Radio gaga: revenue, reach and the rise of social listening during lockdown

The radio sector saw audience behaviour transformed by Covid-19, but advertiser revenue suffered.

Radio: Commercial radio experienced its highest-ever audience in terms of reach during lockdown
Radio: Commercial radio experienced its highest-ever audience in terms of reach during lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has seen highs and lows of extreme proportions across media channels.

While digital brands like TikTok and Houseparty experienced a surge in users, cinemas have faced an almost total collapse in revenues thanks to enforced closures. 

Radio has experienced its very own ups and downs – in April, the average length of listening sessions among adults rose from 74 minutes pre-Covid to 102 minutes (a 38% increase), according to Rajar.

But in terms of advertising, Covid-19 “was like a tap being turned off”, according to Simon Kilby, chief revenue officer at Bauer.

“From the commercial perspective, like everyone else in the media, we had that huge drop off at the end of March where you didn't know when it was going to stop,” Kilby said. 

According to Warc, radio advertising expenditure is set to decline by 21% in 2020, following a 3% drop to £703m in 2019.

Kilby noted that while Bauer had expected changes in listener habits – including a drop in car listening, and a rise in listening at home via smart speakers – revenue began to suffer at the beginning of lockdown as “the world was very uncertain”.

In April, betting brands including Paddy Power, Betfair, Ladbrokes Coral Group and Bet365 opted to pull all TV and radio advertising during lockdown in light of pressure from MPs.

“Clients wanted to pull money and we tried to be sympathetic and understanding to that and help them through it,” Kilby said.

“We tried to be really pragmatic and helpful through that period of time – we let people pull or defer, and we've seen that those advertisers have come back to us and committed money now the times are a bit more certain.”

By May, business had bounced back “really strongly” for Bauer, but some of the brand’s local markets – which are more reliant on SMEs – were a “bit tougher” to support in terms of advertiser revenue.

The media company announced it would be scrapping dozens of local radio stations across England in favour of a national radio network; and while March saw Bauer acquire radio stations from Lincs FM, Wireless Group and UKRD, the majority of these stations are set to rebrand as Greatest Hits Radio from the beginning of September.

Social listening

According to Bauer, the Kiss Network achieved a 70% rise in daily average reach in the last week of May, compared to before lockdown.

Jordan Banjo and Perri Kiely, stars of Britain's Got Talent winners Diversity, launched their Kiss career last year, while August marked the launch of their breakfast show on Now TV, in a joint venture with Bauer.

“We're always either rehearsing, performing or at Kiss – there was always something going on, so to have the brake pumped was a really weird adjustment,” Banjo told Campaign.

Banjo and Kiely have hailed the role of “social listening” (listening to radio as a form of social interaction) as the main factor for an uptick in listeners during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Radio is still here because people want company at the end of the day right now. When you're driving home from work, when you're on the school run, you want company,” Banjo continued.

At the end of May listening figures were still higher than before lockdown, with a third of those asked claiming that they listen to “provide them with background noise at home” as they “still have more time”.

Kiely added: “Now, more than ever, it's really important to be a voice. Having someone that you can listen to and joke to and vibe out with is absolutely key."

Kiely, who has upwards of 1.4 million TikTok followers, has released several videos from the Kiss studio in a bid to engage with followers of the show.

Banjo also has a respectable 227,000 TikTok followers, with #kissfm receiving upwards of eight million views across the social media platform.

Ofcom report Online Nation, released at the end of June, found that TikTok had more than doubled its reach among adults in the UK between January and April, surging from 5.4 million to 12.9 million.

According to Bauer, the brand’s streaming figures are up 10% from pre-lockdown and listening hours are up 16%, partially due to a shift towards listening at home, which Kilby maintains may accelerate a movement towards digital listening in the future.

Ofcom’s Media Nations UK report, meanwhile, claimed that the amount of time young people spent listening to radio as a share of all audio listening decreased during lockdown, dropping from 27% beforehand to 18% during in favour of music-video channels, audiobooks and podcasts.

While Bauer has not declared its daily average reach since May, Ofcom remarks that "the large increases [in online listening] highlighted by Global and Bauer will be unlikely to have counterbalanced the loss in listening in-car and at work".

Ofcom also notes that before lockdown, 40% of radio listening was outside the home, including tuning in at work and in-car.

As some people began returning to work in June, listening at work and in the car nudged up slightly to 10% of total listening for each, compared to 8% and 6% respectively at the end of May, according to Rajar.

“I always talk about radio as the original social platform,” Katie Bowden, director of commercial audio at Global, told Campaign.

“Social is a huge part of what we do as a radio brand – it's amazing having all these social platforms because it adds to the engagement.”

The concept of social listening has also been supported by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who fronted a campaign led by Radiocentre and Heads Together in a bid to highlight the importance of talking about our mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Radio, someone still loves you

Bauer’s insights panel found that 91% of people listened to radio at the height of the crisis, with 87% still listening post-lockdown at the end of July. 

Of these, 26% of participants said they were listening to more radio than they did pre-lockdown.

In terms of advertising, the market appears to be making a slow recovery. Global says it has seen an increase in advertiser activity each month since April.

“The world didn't stop, it still had to keep moving even though we were in lockdown," Bowden said. “From a commercial point of view, the majority of lockdown was spent working with clients to figure out the best solutions for whether they should stay on air.”

Sectors such as entertainment and leisure (which accounted for 14% of radio advertising expenditure last year, according to Warc), and motor (13%) have been greatly affected by the pandemic.

Even supermarkets such as Tesco were quick to pull spend at the beginning of lockdown, Bowden said, though she maintained they promptly returned to discuss the role of safety and customer experience as social distancing guidelines were implemented.

Global has seen high-street banks move to radio during lockdown in a bid to reassure customers in the wake of a sharp increase in fraudulent activity.

But the sector has big challenges ahead. Radio advertising revenue is not expected to rise until the end of 2021. Next year, Warc predicts a partial recovery to £649m – 8% lower in nominal terms than last year.

“The strengths of radio have always been there – flexibility, big audiences, very accessible with a medium – and those strengths come through even more during Covid,” Bowden said.

“Lockdown has consolidated the role of radio for brands that have always been significant investors in radio, but for new clients it's made brands reappraise their entire media plan due to changing consumer behaviour and production challenges, and that has led to a lot of different types of advertisers starting to test radio.”