobhan Kenny, CEO, Radiocentre; Howard Bareham, Co-Founder, Trisonic; Dan Jennings, Production and Project Management Head, Wavemaker; Sam Crowther, Executive Creative Director, A Million Ads; and George Seed, VP Product, Cavai.

Over the past week on Mediatel News, we have had a big focus on how audio has reacted to the coronavirus crisis and all four corners of audio have played a big part in people’s lives during this period of lockdown. What has impressed you by how audio has adapted to the current situation and what could the wider media industry learn from the example set by audio? Let’s start with radio.

Howard Bareham: Undoubtedly this crisis has been a challenge for the whole audio industry. We are all having to work differently and it’s a huge credit to the industry that the whole market has been able to provide uninterrupted coverage – a huge technical feat, with many presenters at home and contributions coming from multiple locations.

What has impressed us is how the commercial news and speech stations have excelled at providing balanced reporting of the current situation and have become a portal for accurate information. They have been second to none at deciphering the government measures and support for individuals and businesses and helping with medical advice.

Siobhan Kenny: Radio has adapted really fast, as ever. Although from the output you wouldn’t know it, stations moved fast to protect their talent with some presenters broadcasting live from their homes, displaying the usual versatility of the medium. Cheering the nation up with the humour we need to get us through this time plus broadcasting valuable public health information has been responsible for a huge uplift in listening.

Ollie Deane:
During such unprecedented times the media industry faces challenges but higher listening figures particularly across radio, demonstrate that audio is resilient. In all of this, audio has prevailed as the trusted medium, able to deliver clear and concise information from respected news brands like LBC. The range of roles that audio is able to play during this pandemic is also impressive. Whilst people are turning to audio for the latest news, they’re also seeking companionship, light entertainment and normality.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Dan, before your life as an agency man you had a stint as a radio presenter, and you were presenting your breakfast show when the 9/11 attack happened. Do you see parallels to how radio is reacting now compared to then?

Dan Jennings: It brings back memories of broadcasting the day after the Twin Towers attacks of 911, and the boss giving me the option of hosting my show live on air the morning after, or replacing it with a more music, less talk breakfast show for the day.

The choice was simple, I had to go on air, however hard it would be to find the right words to share with my listeners. Radio's strength has always been its ability to tell stories, to paint pictures and to create communities with listeners, and many of the presenters – whether national, regional or local – are the original influencers in a way.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Rak, switching our attention to streaming. What trends have you seen since the lockdown?

Rak Patel: Here at Spotify, we have seen that as people around the world have increasingly moved inside over the past couple of weeks, music and podcast listening has changed in a number of ways. We often say that Spotify reflects what's going on in culture and we're certainly seeing that.

There’s been an increase in cooking and housework-themed playlists, showing that people are primarily focusing on family and domestic tasks instead of music intended for get-togethers. Self-improvement podcasts (think wellness, meditation) are seeing an uptick as well.

Interesting fact, streaming of The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” saw more than a 135% spike in streams in recent weeks—an important reminder to keep two meters of distance from anyone outside your household.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): And George, what of voice technology – what part have smart speakers played?

George Seed: While it is true that traditional audio has responded well, it is also true that voice search like Alexa has become the perfect tool to spread a message to your audience during the lockdown; allowing not just one way messaging but two way communication at a time when people are craving new interactions.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Many businesses had to adjust and pivot to meet the needs of their audiences during this period. Can you explain what each of your businesses have done to adapt?

Sam Crowther: Digital audio is a great 'at home' companion media, informative as well as entertaining. It’s also reflecting the mood of the nation, which comes to the fore at times like these. Digital audio is also a very flexible approach to brand communications. With dynamic audio campaigns, we are able to instantaneously turn off script lines that are no longer relevant, giving us an opportunity to respond quickly to the COVID-19 developments. For example, CTA's could be switched from in-store to online delivery by location as and when it becomes necessary.

Rak Patel: Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been identifying ways that Spotify can help make an impact around the world. Spotify has always been focused on helping break down barriers and building stronger communities, and that community of support has never been more important.

We have several COVID-19 efforts already underway. For example, we’ve launched a COVID-19 hub to consolidate relevant news and information about the pandemic and its impact, and we’re making ad space available to government and non profits for health and safety PSAs.

Siobhan Kenny: The whole Radiocentre team has been working flat out. A crisis is when an industry body really proves its value. We represent the majority of commercial stations in the UK so are in daily contact with the Dept for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom, updating them on the latest situation in our industry.

The Coronavirus hub on the Radiocentre website is a constantly updated resource for radio stations and advertisers packed full of useful information. On the hub, you will also find a presentation, Rescue Remedy, which sets out how radio can help advertisers get through the current crisis. Radio Bites, summarises in snapshots the value provided by commercial radio in difficult times. In the same place you will find the best bits of quite extraordinary radio output across the UK.

Dan Jennings: Whilst there’s no single, correct way to move forward, we at Wavemaker believe it’s time to invest in supporting the greater good, however a brand can. Most importantly, we have all been super focused on supporting our clients – seeing beyond marketing budgets – to the real people involved: people with families, jobs, businesses and their own staff that they want to look after through these times of uncertainty. I’ve been proud to see that response from an agency that really cares about its work, and those that invest in us.

Ollie Deane: All of Global’s radio stations have enlisted the help of the biggest stars of music, news and entertainment, rallying the support of the nation and encouraging listeners to join in with a timed moment of applause to thank the NHS and front line staff who are battling coronavirus.

Last week, we also announced the launch of a new podcast with Dr Ranj Singh to help educate children about coronavirus.

Dr Ranj, a TV personality and NHS doctor specialising in the wellbeing of young people, has been answering questions about coronavirus on Heart Breakfast with Jamie Theakston and Amanda Holden over the past few weeks. Dr Ranj and Heart have now teamed up to create an accessible and educational kids’ guide to Covid-19.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Many brands have pulled back on marketing spend and that has of course impacted ad spend, but equally we have seen a lot of brands react with some brilliant pieces of creative. What have been your highlights?

George Seed: PG Tips game out quickly with an audio campaign around #cuppatogether encouraging us to have a cup of tea over Facetime/Zoom etc. It was the immediacy of the campaign that was impressive, married with a spot on and highly relatable message.

Siobhan Kenny: I have been impressed with how many brands including supermarkets, banks and utility companies have responded and turned around important and vital consumer information.

Radiocentre has followed suit and we have a new campaign, “Business as Usual” for precisely when it is not, in fact, business as usual. The ad, which reminds advertisers how easy and safe it is to make radio commercials during this period of social isolation, will be coming out across the airwaves in the next few days.

Dan Jennings: The simplicity of Tesco – who took a complete transcript of their print ads to audio with an identical message about how they are helping NHS key-workers with revised opening hours, putting in place social distancing etc – coupled with a beautifully simplistic tweak on their usual tagline for “Now, more than ever, every little helps.” shows a deep level of empathy for the current situation.

Rak Patel: Not an audio advert but an audio campaign nonetheless, we have been so inspired and impressed by the Clap For Our Carers campaign which began on Thursday 26th March and is now running every Thursday across the country. The fact that it was the idea of just one person, Annemarie Plas, that the whole nation has now got behind is such a powerful indicator of how people can come together in solidarity in times of crisis.

To show our support for the campaign, we're leveraging our own audio headliner package to join the nation in coming together as one to show our support, thanks and appreciation for every key worker and volunteer that is putting themselves on the frontline to keep us going through this crisis. We are providing "reminder" style ad creatives from 12pm-7.59pm as well as a clapping creative from 8pm-8:15pm each Thursday.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): And finally, many commentators are predicting that the way in which we work and operate will completely change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With this in mind, what is the future of audio?

Ollie Deane: This unprecedented situation has reinforced the value and role of audio. Future-facing, we can expect digital listening to all forms of audio to continue growing and newer forms of audio to be more prevalent. In a period of social isolation, mediums like TV and film face a harsh possibility of not being able to produce content, which means that a large amount of writers, producers and talent will creatively explore what they can do in the audio space.

Rak Patel: We're resilient and when it comes to audio, now more than ever brands are starting to think about how audio, combined with changes in people's behaviours and patterns as they stay at home, can be tailored to their specific needs.

Sam Crowther: Moving forward the briefs we are working on now have a focus on flexibility and being adaptive to reflect the correct tone whenever, wherever, however situations develop. When the future is uncertain, it is necessary to creatively prepare for all eventualities and dynamic personalisation is a great way to do that.

George Seed: The future of audio will be the combination of engaging content with a unique interaction point. Audio chatbots, quizzes, and informational content are all prime examples of what will undoubtedly come out in abundance.

Siobhan Kenny: Before this all happened, audio was booming and radio was at the heart of that audio revolution. People are turning even more to audio with the new habits developing as a result of our all staying at home. Commercial stations have seen a double-digital rise in listening.

I think over the next few weeks we will see brands that can advertise return to radio. During the last recession radio went a bit earlier than some other media but came back faster. The ad challenge will remain for some time for all commercial broadcasters – that is inevitable but we hope that the actions we are all taking will succeed in halting the development of the virus and we can begin to work out how the economy will recover.

Dan Jennings: We have seen that the future of audio is omni-present. Home, Work, Play – it’s there with you – and the mass adoption of voice assistants, music streaming, podcasts and other forms of audio entertainment provides massive opportunities for content teams like ours to develop sonic branding or immersive experience unlike anything ever experienced before.

I believe that we’ll see the launch of the UKs first mental-health focused radio station. The power of sound to lift our state of mind is proven and it’s been fascinating to see the rise of stations like Scala Radio during the crisis. Launched as a new classical music station in March 2019, it has become the perfect oasis of calm amongst the noise of social media and constant news updates, showing that it’s not just about being entertained or informed, but also about impacting our moods.

Howard Bareham: The latest streaming numbers released are showing that radio and audio listening is up across the board. Given the self-isolation policy it’s to be expected, and we know from the Radiocentre Breaking News Report 2017 that radio is the most trusted source for national news.

More broadly we expect there to be discovery of new forms of audio, from podcasts through to music streaming services, and people listening to a wider repertoire of stations across all audio platforms to continue. The standout winners we think will be the news services, where the streaming figures show they have had a bigger increase than other formats.

Across the board it’s the industry challenge to hold on to as much listening as possible once lifestyle patterns change and time alone will tell whether advertisers tune in with ad dollars as much as the population has over the last few weeks.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Thank you to everyone for giving up your time to answer our questions, we know our readers on Mediatel News will appreciate the effort - and we look forward to hearing from some of you again when we broadcast our live-stream event this Thursday.

You can find longer, more detailed responses from some of the panellists on the Future of Audio website

The panel

Ollie Deane, Director of Commercial Digital, Global; Rak Patel, Regional Head of Sales UK, Spotify; Siobhan Kenny, CEO, Radiocentre; Howard Bareham, Co-Founder, Trisonic; Dan Jennings, Production and Project Management Head, Wavemaker; Sam Crowther, Executive Creative Director, A Million Ads; and George Seed, VP Product, Cavai.

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01 Jul 2020 

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