Clock 727

Disruptions in listening habits from the coronavirus have resulted in consumers beginning their audio day later than in pre-pandemic times. A recent Edison Research Share of Ear study found people in the U.S. age 13 and older began listening to audio a full 75 minutes later on average, as compared to before the disruptions, reinforcing what many radio stations and groups realized from listener feedback, or lack thereof during early morning hours.

Barely a month into nationwide stay-at-home mandates and the shutdown of non-essential businesses, iHeartMedia made the quick decision to extend the daily air time of more than 65 of its morning shows across the country by at least an hour.

Some of the company’s stations have since resumed normal morning show hours, with a standard end time of 10am while others continue to air the extra hour.

John Ivey, President of CHR Programming Strategies for iHeartMedia, believes these new morning drive time show hours will remain in place. “I don’t think the traditional daypart will ever be quite the same again,” he tells Inside Radio. “The beauty of radio is we can pivot quickly when needed. We want our best and most popular talent on where listeners are listening at any given time. Our talent are their companions and especially now people are looking for their favorite and most familiar friends/voices to provide information and relief.”

The shift in listener behavior was also felt early on at Townsquare Media talk “New Jersey 101.5” WKXW Trenton. “Like most things in programming, you feel changes before you actually know about them,” Brand Manager Anne Gress says. “Our amazing morning show producer Kristen Weber alerted me to the later shift in AM drive call volume long before any statistics came out. We adjusted nimbly to this shift in listenership with our selection and placement of topics and hour-by-hour maintenance.”

When he hosted a nationally-syndicated show on broadcast radio, Howard Stern routinely remained on the air well into the midday hours. And at Beasley Media Group rock WMMR Philadelphia, it’s common for “The Preston & Steve Show” to continue past 11am, depending on show content and guests. Even so, Program Director and BMG National Rock Format Brand Manager Bill Weston says during the pandemic months the “7am and 8am hours are still most active.”

The extension of morning drive was not a move made at co-owned classic rock WCSX Detroit. “At its heart, Detroit is still a blue-collar town so we’ve stuck with our traditional 6-10am,” morning host Big Jim O’Brien says. “But we're definitely aware of the importance of material placement in the later hours as well.”

In its Share of Ear study, Edison Research found that Americans usually started their audio day at 7:15am. The latest data based on interviews conducted in mid-May found that the new audio day begins now at 8:30am for at least 50% of participants in the ongoing study.

“Our best benchmark ‘Battle of the Burbs’ had just been moved to the 8am hour, so we were fortunate there with the audience shift,” O’Brien continues. “Big Jim’s House” has also been recycling artist and guest interviews into the later hours of the morning show.

Cultivating At-Home Listening

Taking advantage of a larger “at-home” audience, “The Preston and Steve Show” conducted a few one-off type events and contests such as “Isolation Idol,” which consisted of “video and audio connected talent auditions,” Weston explains. Other features included “March Sadness, a game of HORSE in listener driveways and the Co-Vidiot of the Week feature,” he adds.

Pandemic programming has been the norm at WKXW. “Literally everything we’ve been doing, saying and presenting on-air and online goes through the lens of this pandemic,” Gress explains. “There isn’t a place in our lives this crisis hasn’t touched, and that includes everything we do on New Jersey 101.5. When there wasn’t traffic on the streets, we focused on where the traffic was – around COVID-19 testing centers.”

As a talk station, the pandemic was a topic that continued throughout the day on WKXW. “When our listeners were frustrated and demanding answers about unemployment relief, our afternoon show, Deminski & Doyle, hosted the New Jersey Labor Commissioner for the most riveting and tough hour of talk radio I’ve ever heard in my career,” Gress continues. The station also ramped up its “Town Hall” features, holding them twice a month throughout the health crisis.

In the early days of the pandemic, O’Brien was buying pizza for essential and front-line workers and on Friday (July 24), he drove from the station to Rochester, MN and back in less than 24 hours, raising $50,000 to benefit Gleaner’s Food Bank. “Just another way of saying thanks to our listeners without asking them for anything other than support,” says O’Brien, who broadcasted from his truck during the Classic Rock Road Trip. WCSX has also added more on-demand content, including “a compressed daily Best Of called ‘Jim Bits’ and my ‘Big Jim’s Garage’ podcast,” O’Brien continues.

WKXW posted additional content on social media. “We added an Instagram Happy Hour with our midday Dennis & Judi show, and our night show hosted by Steve Trevelise began hosting a weekly Facebook Live program as well,” Gress says. “Like all our social-based programming, the audience showed up in droves, with support, thoughts and opinions on everything happening in New Jersey.”   – Jay Gleason