In times of crisis and great flux, radio continues to provide trusted information, entertainment and a sense of routine.
We’ve learned a great deal about Covid-19, and it’s hard to believe that just seven months ago, the stockpiling of food, alcohol and toilet rolls dominated the media headlines.
Both traditional and online media were covering this deadly virus from wherever they could, and all sorts of remedies and video clips went viral through social media. Consequently, government stepped in to criminalise the spreading of disinformation on Covid-19. They also engaged the media, telcos and non-profit organisations to address this.
Trends and changes brought on by Covid-19
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) surveyed 20 of its commercial radio members on radio’s response to Covid-19. The survey focused on the first six weeks of the national lockdown and tracked listenership, content and community support to develop a report titled Rising to the Contagion.
What is evident is that both radio listenership and time spent listening (TSL) increased. Additional research also showed that at this time of great uncertainty and social distancing, radio provided companionship and made people feel less alone. Importantly, radio is regarded as a trusted and credible source of news and information.
The data also pointed to an increase in radio streaming numbers and online engagement. The managing director of YFM, Haseena Cassim, concurs, as they experienced a 40% increase in streaming with a 70% increase in engagement on social media. For Cassim, in this time of crisis, radio has proven to be agile, authentic and adaptable. Streaming went up 41% for Gauteng-based 702, while Algoa FM in the Eastern Cape went up 46% and Smile FM in the Western Cape went up 53%.
Boni Mchunu, managing director of East Coast Radio, is optimistic about these trends, saying, “Our daytime shows indicated double-digit listenership and TSL was up 32% due to the fact that people were at home and having more time to listen to radio. What was pleasing is that they listened to radio more because radio is regarded as trustworthy and a credible source of information.”
She adds that first-party data indicates that 89% of East Coast Radio listeners listen to both traditional and streaming platforms. “This is why our content strategy lives on air, online and through video. Traditional media can influence digital activities positively and we have seen that in most campaigns. Therefore, platform integration is important in order to reach suitable markets at all times.”
Content during a national state of disaster
As a regulated industry and essential service under the Covid-19 framework, broadcasters are required to provide public service announcements (PSAs) on the coronavirus. The industry didn’t wait to be prompted by any regulatory requirements, responding quickly to the global health emergency and partnering with NGOs and government to increase awareness of the disease.
Many rolled up their sleeves and organised food parcels and PPEs, working closely with their local communities. Free airtime was also provided to small businesses and NGOs – and campaigns on gender-based violence. PSAs were developed in consultation with the Department of Health and the World Health Organization.
During those early weeks of the national lockdown, between the 20 stations surveyed a total of 72 790 radio PSAs went out across nine provinces, covering seven languages and reaching an average of 12.2 million listeners each week.
In addition to regular and consistent PSAs being aired, programmers also adapted their schedules to accommodate community and government projects, and those vital presidential announcements and updates by the National Command Council. With the entire country having to stay at home and roads emptying out, many questioned the future of drive-time programming.
Drive time not just ‘in-vehicle’ listening
Tracy Stafford, an audience and currency research expert with AME, reminds us that drive time is part of our daily routine. Although in-field audience research had to be suspended due to lockdown, it is evident that drive time is not necessarily synonymous with ‘in vehicle’ listening and even under normal circumstances ‘place of listening’ is still predominantly in the home.
Stafford believes that drive time will continue to hold audiences regardless of whether or not we work from home. She adds, “Irrespective of where you work you still get up in the morning, prepare breakfast, get dressed, get the kids to school. Not only does the content provided by radio stations during drive time form part of your daily routine, but it also provides vital information and updates on what’s happening in your community, the country and the world. It allows you to start and end your day being more informed and prepared. Under the current circumstances it’s possibly more important than ever.”
Judy Monyela represents the SABC on the NAB commercial radio committee. “Drive time will continue as a core part of our line-up in providing compelling and relevant content on our platforms, both traditional and streaming,” she says. Monyela adds that Covid-19 content has been prioritised on SABC platforms. She acknowledges that while audiences may now be Covid-19 fatigued, the public mandate requires such content to be emphasised on all channels.
She concludes, “It remains important for the SABC radio services to continue offering relevant and credible content, otherwise audiences will be subjected to social media content, which is rarely verified.”
As we entered level one of the lockdown, the ‘new normal’ begins to feel very much like the ‘old normal’ on South Africa’s roads. Drive time seems to have resumed comfortably, with traffic updates, sports reporting and much-loved “personality” breakfast hosts continuing to keep audiences entertained and informed. It is apparent that, with or without lockdowns, drive time is set to be in gear for years to come!
Nadia Bulbulia is the executive director of the National Association of Broadcasters. She’s held executive roles in telecoms, corporate social investment and the creative industry. She was a councillor at the IBA and ICASA during the formative years of broadcasting and telecoms reform and regulation.
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