You're looking at one of my favorite blues titles for a song. As bluesmen go, Robert Cray is a youngin' at just 70 years of age. Compared to his elders – folks like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and so many others who forged the trail, Cray is still earning his chops. But the lyrics of this song earned him a place in my heart when it was released in 1990.
Here we are three decades later, and those words were echoing in my brain when I read a recent article in Yahoo! Finance by Rick Newman with a similarly telling title:
Of course, this story resonated with me. I've been writing about the national malaise since the dawn of the COVID crisis, and in the years since.
In 2022, it was the “polycrisis theory” – the idea that many nasty things came together that negatively impacted the fortunes of the radio broadcasting industry's fortunes.
And here we are in the opening inning of 2024, and we can see the bad omens lining up, possibly explaining why so many people have the blues. Newman's story focuses on the economy, noting that inflation has subsided, wages and jobs are up, and that dreaded recession never happened.
Despite that, American consumers have been plenty dissatisfied. You've no doubt heard of the University of Michigan's famed Consumer Sentiment Index measuring just how bummed out we really are.
For context, it hit a low in 2022 (circled on the chart below). While it's back up preliminarily, recently hitting a high mark this month (at nearly 79), it has a ways to go to get back to its pre-pandemic levels when this recent slide began.
And it gets only more dismal when we look down the road. An NBC News national poll revealed that last November, the survey recorded a record low number for consumers feeling confident their children's generation will have a better life than they did:
(You can track the poll interactively here.)
Here are Newman's theories as to why everyone's seemingly wringing their hands in early 2024:
1.Select pain points – While the scourge of inflation is statistically improving, there are certain key categories where prices seem – or actually are – worse. These include housing/real estate, food, and transportation – conveniences most Americans use every day.
Yet, we've seen consumer spending going nuts in many areas, including for luxuries. In our new Techsurvey 2024, we're investigating concert attendance, merch purchases, and the levels at which people are traveling great distances to see a favorite performer live to get the perspective from radio listeners.
I can tell you that the “early returns” from the data (with more than 16,000 in-tab responses and growing), there are a lot of people who flew to Miami (or farther) to see Taylor Swift's “Eras” tour, along with other concerts and sporting events deemed “must see.”
Some will maintain this is just a “COVID echo” where consumers denied their freedom to have a good time (not in the Constitution, by the way) during and after the pandemic, threw caution (and good sense) to the wind and just charged it.
You can see that in the Household Debt chart from Equifax (below). Credit card balances are at an all-time high – $1.08 trillion (with a “T”) outstanding:
(To look at this chart interactively, go here.)
2. Debbie Downers everywhere – Hopefully, Newman isn't referring to me. Actually, it's more of a news tone situation, which dovetails perfectly into the radio mood. The theory is that when consumers incessantly hear negative sounding news, their vibe turns dark.
And as economic news has been bleak for years (Newman pegs 2018 as the beginning of the slide, but I think you can track it back to the Great Recession in 2008-09), adding to the collective bad taste we may have about “how it's going.”
3. “Referred pain” – Here's that scary media news cycle again. Newman credits Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal for this nugget. Back in November, Ip wrote, “The Economy Is Great. Why Are Americans in Such a Rotten Mood?”
Ip cited the onslaught of news stories about pleasantries that include mass shootings, weather disasters, immigration woes, opioid overdoses, and a lack of great shows on Netflix (OK, I made that last one up) as reasons for ordinary citizens to believe the world is on fire.
4. Political fatalism – OK, this one is admittedly my go-to handwringer. Again, it impacts radio, especially News/Talk stations in commercial, public, and even Christian radio. Yes, fear can be a ratings generator for a while. But over an extended period of time, political bipolarity is a killer.
And of course, that's where we are right now. Trump is not the presumptive Republican candidate for president – yet. But it sure looks like it's a pretty forgone conclusion he will run again against Biden, a rematch the majority of Americans are repelled by.
Yet, that's the horse race most likely to happen in November, and that means incessant coverage of both of them on every conceivable news medium, not to mention a seemingly bottomless budget for nasty campaign ads we'll have to endure.
No wonder so many are already turned off by the political cycle of news stories, born out in Public Radio Techsurvey, fielded last summer. Approximately 15% of station fans tell us they need to take breaks from news reports and shows, a level we expect to grow as we inch closer to the election nine months from now.
And here are a couple of “bum-out” factors for you to consider, courtesy of JacoBLOG:
5. Political ad spend should be out of control – And it will impact formats of all flavors, except of course for public and (most) Christian stations. On the commercial front, every format should be impacted, from Sports to Alternative to Hot AC to Hip-Hop.
So the good news? Political advertising will skyrocket this year.
And the bad news? Political advertising will skyrocket this year.
A recent BIA Advisory backed this up. Local advertising in the U.S. is predicted to grow nearly 9% this year, reaching $175.6 billion (with a “B”) . “…and I approved this message” may be heard more often than “I hate Steven Singer” before all is said and done in 2024.
Even if you're a music station – by definition, a safe haven from political talk, especially if you keep your morning show away from the cesspool, it will be nearly impossible to escape the political downdraft and stink generated from these nasty ads, most of which will likely fall into the “attack dog” category.
6. Americans feel a sense of hopelessness – Our research – especially focus groups where we listen to consumers talk (and vent) – indicates that it isn't just the ugly news cycle.
Many feel helpless in the midst of all the negative stories and the complex problems that don't come with simple solutions. Wars, racial animus, the shooting incidents, political unrest – none of these has a quick fix obviously. And many seem to worsen over time.
Whether wishing to make it better for their families – spouses, partners, and kids – or just because they have a wish to try to heal the world, many feel disheartened and at wits end with the ugliness of it all.
7. Pandemic PTSD – Yes, COVID is in the rearview mirror. While millions still contract it and some feel the effects for frustratingly long periods of time, the end result is nowhere near as dire as it was back in that unforgettable year 0f 2020.
Most people recover…and move on. But have they really moved on? How many are still struggling psychologically, having missed school, work, celebrations, family – and life?
And how many are still feeling the reverberations of the pandemic today? It may be years before we fully realize the toll COVID took on us as a society, as communities, and as individuals.
So, what to do?
A regular theme on this blog these past few years is to first understand the mindset – and then lean into it.
That is, doing what your station, your company, and your personalities can do to find the joy.
For a news station, that may not mean selecting “feel-good” stories, but it could be showcasing community heroes and leaders – in schools, the business community, in sports, and in civic life.
For a music station, it might amount to making sure your music provides the best feeling of fun, energy, and yes, escape. Same with your contest and promotions, emphasizing the fantasy, the joy, and the chance to do something new, fun, and different.
For all stations and personalities, your community commitment and activity promise to be more important then ever. Supporting hometown causes and local people in meaningful and creative ways will pay dividends and provide good will in incalculable ways in 2024. Brainstorm them now.
At CES, we saw many cars and other devices designed to ascertain the mood of the consumer, and make her feel more calm, relaxed, balanced, and at peace. I know you can do better than their algorithms.
Even if the forecast calls for rain, you can flip the gloom and doom around.
Make people happy.
Give them information that not only makes them informed but tells them what they can do.
Above all else, find the joy.
And find yours, too.