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The upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on the radio industry will likely have lasting effects, and not just when it comes to advertising revenue and staff size. A new way of broadcasting has emerged as radio groups had to scramble to set up home studios for talent, while pivoting from welcoming listeners to amphitheaters to logging them into virtual performances and artist hang-outs.

What has remained constant is the drive to continue to serve and entertain the audience with creative ideas and concepts that may have the legs to stick around – even after the industry and the country are firmly entrenched in “the new normal.”

“From the content side, the recent challenges remind us of the importance of resonating and making an emotional connection with listeners, both live and in produced imaging,” Harv Blain, a consultant with Vallie Richards Donovan Consulting tells Inside Radio. “We now have a new playbook of experiences and lessons learned from changing the way radio has had to broadcast programming to listeners from different locations.” That has required talent and programmers to learn how to work effectively from home and to facilitate new ways for listeners to interact with air talent and station brands.

Change is good. And with it brings opportunity. “I think this creates a great opportunity for us in radio to level up how we do all of this stuff,” Steve Reynolds of The Reynolds Group said on a recent webinar. “Discomfort brings growth and everyone has been uncomfortable because their surroundings have changed.”

The pandemic forced Nikki Nite, VP of Programming & Operations at Entercom Austin, to find a quicker, more efficient way of getting news on the air at “Talk Radio 1370 AM” KJCE. “Facilitating live news reports on air directly from a talent’s home without a board operator has been a time saver,” says Nite, who also serves as national AC Format Captain. “In the future, we can use this same technology to broadcast from various locations with a much simpler setup.”

Another bonus of lean, remote, home-based broadcasting setups: the opportunity to pull talent in at a moment’s notice. “A fill-in talent who has a home setup can start working at a moment’s notice without having to spend time commuting to the studio,” Nite continues. And as with the company’s news stations, personalities at music stations can travel with equipment and literally broadcast from just about anywhere.

For day to day operations, air personalities and hosts have a newfound reliance on technology. Blain says some of his firm’s clients have been using Facetime, Zoom and Microsoft Teams “to be the resources to produce shows in real time with morning talent in separate locations and also for the inclusion of guests and experts.”

Entercom has hooked up regular contributing guests with a Comrex unit. And for guests that are not regularly scheduled and therefore wouldn’t have access to equipment, Opal is a great solution, Nite says. “Guests don’t have to have any technical background and can simply click a button and go live using their mobile phone without sounding like they are on the phone.” However, the tool does limit the number of guests who can join at one time, she advises.

Radio may already be in its “new normal” as many of these tools are likely to stay in use at stations across the country. Blain sees “many shows and talent that adapted well and are doing a good job with broadcasting from sites outside of the traditional broadcast.”

Great radio is great radio, no matter where it originates. The audience, Reynolds says, “doesn’t give a rat’s ass to where you are. They come because they’re greedy. They just want to be entertained.”

Radio hosts, often isolated in a studio, have long risen to the occasion of shaking hands and taking selfies with listeners. But that type of interaction is not likely to return anytime soon. “The infection rate increases and moving forward, along with liability issues,” that will keep events, live broadcasts and musical performances “on the shelf for the time being,” Blain contends. “If sporting events return successfully over the next few weeks with fans in attendance, that could be that catalyst that gets some shows returning in the fall. We could see some outside venues attempt to do some smaller shows, where those attending could still practice social distancing.”

Nite stresses safety first in a world that “is changing almost daily.” That said, she believes “broadcasters will continue to find ways to transform the traditional live broadcasts, events and small-scale musical performances into virtual experiences.”

And as sales departments adjust to these new broadcast realities, Blain says to “look for virtual remotes to be the updated revenue stream.” These virtual remotes, hosted by talent, could include video content “of things that a retailer is promoting or looking to highlight,” he continues. “Basically, a video commercial for online, social and on air.” – Jay Gleason