Picture: Pexels
Picture: Pexels

November is the celebration of 100 years of commercial radio worldwide. There are very few mediums that have changed so little since inception – the type of radio your great-grandfather would have listened to is broadly the same as what you listen to.

It was telling that many people I spoke to at the start of the year felt that radio had stagnated, that it was just going through the motions. Sure, there were the inevitable technical and digital moves, but broadly radio didn’t need to change. Audiences were good, lineups were solid and ad revenue was constant. This safety net meant little innovation, little push to change, little threat.

And then March rolled around.

The impressive thing about radio is that there are very clever people working in a very robust medium. They are just shy to show it.

The speed at which new concepts, innovation, technology and methodologies rolled out showed how much work was constantly going on behind the scenes, and the environment meant that the red tape holding radio stations back from evolution was snipped.

Radio stations love testing everything, but suddenly they couldn’t, and we saw new ideas hit the speakers constantly.

Some of these will stay and hopefully some of them never again see the light of day – like perform-at-home concerts (I just don’t get the appeal).

I loved the raft of “Drive-through Everything” promotions and concepts. High school kids who feared missing out on graduations and proms saw radio stations come to the rescue. I saw a local radio station host a drive-through baby shower. This is an innate power of radio, reaching listeners and connecting over their hopes and fears, and I’m sure we’ll get more of this type of thing as stations start thinking about year-end celebrations. Watch just one of the many examples.

The must-have items of masks and hand sanitiser gave radio stations more scope to play. Giving away a month’s supply of sanitiser or rewarding people for wearing masks has become commonplace. I heard one station host “The Masked Singer’’, where listeners were invited to sing on air through their masks. A 2020 spin on a radio classic.

Another go-to for radio is office invasions, but what do you do when no one is in an office? I saw numerous stations do office invasions to nurses, construction workers and other non-office and essential workers, allowing them to extend their brand, grow loyalty with an audience and just do feel-good stuff with a new take.

And finally, remember when hairdressers and barbers were closed and everyone looked like Zach Galifianakis? It gave radio stations the chance to host win-a-haircut type promotions. With all protocols observed, listeners were brought into the studio, or barbers taken to them for cuts and shaves. I saw Roger Goode of 5FM hand over control of his beard to listeners for a promotion that at any other time would have been good but became highly relatable in the midst of a lockdown.

We’re closing in on radio’s busiest period and the sense is that it will be busy as we shake off the negativity of the year, regardless of what comes when the calendar turns.

Radio has been rocked out of its comfort zone and it showed it can do amazing things. However, as life adapts to a sort of normality and patterns develop, radio stations will go back to going through the motions, because patterns are easy.

As listeners we mustn’t let our radio stations slip back into complacency and the tried and tested.

What we’ve seen over the past six months is that new, fresh, relatable and fun will win the radio day, every time. And as listeners we like it when things go wrong.

I read something from Paige Nienaber, a radio inspiration of mine who calls himself the director of fun and games at a large US radio group. ‘’What followed World War 1 and the Spanish Flu? The Roaring Twenties. A decade of ‘blowing off steam’ and celebrations for surviving it all. If not for 2021, at least to send off 2020, that’s a great vibe.’’

And that’s why radio has thrived for 100 years – it’s such a great vibe!

  • Paulo Dias is head of creative at Ultimate Media


The big take-out:

Radio has been rocked out of its comfort zone and it showed it can do amazing things


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