“Pivot” was the ANA’s word of the year for 2020, reflecting the need for advertisers to be flexible and agile about everything from marketing strategies and brand messaging to budgets and processes. Radio, too, did its share of shifting and swiveling in 2020. “We faced challenges unlike any we have seen before,” recalls Cumulus Media CEO Mary Berner. “With every aspect of our lives and business confronted with dramatic change, we learned we could pivot rapidly to remote broadcasting and keep all our shows on the air, despite a vast majority of our talent, producers, and technicians working from home.”

As employees in virtually every department became proficient on tools like Zoom and Teams, broadcasters discovered a new and higher level of collaboration was possible – even without the ability to have workers in the same place at the same time. “The pandemic forced every member of Cumulus’ workforce to adjust and support one another on a previously unthinkable plane,” says Berner. “We learned that videoconferencing is a game-changer for keeping us all connected, allowing us to collaborate in ways we never imagined.”

Broadcasters also had to respond to radically different consumer lifestyles and routines as stay-at-home orders and remote working changed how, where, and when they listened to audio. “Our job as broadcasters is to put the listener first and [last] year we were forced to pivot, bringing experiences to life in our consumers’ living rooms through exclusive content such as artist features, behind-the-scenes access, and other special, must-listen elements,” says Bob Philips, Chief Revenue Officer at Entercom.

Relationships Matter

While deep-seeded relationships have long been foundational to success in radio, their importance was only amplified during the pandemic. “We learned that relationships matter a great deal and adaptability, and creativity are integral to success,” says Berner. Realizing their stations were only as strong as its advertisers, many operators took steps to prop up local business that were faltering due to social restrictions. “We hosted webinars to help business owners navigate the Paycheck Protection Program, launched Operation Gift Card to help local restaurants stay afloat and provided support for frontline workers with a Healthcare Heroes program,” recounts Tina Murley, VP of Sales at Beasley Media Group.

Steve Goldstein, Senior VP of Digital Sales Strategy at Hubbard Radio, says the horrific year reinforced the importance of sitting side-by-side with clients as true business partners. “We listened, provided guidance, brainstormed ideas, pivoted messaging,” he says. “We did everything but try to just sell them something.”

Meanwhile, a wake-up call rang across the industry about the value of a revenue diversification strategy. Being overly dependent on a handful of ad categories can cause deep pain when they’re forced to drastically pull back. “Given the instant attrition that hit in mid-March, we knew that an intense focus on new business development and category diversification would be key to digging out,” says Erik Hellum, COO, Local Media at Townsquare Media Group. “These efforts paid off as we hit new business highs the last few months of 2020, with strong momentum going into 2021.” The small and medium market specialist used first party data to identify and chase categories that were surging, which helped drive growth in verticals such as healthcare and home improvement. To develop the news business it needed required increased sales activity, Hellum notes, so the company “created and implemented our own customer relationship management system to help better track and drive that activity.”

Another valuable lesson learned has long-term implications for how programming is created and how business gets done. “The number one lesson that we in radio have learned is that we don’t need all the office space we have, and our operations can work well with many employees working from home,” observes David Kantor, CEO of Urban One’s Radio Division.

The year also shone a bright light on the indispensable role radio plays in serving communities during a crisis. Says Kantor, “I’ve learned that we are a resilient group committed to radio as a business and as an essential and needed resource within the communities we serve.”

And with the pandemic speeding up paradigm changes already well underway, perhaps the most significant lesson learned from 2020 was about anticipating and preparing for the future. “This year has taught us how important innovating for the future is as a company,” says Bob Philips, Chief Revenue Officer at Entercom. “We are continuing to enhance and improve our digital streaming and podcasting while simultaneously focusing on the future of over-the-air programming.”

More from our Outlook 2021 series in Tuesday morning’s Inside Radio.