One of the most frustrating things about this COVID-19 outbreak is its unpredictability and the lack of data you can count on. That leaves everyone from city mayors and state governors grappling with solutions in their regions as they fight both the worst health and economic crises ever. And as we've learned, this is not a one-size-fits-all pandemic in that every area is being hit or recovers differently.
At Jacobs Media, we've spent much time on this blog considering the implications of the coronavirus crisis on our audiences, our advertisers, our communities – and ourselves. And we've generated a fair amount of our own data trying to better understand the implications and impacts of COVID-19 on our businesses. By the time this week is out, we should end up with north of 75,000 interviews completed over the past several weeks. I will be reporting on top-line findings here in this blog, and to the industry trades, once we complete our webinars for stakeholder stations next week.
The virus is spawning sweeping changes in the fabric of our lives – where we work, the way we eat in and out, the methods by how our kids are being educated, the ways in which we spend our leisure time. And along the way, we are seeing the effects of these changes on radio broadcasting's ecosystem – how, where, when, and on which devices are people using to listen. And of course, the increasingly gnarly issue of how advertisers and local businesses will use the medium – and other platforms – as the “re-opening” rolls out across the country.
What role will radio play in the inevitable recovery? To what degree will local broadcasters be able to help retailers, restaurants, hometown sports teams, and other businesses get back on track and find their way back to profitability?
In some ways, radio broadcasters are lucky. Yes, a lot has changed. But it is possible to listen to AM or FM radio pretty much the way as before there was social distancing guidelines and face masks. True, significant listening has shifted to streams and devices like mobile phones and smart speakers. And many personalities have had to be agile about where they're broadcasting from. But still, the medium performs essentially as it did before there was a pandemic.
As we're seeing in newly released Nielsen PPM data, there have been winners and losers along the way. As yesterday's blog post – “Thanks To COVID-19, It's The Rise Of The ‘Comfort Seekers'” – illustrated, News/Talk and Classic Rock station have continually trended up throughout the pandemic. For Sports Radio, it's been an especially tough slog.
All things considered, however, the processes of radio – programming and sales – are essentially the same as they were back in February.
But not for radio's most dependable advertisers. And that's the focus of today's post – a look at industries heavily impacted by the virus to the extent their business models have been jeopardized or decimated.
They're the ones that need to start “experience bending” – reshaping their business models to survive throughout and beyond the pandemic by modifying their operating practices. We've referred to this as pivoting, but in some cases, it is requiring an entire reassessment of how they've operated to develop clever new ways of jumpstarting their businesses by attracting customers and cash flow. .
For business verticals like restaurants, sports, and concerts, the damage has been extensive, and there's no end in sight. And that's why the smartest players in these spaces are scrambling, experimenting, and innovating – in other words, “experience bending” to make their businesses viable in this new environment. Not all their out-of-the-box ideas will work – in fact, many will probably fail. But the spirit we're already seeing is impressive, and they need the help of marketers, including those of us in broadcast radio, who know their spaces well for guidance.
Most consumers believe that post-pandemic life will be quite a bit different than what we enjoyed before March – and all of our lives before then. We asked the question about how this will all end in our first COVID-19 study. And the vast majority of commercial radio respondents (it was even higher among public radio fans) expect that while the virus will eventually abate, there will be a “new normal.”
And to that end, we're all going to become “experience benders” – that is, modifying our activities in an attempt to participate in something we've become accustomed to, but under these very different circumstances. This is where the experimentation comes into play.
Case in point? The concert business. The music industry and artist communities are reeling with dire predictions, some suggesting we may not be able to enjoy a “normal” concert experience well into 2021 – if then.
Radio stations have a stake in this, of course. Not only are concerts an ad revenue category, but many radio brands sponsor and present their own shows and festivals as part of their event marketing efforts. So, how to bend the concert experience in a COVID-19 world?
In a post last week about how cars may make a comeback, we highlighted this idea of “drive-in concerts,” pointing to an event in Denmark that attracted hundreds of cars to enjoy live music. Some of you laughed at this innovation, while others were seriously impressed with its ingenuity.
It turns out this business model is going to be attempted here in the U.S., likely in multiple markets. The first-known venture is being attempted by YouTube artist Marc Rebillet (nearly 700,000 subscribers).
According to Digital Music News‘ Dylan Smith, “The Drive-In Tour 2020” is a seven show event that starts in June at Hound's Drive-In in Charlotte, NC, followed by tour stops at similar venues in Kansas city, Tulsa, Fort Worth, and Houston.
And earlier this week, the Texas Rangers baseball team announced a series of QuikTrip Concerts in Your Car that will place a live stage in a huge nearby parking lot, featuring jumbo screens and the audio transmitted on an FM frequency. (Wonder if the signal will be encoded for PPM.)
For fans who love live performance, perhaps these outdoor/in-car efforts have a shot. Clearly, it will be a lot safer setting in the solitude of a car or truck than it would be attending a traditional concert. But It will require some “experience bending” to replicate the feel of a real concert.
Then there is this experiment in Fort Smith, Arkansas at a venue called TempleLive. The entertainer is country rocker Travis McCready, and the innovation here is “social distancing seating.”
As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock's Dave Lifton, a venue with a normal seating capacity of more than 1,000 concertgoers as been reconfigured to handle just 229. The plan is to sell tickets in “fan pods” – clusters of 2-13 seats that have been separated and sold in packages.
To prepare for the show, TempleLive prepared to put several new policies into effect – a face mask requirement, limits on restroom capacity, one-way aisles, to name just a few.
Pretty radical – and perhaps too much / too soon for state authorities. As I was writing this post, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson announced the show's cancellation (scheduled for tomorrow night) because it apparently violated crowd capacity restrictions, while failing to submit a detailed plan.
Of course, that's another hazard of trying to put on concerts in this environment – dealing with local laws and regulations that may also need to “bend” a bit to accommodate new standards.
What about restaurants and dining establishments – a category that's been nearly obliterated by the pandemic? We're learning that when the going gets tough, the tough start “experience bending.”
Restaurants are experimenting with all sorts of novel seating options, but none as clever – or perhaps appealing as Mediamatic Eten in Amsterdam. They're an outdoor restaurant with lovely views. And to create both private and safe eating – without screwing up the scenery, how about “greenhouse” dining pods?
Fellow consultant and road warrior, Val Geller, tweeted out this novel dining concept the other day:
— Valerie Geller (@vgeller) May 10, 2020
Reported in SecretLA by Ashlyn Davis, this concept at this scenic vegan restaurant is certainly unique. Food will be delivered to these glass-enclosed tables via long wooden planks, with social distancing in mind. These see-through booths are still in the testing phase, while awaiting the green light from local authorities. Perhaps it's a positive they're not located in Arkansas.
What about sports, another category that is struggling to figure out a way to re-open? It appears Major League Baseball may be the first to break out of this sports quarantine.
On the table is a modified half-season schedule (82 games) starting in July that might confine teams to a handful of markets and venues in Florida, Texas, and Arizona before baseball returns to its home stadiums. It appears the games will be “crowdless.” But the thinking is that little wrinkle wouldn't stop millions of us already “jonesing” baseball from watching the games on TV.
Ironically, athletes have long told us they “block out the crowd” when at the plate or at the free throw line. With this “experience bending” new model, now they won't have to.
The concept is already underway in Taiwan where officials have placed “cardboard fans” around the stadium to simulate a crowd. CNN reports German football is using similar tricks to make Borussia-Park look more normal and hospitable (and the “fake fans” raise money for local charities).
According to Tim Booth of the Detroit News, another problem with “crowdless baseball” is that any sound – arguments with umps, profanities – will be amplified, and likely audible to the TV viewing audience. Perhaps they may have to pipe in crowd noise, but that's what “experience bending” is all about – finding workarounds to the way things used to be done.
And an adjunct industry to sports, of course, is gambling – especially given the lack of any games these past few months. If you know sports bettors, you know they'll wager on just about anything – whether the next out is a fly ball, the next play is a run or a pass, or whether the next vendor in the aisle will be selling popcorn.
So, what have these dyed-in-the-wool sports gamblers been betting on since the outbreak of COVID-19? According to Morning Consult research presented by Statista, they're doubling down on the virus – that is, stats that cover the numbers of infections, deaths, statewide progress (or lack of it), and other bizarre details. A close second is politics, followed by betting on the weather. Check out what these desperate sports gamblers are doing on the chart below:
It's apparently so bad that bettors are gambling about Reality TV, E-Sports, and even “competitive eating” – as in, how many hot dogs can be consumed in 60 seconds?
But that speaks to the core tenet of “experience bending.” You have to be clever, industrious, out of the box, and a bit of a gambler yourself to find a way to keep your business alive during the pandemic.
Radio broadcasters will no doubt be tasked with helping local businesses, retailers, and event marketers come up with novel answers, clever solutions, effective promotions, and inventive ideas to attract fans and their hard-earned money to this “new normal.”
The winners in this process will find a way to innovate themselves out of the ashes – and hopefully, radio can help them make it happen.
The last word on this comes once again from Val Geller with a reminder that not every idea is necessarily a good idea. Here's a gem from a 3-star Michelin eatery in Washington, D.C., hoping to make an artistic point about social distancing – perhaps “a bend too far.”
— Valerie Geller (@vgeller) May 13, 2020