In 2020, media consumption habits have gone haywire. Ben Cooper, group music and content director at Bauer Radio explains the tough lessons it took from the “digital petri dish“ of 2020.
Media consumption was hugely disrupted in 2020, and few know that better than Bauer Radio – home of Kiss, Magic and Absolute Radio in the UK.
The first lockdown inspired huge radio and audio consumption changes. The commute was restive for many, and the office radio fell silent. The Ofcom Media Nations Report said that before lockdown, 40% of radio listening was outside the home, while just under half of radio listeners (48%) polled by that survey said they had changed their listening habits.
For many it was a lost year – but for Ben Cooper, group music and content director, 2020 was the “digital petri dish”.
Presenting in the present
The whims of the audience aside, the first concern was actually just producing the shows. Cooper admits: “We had to radically change the way shows are produced and presented, with DJs having to build makeshift studios in their kitchens, bedrooms or even in one case a wardrobe.”
Closet productions aside, Cooper believes that presenters took on a hugely important responsibility to conduct themselves with a “new honesty, humanity and authenticity”. He shares examples of presenters’ deeply personal reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement or crying live on air because of an emotional text message from an NHS worker who was living alone in a hotel room in order to protect their family.
For listeners, the world is filtered through these personalities. He believes its radio stations were a lifeline for many in lockdown. Talking up the medium against those competing with it for ad spend, he says: “The presenter reacting to a live situation connects with you in a way that podcasts and streaming services can only dream of.”
The listener feedback has enthused Cooper in the important in having that presenter at the helm. “Streaming services and podcasts are good, but they can be lonely places to spent time in, whereas radio offers company and a connection to the outside world.”
It’s a key differentiator radio will have to lean into in the coming years. One attempt from Bauer was to launch new station Hits Radio Pride this summer, the first dedicated LGBTQ+ pop-up radio station in the UK by a major broadcaster. It identified that this audience may have lost crucial connections in lockdown and worked with The Co-operative Bank and LGBTQ+ helpline Switchboard to deliver a bespoke station, something easier to do now it has digital platforms at its disposal.
Of course, it has not all been rosy. After a period of expansion in 2019, it shut around 50 local stations as part of a restructure. The licences were consolidated under the Greatest Hits Radio banner in a move accelerated by Covid-19.
Dee Ford, group managing director at Bauer Radio, suggested that new listeners would “benefit from multi-platform digital distribution“ meaning they can now listen however they want to the new properties. Cooper adds: “I believe 2020 will go down as the year that radio reaffirmed its value in society by having a much more helpful, honest and authentic voice.”
Bauer lost its substantial footprint in events, or as Cooper put it, “muddy festival fields or big concerts”. As major drivers for consumption of the radio channels, they had to be replaced.
Bauer’s solution in April was Kiss Fest, a virtual festival that helped delivered Kiss’ higher ever streaming figures. Cooper claims it increased the network’s reach by 37% during lockdown.
It grew bolder from that experiment and broadcast a five-hour ‘RadioRave’ across seven stations in the UK, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Slovakia. Cooper highlights some aspects that the show had on the live experience: “No-one bumped into you on the dancefloor and there was no queueing for the toilets.”
There were a lot of smart speakers dusted off, or bought as new, during the last few months. Spotify, for instance, saw a subscription rise from bundling with a Google Home Mini. Bauer‘s channels are already optimsed for requests like ‘Alexa play Kiss’, allowing seamless access of radio in the home.
Cooper says: “The radio industry has seen huge increases in listening on smart speakers as everyone battened down the hatches and tuned in. Bauer, who have Kiss, Magic, Absolute and Greatest Hits Radio in their group of stations, saw an increase of nearly 40% in smart speaker listening across the portfolio during lockdown.”
The habit doesn’t look like it‘s going to be a hiccup; from its own research, two-thirds of respondents said they would continue listening through their smart speaker. “If we are to reinvent commercial radio for the next generation of listeners, the smart speaker will play an essential role.”
While radio’s always been there its main job right now is to inform younger audiences of its value and remove any friction from their consumption. So, distribution is a key point for people in Cooper’s position. He can recall the time when listeners stations by memorizing a frequency spelled out in a jingle. he admits: “The best way to be found is to be top of mind. That’s where social media can really help. Having a great halo of content around your core brand allows you to grab your audiences’ attention, whether that’s a quiz on Instagram or a dance on TikTok.” Live events, currently stalled, also hit this beat.
Underpinning Bauer‘s response to changes in consumption habits is a need to maintain a stable stream of income. Media owners were the first to be hit by an ad spend drought in the months following March, but it is clear that many brands have adapted their businesses and marketing to handle a second lockdown.
“You love your phone, you take it with everywhere, even when you have a bath. You are consuming audio more and more via connected devices. That means we can offer creative digital targeting and programmatic buying through our InStream and Octave services.”
Four months ago, Octave Audio was launched in partnership with News UK, to give advertisers the opportunity to target digital audio listeners using both firms first-party data. Brands such as Sky, Asda and Mercedes have bought into the platform but it‘ll need to attract more in the coming year.
Hopefully, Bauer Radio can act on its “digital petri dish“ findings in 2021 without further interruption.