Outlook 2020

News/talk radio looks to benefit from the 2020 election season, while a resurgence of pop music has CHR stations hoping to turn sagging ratings around. Meanwhile, listeners seeking familiarity during uncertain times will continue to fuel upper demo formats like classic hits, classic rock and AC. These are among the programming trends to watch for this year, according to senior programming execs interviewed by Inside Radio for our ongoing Outlook 2020 series.

It doesn’t take a genie with a crystal ball to realize that the 2020 Presidential election will be a boom for news/talk radio. “Presidential election years are like the Super Bowl for a news/talk station, and this year more than ever,” iHeartMedia Executive VP, New Talk and Sports Chris Berry says. “The story is changing from morning to afternoon drive. Listening levels always increase during an election year and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see record ratings between now and November.”

Veteran programming consultant Mike McVay agrees. “We’ll see news/talk show some nice spikes as we go through the primary and the general elections,” he predicts. “The impending impeachment will also show ratings growth.” McVay suggests that local hosts “who relate to their market will do better than those that simply echo what Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Ben Shapiro have to say.”

“Stop me if you've heard this before: there will be more interest in this upcoming presidential election than ever before,” Jeff Sottolano, Entercom Senior VP, Radio and Radio.com Programming interjects. He too believes that local stations can benefit by focusing “on unbiased objectivity, personality-driven POV, and issues that are of utility to their local community… At their core, all politics are local.”

While it’s a given that news/talk radio will benefit from the never-ending news cycle that surrounds this year’s elections, a number of music formats also aim to have a strong 2020 ahead. As documented in many of the year-end charts, the current crop of pop music has Beasley Media Group Executive VP of Programming Justin Chase expecting a ratings rebound for CHR stations. “It’s about time for a rebirth cycle,” Chase offers. But that rebirth will require a strong selection of upbeat music. “Data suggests that listeners are thirsty for upbeat hits,” Chase continues. He points to Jonas Brothers’ 2019 up-tempo pop hit “Only Human” as an example of “some sounds that we haven’t heard in a while.” Dance/EDM may also have a place in the resurgence of the format, Chase believes.

Sottolano also anticipates an improving performance for pop and hot AC in 2020, “which will continue to benefit from better product we saw and heard late in 2019,” he says. Classic hits, classic rock and AC will continue to thrive in the new year, Sottolano believes. “During increasingly uncertain and divisive times, consumers seek comfort and familiarity.”

As the radio audience ages, classic hits and AC will continue to grow, McVay says, adding that formats used for at-work listening have the most potential upside. But he sees challenges ahead for CHR and even more so with sports/talk, “because the NFL, MLB and NBA compete with radio by providing their own apps that deliver play-by-play audio and video. Sports talk is no longer exclusive to radio.”

Data And Digital Platforms

Although data and research will remain crucial for radio in the new year, McVay takes that a step further, saying “innovation driven by research” will be critical to the overall success of radio.

And while “programmers have always been great about using data to shape the programming strategy,” Chase says research today involves far more than traditional survey-based music tests and perceptual studies. “We are swimming in data from all types of sources… This data can give deep insights about your listeners,” he observes.

Sottolano contends more work needs to be done to understand the overall listening habits of the audience. “There is still too far a bridge between streaming consumption and radio airplay data,” he says. “Both platforms could be doing more to recognize we are part of the same music ecosystem.” And the old adage, research is a tool not the rule, still applies in 2020. “We will continue to encourage our programmers to use the tools available to them to inform decisions, while allowing for the kind of local programming autonomy that builds unique and meaningful brands in each of our markets,” Sottolano continues.

Much of this data is derived from the listening habits of those who consume audio via various digital platforms, such as iHeartRadio, Radio.com, TuneIn, individual station apps and smart speakers. For companies that have them, these insights help inform decisions on how to program linear AM/FM stations, to implement new online product features and develop exclusive digital content. “Unlike traditional radio ratings, we have an instant feedback mechanism to allow us to act in a way that is entrepreneurial so we can iterate and evolve in real time.” Sottolano explains. Beasley Media Group plans to “try out new and innovative programming on our digital platforms that could eventually be used on our over-the-air platforms,” Chase suggests.

Proclaiming digital delivery is “the future for radio,” McVay says the biggest difference between radio and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora “isn’t whether one carries commercials or not. Radio has limited channels versus a streaming or satellite service that has almost limitless entertainment channels.” He encourages the U.S. radio industry to take a cue from European broadcasters and “move to 100% digital audio delivery. When radio gets there, and we fully transition to an audio service, we’ll be better able to compete for a young audience,” McVay posits.

Radio’s Role In Podcast Growth

There’s little doubt 2020 will bring growth in podcasting, both in audience consumption and in ad revenue. Darren Davis, President of iHeartRadio and iHeartMedia Networks Group says “podcasts are a direct extension of radio,” which will “continue to grow at an incredible pace.” The combination of organic growth and strategic acquisitions helped make iHeartMedia far and away the No. 1 commercial podcast publisher, according to Podtrac. The on-demand audio medium will continue to be a focus for the company moving forward. “We work with the best and most well-known creatives and talent, and we will continue to develop even more diverse content for a wide audience throughout 2020,” Davis stresses. Once regarded as a competitor to AM/FM, the radio industry is likely to be the reason podcasts further make their way into the greater public consciousness. “Our ability to promote and air podcasts across our broadcast stations, which reach over 90% of the U.S. population, provides the necessary scale to introduce podcasts to the vast majority of Americans,” Davis adds.

Sottolano sees much opportunity for podcast growth from a talent development and audience reach perspective. “We are just scratching the surface of what's possible with the combination of our assets,” he notes.

Platforms such as iHeartRadio and Radio.com that provide easy access to podcasts “enable the user to sift through the massive amount of content that is available,” McVay says. – Jay Gleason