New Approaches for Tomorrow’s Audiences

Today I was privileged to be asked to be a guest panellist on the opening session of the conference, “Radio Days Jo’burg”.It’s an annual conference held at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg The panel also consisted of Siphelele Sixaso (Head of Marketing at the SABC) and radio presenter, manager, Idol judge and South African music legend, Randall Abrahams (both lovely blokes). The panel covered a range of issues and answered a range of questions, but here is the text of the opening comments I prepared.

Radio Days Joburg 2013 opening panel photograph taken from Twitter.
Opening panel photograph taken from Twitter. I hope there’s one of my smiling somewhere, because it was a really interesting, enjoyable panel to be on.


On the issue of finding new approaches to tomorrow’s audiences, I think there are three key things we need to think deeply about. First, I’d like to talk about the “habit” of radio. Humans are creatures of habit, and radio capitalises on that. But to what extent are the habits of our audience changing, and are we keeping pace with those changes, or are we assuming life is still the same now as it was ten or twenty years ago. Second, I’d like to talk about the way in which the media consumption patterns of the lives of our listeners are changing, and how the internet and television have successfully begun to occupy the spaces we thought were ours and ours alone. And thirdly, I’d like to talk about what this means for the content we deliver and the way in which I make radio. We’ve spent forty or fifty years making “talk radio” and “music radio”. The question I’d like you to consider is this: “Are we essentially making the same radio programs we did ten or twenty years ago?” Are we beginning to bore our audience with the same-old, same old?

On the issue of habit, I’d like to ask you to think for a moment about the way in which radio inhabits your life. As people who work in radio, we’re not like most people. We listen to more radio than most and we listen to radio more intently. But there are some things we have in common with the rest of the population, and these are habits that have been built up and maintained over the last forty to fifty years.

Generally, when you get up in the morning you switch on the radio. You want to know what’s happened in the world overnight. You also want to be entertained. And you want the radio to give you things to talk about with your colleagues when you get to work. Who makes the choice about which station you listen to over breakfast? I guess it all depends on whether or not you have children in the house, and how old they are. They’re happy to listen to “your station” while they’re still young, but when they get to their teenage years, they think you listen to the worst radio station in the world, or worse still: they don’t listen at all. And if they don’t listen at all, there’s a real danger they’re not developing a “radio habit”.

As you make your way to work via bus or car, you will genuinely continue to listen to the radio. And then generally speaking, when you get to work you’ll turn off the radio for the rest of the working day. That is, until you’re back in the car and you’re on your way home. Once again, you want to know what’s happened in the world. You want to be entertained. And you want to be told some really interesting things you can then talk about with your partner once you’ve arrived home. After dinner, you then turn on the television, and you MIGHT come back to the radio later at night, just before you go to sleep.

The audience watches the opening session at Radio Days Joburg 2013
The audience watches the opening session at Radio Days Joburg 2013

Of course, there are lots of workplaces where the radio still dominates throughout the daytime hours, but generally speaking, working hours is a time of day when talk radio (in particular) struggles.

So what are people doing during these hours? First and foremost they’re working. It’s sometimes hard to concentrate on your job and listen to the radio at the same time. But as you would observe, the workplace isn’t entirely a media-free zone.

One of the biggest changes for those of us who work in an office is the availability of the Internet. Although many workplaces have restrictions on Internet use, the evidence we have in Australia (at least) is that there are two or three peak times every day when people go online during regular working hours.
The first is at about 9.00 am, when people have arrived at work, and they’ve switched on their computer for the first time. The second peak is at about lunchtime. And then finally, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, people will go online once again. The evidence is that people are using these times of the day to check in with family and friends when they used to make a lunch-time phone call. The question I’d like you to consider is whether or not it might be possible to make tuning into streaming radio a part of that daily workplace habit. Is there something you could do at about nine o’clock in the morning that’s so incredibly compelling that, while people are checking their Facebook, they’re also hitting on your live stream? And of course, you need to tell people about this before they go to work, or at least find ways to remind them to listen in.

On top of that, you have changes in the hours of work. There was a time in Sydney where peak traffic was at about eight o’clock in the morning and at about five-thirty at night, based on the idea of a 9-5 workplace. Peak traffic now occurs both earlier and later, as great workplace flexibility has to lead to a change in working hours. The “assumptions” you could make about who was listening at a particular time have changed significantly.

The other thing that’s dramatically changed is the availability of workplace television. I’m old enough to remember when television was rare in the workplace. When there was a major news story, you would huddle around a radio and listen. Nowadays, you stand around and watch television when there’s breaking news, even those of us who work on radio stations. The question I’d like you to ask yourselves is what you could do to capture that audience once they’ve watched the television and they’ve returned to their computers.
What could you do to encourage them to put on their headphones and listen to your radio station as you dissect and discuss the major breaking news they’ve just watched on the big screen?

There’s one area where, though, where television is losing out, and where I think radio can capitalise on the change, and that’s late-night viewing. The evidence from Australia (at least) is that people are turning off the television about an hour earlier than they used to. Prime Time was always from 6.00 pm to 10.30. But in the last couple of years, people have started to turn off the television and go to bed with another screen – their laptop or their tablet – at about 9.30, an hour earlier than they used to. They’re turning off the TV, they’re getting in bed and they’re using email, Facebook, Twitter (and so on). The question I’d like you to consider is what you could do to attract that growing audience of people using their laptops and tablets in bed at night. Could radio be more of a soundtrack to this type of activity, in the same way, it’s a soundtrack to breakfast, driving, and household chores?

This brings me to the third area I’d like to talk about, and that is the question of what content we should be making, and how we should be engaging with our audiences in the modern world. In the same way that television meant the end of “radio dramas”, I think we all need to ask ourselves about whether current programming models will ensure radio survives the Internet. age. In essence, what all of us do is make radio which is either based on music or based around talk. It hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years.

I’d be a millionaire if I knew what people will want to hear on the radio in five years’ time. Maybe it will still be the same? But I think you also need to ask yourself – Will they still want to listen to “talk-back radio shows” or will they get their sense of engagement from their community in other ways? Will they still want to listen to “music request shows” (where you can hear cheerio calls from friends and family) or will that need be satisfied in some other way?

One very significant change in Australia has been in the area of talk-back radio. Even though the top rating stations in our capital cities are talk radio stations there are times of the day when you listen in and you can tell they’re struggling to get people to phone in. You can go into a studio and look at the switchboard of a top rating program, and you’ll see sometimes there’s only a handful of callers, and half of them you would never put to air. One colleague tells me the most interesting, insightful comments he receives are now from an audience listening at work and using Facebook, Twitter and SMS to communicate with him. I don’t want to call it “the death of talk-back”, but the evidence suggests existing styles of talk-back radio may need to change.

On top of that, we’re seeing program models that were once “unique to radio” turning up on Breakfast television (in particular). I’ve been watching the presenter of SABC’2s Breakfast Show spend the last few days doing interviews and engaging with her audience in the form of email, SMS and Tweets. She’s doing talk-back! There was a time when TV stations would be loathed to put someone on a phone line to air. There was always this feeling they had to have a camera. And yet now, they’re happy to show a photograph of someone as they speak to them on a cell phone. And with Skype, now, they have the capacity to show live images also.

My point is that television programming models have changed dramatically in the last ten years. But can the same be said of radio? Are we making essentially the same programs we made ten years ago? Are we keeping up with the changing habits of our audience? I’ve spent all of my life working in radio. From the age of 12, I was a community radio volunteer, and I’m now close to fifty, and I still love radio, so I’m not one of those people willing to declare the “death of radio”, but I do wonder if we’re keeping up with our audience, or are we resting on our laurels, and saying to ourselves… “It’ll be right. We just need to keep on doing what we’ve been doing for years. We survived TV. We’ll survive this.” In the same way, radio station managers back in the 1950s realised they could no longer compete with television in the area of live drama, and moved to music and talk formats instead, we are potentially in the same position now with regards to online. As audience habits changed from listening to the radio at night to watching television at night, radio changed and survived. Back then, the radio went from being an all-day habit to one mostly confined to breakfast and drive. We need to be flexible with formats and to think deeply about the times of the day when people’s lives can, once again, develop a habit and engage deeply with radio.

Later in the morning, I was interviewed on the “Maggs On Media” program shown on commercial television in South Africa. I spoke with Jeremy Maggs about some of these trends, digital radio in Australia, and was asked what I thought of South African radio. I told him it was fascinating to hear programs in different languages and I thought there was probably more musical variety than on Australian radio.

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