Picture: Pexels
Picture: Pexels

Radio was declared dead since the moment it started breathing.

While the first radio innovations were being developed towards the end of the 1800s, the president of the Royal Society, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, declared that radio had no future.

Yet here we are over 100 years later and radio and its various audio off-shoots have never been healthier.

Radio showed great resilience and robustness during Covid-19 and worldwide lockdowns as radio presenters played an even more crucial role in the daily lives of their audiences.

Streaming of radio stations increased in SA to unprecedented levels – even podcasting is finally starting to get noticed locally and gaining validity.

South Africans have adopted music streaming services like Spotify and Joox en masse, and, yes, I do consider music streaming part of the radio/audio experience.

But why does radio, a medium played out on a device most people don’t even have in their homes anymore, continue to defy all odds?

Why are savvy marketers developing not just radio, but audio marketing strategies?

What are the biggest personalities on SA social media drawn from radio backgrounds?

Esteemed radio futurologist James Cridland has long defined radio as an “[audio] shared experience with a human connection”. Over the past four to five months, I have had conversations with all the leading radio presenters, who have told me how their audiences are connecting with them more than ever before on a deeper, more honest level.

DJ Fresh and Mo Flava – hosts of the 947 afternoon drive and Metro FM breakfast shows respectively – have told me that their listeners appreciate that people like them are going through the same thing: the same uncertainty, fear and doubt, the same bad haircuts!

Dudu “Lady D” Khoza – one of the most listened-to women presenters in the world – says her listeners appreciate that the crown has slipped to a degree, and when they hear that a personality they admire is having a bad day, it makes them feel better about their predicament.

Martin Bester of Jacaranda FM says his most popular moments during lockdown broadcasting were when his pets made an appearance on his show by barking at inappropriate times or scratching to be let into his home studio.

We have a term in radio that we are very proud of. It’s called “smoke and mirrors”; some of the connotations are negative but for the most part it’s about keeping the on-air product pristine while everything is collapsing around us.

These past few months have made that not just impossible, but simply unnecessary.

Every technical head I’ve worked with at a radio station has gone to great lengths to ensure studios are soundproof, but as the official bird of lockdown radio – the hadeda – got more airtime than most radio presenters, what has mattered most to listeners is not technical perfection but human connection.

This connection has also seen listeners move with the presenter to other platforms. The majority of radio presenters reported a rise in their social followings between May and August. Radio station digital streams also benefited from this need to connect.

Listeners suddenly shorn of a commute and access to the office radio had little choice but to seek out their favourite presenters and stations online. My data shows streaming of traditional radio increased on average 40% over lockdown, with the streaming audience listening longer, to different shows and by and large being much younger than the station’s usual demographic.

Will this audience stay long term? We’re starting to see the numbers drop as life returns to some sort of pattern, but stations were able to grow their audience in four months what they had anticipated doing over 18.

And what would make this audience stay? Well, a different listener experience to start with. For the most part, the digital stream is identical to the terrestrial broadcast. The party was just in another room. For stations to maximise these audiences, they need to use the technology to serve them a better experience. Customised ads, location-specific offers and content, exclusive in-stream promotions – the technology is there but stations stretched to maintain their core on-air product may not have the resources to make the most of these astronomical audience gains.

Podcasts were also a huge audio winner after an initial dip. Podcasts are traditionally consumed while doing home chores and secondarily during the commute, according to the Edison Research “Infinite Dial Report”. With these changing, people did not find time for their pods.

Add in that most pods can be a little explicit and peppered with colourful language – they’re not the ideal content to be played with kids and family around.

The good news is that fans of podcasts have found a way to fit them into their new routines and once again South Africans are more likely to listen to a podcast featuring an SA radio personality (“Infinite Dial Report” again). And without many talk shows to appear on, every SA personality who could be on a podcast was on one. It was really good for the growth of the medium in SA.

The big take-out:

We are in a golden age of audio. Audio technology, from broadcast through to headphones and smart speakers, has never been more cutting edge – and there’s more to come.

But what about music streaming? Too many radio personalities are quick to dismiss Spotify and the like, which I find bizarre.

No radio station has ever catered musically to every person. Despite what the radio stations tell you, no one really believes that it is radio making and breaking the hits. YouTube, Spotify and Donald Trump’s favourite app, TikTok, play a bigger role in defining music charts in 2020, so why fight the streaming platforms? Integrate them and use them to your advantage.

We have not even scratched the surface of how symbiotic radio, streaming and advertising on the two platforms can be, and we certainly can’t be dismissive of it before we’re out the gate.

Did we learn nothing from Lord Kelvin?

So, radio, are you sure?

I’m sure radio will never be the same. But neither will it be dramatically different. There is a reason that in one article I have identified three audio platforms that are worthy of your attention right now – not because they’re shiny and new, but because radio created a need for audiogasmic aural experiences.

We are in a golden age of audio. Audio technology, from broadcast through to headphones and smart speakers, has never been more cutting edge – and there’s more to come.

And the content is out because we have ears that need filling.

  • Paulo Dias is head of creative at Ultimate Media


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