Understanding Singapore's undying love for commercial radio

Why do Singaporeans love radio so much? Photo: Mediacorp.

There is an assumption that with the rise of streaming on-demand and Internet radio in the past couple of years, commercial radio broadcasting has lost its lustre as listeners flock online to digital channels.

However, that does not seem to be case in Singapore. A November 2017 survey by Nielsen found significant growth in English listenership for Singapore biggest media company, Mediacorp, which saw its radio stations like Class 95, 987, Gold 905 and 938NOW grow their weekly listenership significantly, by 76,000, 74,000, 63,000 and 36,000 respectively.

Over at Mediacorp’s main rival SPH Radio stations Kiss92 and UFM100.3, listenership has also risen. UFM100.3 managed to attract 399,000 listeners, up by 17% from 340,000 and Kiss92’s listeners went up from 534,000 to 567,000. Its other station ONE FM91.3, had a slight dip from 274,000 listeners to 267,000.

SPH also recently launched two more radio stations, 96.3 Hao FM and Money FM 89.3, which focuses on business and personal finance, and those aged 45 and above respectively. The Drum reached out to the company for this story, but did not receive a reply at press time.

Explaining the figures for Mediacorp’s radio stations listenership, Debra Soon, Mediacorp’s chief customer officer tells The Drum that the company’s decision to constantly evolve its stations and change programming on some over the years, as well as targeting audience groups, has helped the medium stay relevant throughout the years.

However, Soon also admits that the changes were sometimes driven by external market forces, like competition from an overseas station, or locally when other new radio stations were launched. She says: “We have remembered to leverage our entire network of radio stations, to grow the overall audience for our stations, but also design our content to suit each audience segment.”

“This drive to continually do the best for our audiences means we have to stay on our toes and push for excellence, whatever is happening in the commercial market. We have to remember that our listeners come first, and this has stayed constant throughout the years.”

While some radio stations in other regions have embraced digital audio broadcasting (DAB), the trial of first-generation digital audio broadcasting (DAB) in Singapore in November 1999 proved to be unsuccessful and was shut down in 2011.

According to Soon, while DAB was widely seen as the ‘replacement technology’ for FM radio in the country, it did not take off in Singapore because audience listenership habits show peak listenership while commuting in the car. “Today, there are many alternative ways of listening to radio broadcasts, hence the uniqueness of the reach of DAB has diminished over time,” she explains.

“With increased streaming quality and lower costs, listeners can receive radio content via mobile phone apps, alongside FM services. These continue to provide excellent coverage and listenership in Singapore. It is also noteworthy that the overall radio listenership has not fallen over the years here.”

Soon also argues that even though radio is one of the oldest mediums, its immediate future is in free-to-air because it still has a very high listenership base, pointing to the aforementioned Nielsen survey to state her case. However, she acknowledges that while Mediacorp’s audiences are still listening on free-to-air, they are also listening digitally, as the adoption of digital streaming services will only grow and Mediacorp will need to improve its digital products to supplement its free-to-air reach.

“While our base of analog radio listeners remains strong and engaged, studies conducted by Starcom/Pace (2016) and eMarketer (2017) show that 41% of Singaporeans are internet radio listeners, while 36% use digital radio to listen to music. With evolving consumption patterns in Singapore and across the world, we believe that radio content must be easily accessible and available on-demand across both analog and digital platforms,” she adds.

Some of these platforms include Toggle and the MeRadio mobile application, which produces original digital content, as well as provides on-demand television and radio content. Soon explains that as Mediacorp evolved its digital strategy, it has leveraged on social media and producing video content for these platforms across most of the stations, making use of tools like Facebook Live to livestream studio sessions.

She adds that the company has found that it is always a learning experience and an experiment with social media, as these platforms and audiences have grown and evolved over the years, which is why Mediacorp’s radio strategy also needs to evolve.

“We leverage Toggle, but also YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and also our free-to-air TV reach to put our videos on. There are teams dedicated to creating videos, some examples from radio include Gold 905’s Make Someone’s Day, 987’s Surprise Squad, 938NOW’s Driven, Love 972’s online drama and Yes 933’s Dear DJ,” she says. “We are a multimedia company which aims to grow overall audiences and getting out of the ‘platform’ discussion of TV, Radio, social media and web solutions. We don’t create content for platforms, we create them for audiences.”

Mediacorp is also ‘quite excited’ about on-demand radio content and are working on a few initiatives, reveals Soon. “On our MeRadio app today, you can listen to radio on-demand, download your favourite radio shows that you may have missed or access bite sized podcasts from your favorite DJ’s at your own convenience. We are working on a few other features to make radio listening a more interactive experience, so stay tuned for updates,” she says.

Embracing digital innovation for its radio stations means that Mediacorp see streaming services like Spotify as complementary to radio and feel both can co-exist, as well as provide listeners with different experiences, says Soon.

Soon then underlines the fact that music streaming apps create a highly curated, functional and sometimes niche listening experience for consumers, while radio delivers a more active, human-led social experience.

“What distinguishes radio from on demand streaming services is the relatability of the personalities, the opportunity to participate live and interact with the hosts, share concerns and topics of interest, and what we feel, radio personalities have to be. A friend by your side whenever you need," she says.

Advertisers will continue to make this medium a key advising pillar in their communications strategy, claims Soon, even though radio is estimated to account for only 8% of total advertising expenditure by advertisers, based on the latest Zenith forecast. “Advertisers leverage on the reach of our stations and our app. It has always been a collaborative relationship and we look to create solutions in our market which work for all of us,” she says.

In contrast, Chloe Neo, managing director of OMD Singapore, notes that while radio budgets have been relatively stable in Singapore, the agency has seen a shift in its clients’ media budget going to music streaming apps. She says it is the case especially on those with advanced targeting capabilities, where advertising can be programmatically placed, segmented, tailored and optimised for a brand’s target audience, making music streaming a more desired platform for any data-driven marketer.

“In this new world of data-led marketing, the ability to retarget and initiate sequential messages to listeners is valuable to brands who are looking to turn awareness into action. Additionally, music streaming services tend to create an immersive experience for listeners with creative high impact display ads, audio and video, as well as sponsored sessions and branded playlists,” she tells The Drum.

However, Neo points out that when the agency looks at global research and data, radio is still very much a part of the overall picture when it comes entertainment and even though music streaming may be taking on some of radio’s offering, for the time being it is complementing public radio and not replacing it entirely. “Generally, online listeners are younger and more tech-savvy. Brands with a keen interest in connecting with this younger audience are likely to invest more on digital music platforms,” she says.

“Similarly, brands who are after the more mature audience with disposable income would still gravitate towards public radio, especially in a country like Singapore where in-car radio consumption is still significant during those peak commute periods.”

Jason Tan, head of strategy for Singapore at Zenith concurs with Neo and suggests that this shift in media budget is because advertising formats have not changed much for radio in the past few decades. From radio spots, to integration into talk sets, these formats have essentially been the same since the inception of radio, he says.

“Formats and strategies that stations are proposing for brands and agencies, we have not seen much innovation in radio advertising for a while, especially in Singapore,” Tan tells The Drum. “What we do see evolving is the emphasis on personalities, specifically DJs, on radio. There is a lot more about using the DJ’s presence/personality, not only on air, but also on social and on ground events.”

Even though there is a lack of innovation in radio advertising at the moment, both Neo and Tan agree that Mediacorp and SPH’s radio stations’ usage of Facebook Live to stream studio sessions might entice brands to spend more.

Neo stresses that a holistic radio solution, which leverages radio’s power across platforms, does have its merit and provides an enhanced value to brands who are looking for more engagement opportunities beyond a regular commercial spot, while Tan says: “The use of social platforms, Live streams and amplifying the appeal of DJs help to offer a more integrated solution for radio stations and this might make brands integrate radio into their broader campaign.”

What radio lacks in the format in advertising, it can make up for it by embracing collaboration with innovative technologies that enhances radio content experience and broaden its reach with listeners, says Mediacorp’s Soon. “We are currently working on a few such initiatives in Singapore with leading audio technologies and platforms, and see them as key partners in delivering the best possible experience for our listeners,” she says.

Mediacorp has shown it is keen give better consumer targeting and data to its advertisers, having recently launched a single sign-on for some of its platform. The challenge for the company moving forward is to innovate the format of how brands advertise on free-to-air radio.

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