2021 Outlook

Programming lessons learned in the tumultuous year that was 2020 will likely carry over into the new year, from the ascendance of news/talk radio to new listening habits garnered during the shift to at-home work and schooling. Now that the vaccine rollout is underway, along with a slow return to more traditional work places, will formats targeting the at-work audience regain their 6am-7pm dominance?

For our Programming Outlook 2021, Inside Radio gathered some of the top programming execs in the industry for their take.

The pandemic and the election had Americans tuned into news and news/talk radio in droves with many of these stations leading their market throughout the year. Jeff Sottolano, Executive Vice President of Programming at Entercom, believes this trend will continue. “Vaccine distribution, prioritization and safety will be an important topic in Q1 and Q2 and the political sphere will give us plenty of fodder with a new administration,” he tells Inside Radio.

But Justin Chase, Chief Content Officer, Beasley Media Group predicts that news/talk’s share will decrease in 2021, “due to COVID and election news fatigue.” However, the vaccine roll-out will draw listeners to the format who “want news on whether it is safe and local information on how/where to get it.”

The format may also evolve due to changes in the political atmosphere. “I wonder how the conservative strain of news/talk radio will fare?” Coleman Insights Senior VP/Senior Consultant John Boyne ponders. “Will a return to being the opposition party to a Democratic administration lead to amplified passion and listenership? Will the format fragment into a side that is steadfastly with Trump and one that is not?”

The Return Of Commuters And At-Work Listening

Outside of the nation’s continued interest in the news of the day, a return to some sense of normalcy may usher in a new era of at-work listening, but it may not look exactly how we remember. “Some of 2020’s changes will stick. For example, while commuting to work will resume for many, others will continue to work from home because working from home has proven to be beneficial for them and their employers,” Boyne says. “Similarly, the media habits developed during the pandemic won’t completely go away when the pandemic is over.

Will the tug of nostalgia many felt during a year of forced self-reflection continue? Will ongoing medical developments in the fight against COVID-19 and a Democratic Presidency, Senate and House keeps ears on news radio? Will listeners stick with the podcasts they discovered during the extra down time? “Regardless of what you got into, surely at least some of that is going to carry over, and the things you used to listen to may not necessarily return to your media diet,” Boyne contends.

“2020 has reminded us of the power of radio in the car,” Senior VP of Programming Greg Strassell notes, especially since we saw what happens when commuters are taken out of the radio listening equation. “As more Americans get back to work and back in the car, this will be good for all radio formats and all audio in general,” Chase posits. “I suspect it will be even better for female leaning and at-work friendly formats… Female leaning formats were hit particularly hard, as many moms were helping their kids with at-home learning.”

“As the year progresses and vaccines become more readily available, we are going to see a desire by both employers and employees in many cases to return to traditional workplaces,” Sottolano adds. As this takes place, he feels “traditional FM at-work listening will increase and favor the formats like AC that have typically targeted this environment.”

Sottolano also has high hopes for a rebound for alternative radio, especially with a renewed focus placed on the format at Entercom heading into the new year. “The format is getting back to its roots of serving as a bit of a smorgasbord of sounds that don’t fit neatly into a format box and addressing underserved yet passionate audiences.”

While the return of in-car listening will surely be a boost for the medium, Strassell says “2020 has also reminded us that we must look for opportunities to grow at-home listening. The smart speaker is key here, as well as other digital tools. We must remain top of mind at home, and be open to new ideas to program to that audience.” – Jay Gleason