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While music-formatted radio stations have done a commendable job in serving as a source of news and information during the COVID-19 pandemic, these stations are also serving as an escape for listeners who need to decompress from the realities of the day. Music serves as a comfort food for the ears and stations were sure to adjust to the changing palate of a nervous nation.

These stations have also had to adjust to a reality without concert giveaways, listener flyaway opportunities and public events and gatherings. As the country slowly emerges from months at home, stations have begun to adjust to what is not likely the new reality, but one that will be in flux for some time.

“Research certainly showed less passion for new music during the peak of COVID-19. In addition, we noticed Nielsen data showing more success for gold-based formats in general,” Beasley Media Group Chief Content Officer Justin Chase told Inside Radio. “For these reasons and more, we did back off on new music and increased exposure of highly familiar records at most of our current music stations. And we paid special attention on the tempo and feel, as we wanted our stations to be as positive and uplifting as possible.” That thinking spawned a “Comfort Songs” feature on one of the company’s stations, “where listeners called in to request their favorites,” Chase continues.

“We noticed immediately through music testing that listener taste in music shifted quickly to familiar and upbeat,” Midwest Communications VP of Programming Jeff McCarthy adds. “That was the case in almost every format. We made the necessary adjustments quickly.”

Kurt Johnson, Senior VP of Programming at Townsquare Media also saw a resurgence of gold-based music. “We definitely saw tremendous excitement from our classic rock and classic hits listeners. Those songs are the comfort food for anxious times,” he says. “Also, the retro features on our CHR, hot AC and AC stations saw a ton of traffic on socials and interactivity on our station-branded apps.”

Like others in the industry, Midwest Communications stations focused on providing information from official sources during the early weeks of the health crisis. And then, “we decided to shift our focus to entertainment, fun and escape. We still passed along information when necessary but that was no longer our focus,” McCarthy explains. Company talent, for the most part, continued to broadcast from station studios, which also provided a direct connection to the communities they serve. “The biggest change was the amount of actual phone calls from listeners. We were connecting verbally again,” McCarthy continues. “Yes, we were broadcasting from our studios and they were engaging with a comforting friend on the other end.”

Special and creative features were added to stations throughout the group, including “The Murphy in the Morning Show” at CHR “The Big One” WIXX (101.1) Green Bay reading children’s books each day after the program, which parents could play back at any time. “There were many other creative features throughout our group [that] stayed away from the COVID connection,” McCarthy says. “Salutes and honoring graduates is another ongoing program. We instantly viewed this as an opportunity to connect and engage our local audience.”

Special features that emerged at Townsquare Media stations included a number of the company’s classic rock stations staging day-long fantasy concerts, “including ‘Blimpstock’ at Portland’s legendary 102.9 The Blimp [WBLM],” Johnson says. “Our AC stations took listeners to simpler times with “Back To The 80s” weekends. And our classic hits night show, ‘The Night Shift’ featured ‘Feel-Good-80s’ sets.”

Beasley rolled out its “Superstar Mini Concert Series” across the company’s country stations. Other stations held their own “Live Concert Weekends” and a popular mix show was rebranded as “Club Quarantine.”

No Contests – No Problem

With the live music industry coming to a screeching halt, concert ticket giveaways immediately dried up as did many other events with large gatherings, along with both large and small station events. “But a funny thing happened,” McCarthy explains. “The concert ticket giveaways were gone; sporting event promotions were gone. All the items we would spend time selling to our audience were gone. That gave us all the room to do personality radio again without the clutter. Not that those items aren't important, but they were gone. Personality radio from the studio took over.”

“We had to get creative and our teams did a fantastic job,” Johnson says. Townsquare Media CHR stations gave away opportunities for listeners to view livestreams with Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, who each played live from their homes. On the country side, private online party-performances were done by Dierks Bentley, Tim McGraw and “Luke Bryan Live in your Living Room.” “This is an incredible prize where a winner and ten of their friends got a can’t-buy-it experience while sheltered at home, just for them,” Johnson adds.

Local giveaways are starting to ramp up in some Townsquare markets as businesses re-open. “We want to support them with promotions that let people know they’re open and drive listeners to their businesses,” he continues.

Beasley stopped most local contesting during the epidemic, however the company’s national cash contest continued, “but we adjusted the messaging to be more ‘service’ focused, since many of our listeners could really use the cash we were giving away,” Chase explains.

Contest giveaways will return as will station appearances, but for many it’s a wait and see approach for the latter. Midwest Communications “has specific plans on how to resume public appearances and remotes,” McCarthy says. “We have plans to continue social distancing and making provisions for the talent to understand what's expected but more importantly, how to keep them safe.”

Chase also says the health and safety of employees, clients and listeners is most important and says no events are being hosted at this time and the company will continue to follow local, state and CDC recommendations as they plan the next steps. “However, we are doing a large number of virtual events,” he says. “For example, virtual happy hours, town halls, taco Tuesday, virtual charity walks/runs, an NFL Draft party, even a virtual dog walk at [classic rock] WMGK in Philly.”   – Jay Gleason