According to moderator Franz Krüger, there were initially thoughts about postponing the conference. He says that while everyone would be missing the opportunity to network in person with a cup of coffee in 2020, the new format would also make it easier for people from all over the world to attend. 

Nadia Bulbulia, the executive director of the National Association of Broadcasters, opened the conference. "We've all had to adapt to find new ways to make sense of everything," she said at the conference.

Bulbulia also mentioned that as broadcasters were regarded as essential services when South Africa first entered into lockdown, over 72 000 PSAs giving updates about the virus have aired across radio stations. Bulbulia said that this showcases the ability of the industry to respond efficiently and adapt very quickly, even in times of great uncertainty.

The panel for the day featured a mix of industry experts, including:
  • Nada Wotshela: SABC group executive radio in South Africa
  • Haseena Cassim: YFM station manager in South Africa 
  • Jackie Lawrence Mboki: Highlands FM radio director in Tanzania, and
  • Matt Deegan: Fun Kids radio and folder media founder in the United Kingdom.
Each speaker discussed the immediate impact of the pandemic on their operations, referencing listener behaviour in the wake of COVID-19 and noting key changes that they had experienced over the last couple of months.

Haseena Cassim reported that agility and authenticity are two words that have stood out the most during this unprecedented time. "We have had to adapt very quickly," she said. According to her, listener patterns are changing and time spent listening is on the increase.

A 40% increase in streaming numbers, as well as a 70% increase in engagement on social media, has helped with getting into the mind's eye of the listener and thinking about how to speak directly to who they are and their needs, she added. The station has subsequently put a lot of emphasis on developing their digital strategy in recent months, and encourages others to do so too.

Nada Wotshela from the SABC said, "PBS stations are assuming the role of trusted friend to communities. They are also helping with supplying credible information, like assisting people to get access to food supplies."

She said that with schools being closed, that the SABC had increased curriculum-based programmes to support children that now at home. She also affirmed that the SABC stations have had to come up with innovative ways to attract listeners, all the while maintaining a balance with providing credible information related to the pandemic too.

Jackie Lawrence Mboki said that, while Highlands FM is also seeing an increase in listenership, the crux of the matter is that traditional advertising has stopped completely for the station.

She reported that radio is now being used as a tool to reach people for very specific purposes. Companies are no longer buying generic spots, opting instead for sponsored programming targeting the needs of the listener very specifically. "A beer company may want to tell people how to get their beer at home," she said.
Matt Deegan said that he had witnessed similar changes to listener behaviour in the United Kingdom as other panelists had also noted. "Radio is a habitual medium and we've seen the listener habits have changed a lot," he said.

Deegan posed a thought around whether breakfast shows should be running later now that people don't have a morning commute and whether it even makes sense for a show to be called 'drive time' in the current climate. He additionally brought to light that stations have to get a handle on changing human behaviour and adapt what they are offering according to this.

The conversation then turned to specific changes in audience behaviour in the onslaught of COVID-19. Wotshela suggested that people are engaging a lot more and are getting more vocal about new suggestions for programming.

Mboki said that they are decreasing the amount of music they play at the station, as people want more news and information spots; this is something she said she never thought would happen.

Cassim added that the YFM audience is appreciating the new features and the music on the stations, especially as these are a respite from a challenging period of time for the youth in particular (with a direct reference to 'astronomical' unemployment statistics in South Africa).

Wotshela said that advertising revenue for the SABC has plummeted by 50% since the start of the pandemic, which has resulted in a need to take a closer look at their operational model.

"We cannot continue the way that we have continued and hope for a different result," she said. Cassim added that April and May were 'commercial disasters' for YFM.

Deegan mentioned the importance of multi-platform businesses within radio stations in the UNited Kingdom. "Different advertisers see value in different platforms," he said. "This is a good opportunity to reflect on that and to refine the new ways to reach your audience."

In response to this, Franz suggested that the pandemic is a test of ingenuity and inventiveness for the radio industry. He subsequently asked the entire panel about specific innovations they have witnessed during this time.

Deegan was first to mention the creation of a large fund for broadcasters that encourages third parties to create content for programming that is available for free to radio stations in the United Kingdom.

Wotshela said that there has been a multitude of good ideas across the SABC stations, but that the creation of multilingual bulletins that are simulcast across all PBS stations to provide credible updates on COVID-19 is one of the best.

According to the event, the profound take-away from the discussions was that radio has always been great in times of crisis. The pandemic has been a true test of ingenuity and inventiveness, especially in the midst of a challenging commercial climate, and in the wake of an unexpected increase in social responsibility for radio stations across the board.

The event further reports that it's up to radio stations and their teams to continue to present innovative ideas in response to the challenges presented by the pandemic, and to continue to adapt as listener behaviours change in response to the world getting used to the 'new normal'.

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