Every adult (and most kids) will remember the sudden goings-on of March 2020 for the rest of our lives. The rapid spread of a mystery virus in state after state. The cancellation of SXSW early in the month. The postponement of the NBA season. Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, testing positive for COVID while making a movie.
In just days, the World Health Organization called coronavirus a global pandemic. And the U.S. followed two days later, declaring it a national emergency.
And then the sudden lockdown.
All in a matter of days. While it was an adjustment for all of us personally, radio stations were under the gun to transform most of their operations so employees could work from home – or anywhere. Laptops and equipment were purchased, and all departments – especially programming and engineering – figured it out on the fly.
Looking back on it – painful as that is – those trying weeks in March were quick, abrupt, and cruel. But it became obvious very quickly that life as we had known it had changed.
Unfortunately, there's no official date when the coast will be declared clear signaling the end of COVID. Yesterday, Seth Resler wrote a great blog post under his “Connecting the Dots” umbrella – “Use Digital Content to Help Your Radio Listeners Ease Back Into Live Events.”
As Seth reminded us, COVID has no “finish line.” But the CDC's announcement last Friday that face masks are no longer necessary for the vaccinated came as a welcome – but awkward – surprise to many of us. Wasn't this thing supposed to be more gradual, weaning us off masks, social distancing, and other pandemic protocols?
Well, apparently not.
We're now in a weird place. And Seth did a great job of addressing it head-on. While there will be pressure to get back to live events, bar nights, remotes, and concerts, the entire audience may take a while to get on board.
Seth's post strongly suggested radio brands essentially “divide and conquer.” That is, pulling off both live events, while also using virtual technology to include those who aren't yet ready to toss their masks and hang with hundreds or thousands of people (especially considering many of them will not be vaccinated).
As Seth advised, “It's not time to stop using Zoom.”
This year's Techsurvey 2021 confirms that – we asked about the frequency with which core radio listeners have been using these types of meeting and get-together digital technologies. Even among radio's senior citizens, the incidence rate is impressive.
Seth's post is spot-on. He provides some great example how this technology can be used to bring events and promotions to those who aren't ready to dive back in.
But then there's the other side. Thanks to the CDC – and the collective exhaustion and amazement of many Americans – millions will be chomping at the bit to get back into the fray – to start enjoying life again. This means restaurants, movies, sports, concerts, and other events deep-sixed because of the pandemic.
And it may also be a sign that everyone's timetables have just accelerated. Just days ago, the conventional wisdom was that the fall would likely be the time when life started a serious turn toward “normal.” We haven't hit Memorial Day yet, and already, those estimates are looking shaky.
Credit to the New York Times. Last week, they published a list of major events that will be cancelled or altered this year, as well as those that are “on.” That latter list includes the New York and Boston Marathons, the Tokyo Olympic Games, and the Indy 500. Most of these events will be scaled down
In terms of music and culture, Burning Man and Coachella are cancelled. But Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Music Festival are happening.
As they say, check your local listings.
The newspaper's team of photojournalists, however, may have truly captured the essence of “the rebound” over the weekend. In a photo essay that included emotional scenes from all 50 states, “Scenes From America's Reopening” captures the essence of this blog post's theme.
In photo after photo, it's not just a return to “normalcy.” It is the joy and unbridled emotions that accompany the return of once-routine events. In city after city, state after state, you see both the human and emotional impact of the pandemic, along with a preview of just how powerful “The Rebound” might be.
As opposed to all the “doom scrolling” we've done over the past 14 months (or more), this photo essay is well worth the 10 minutes it takes to make your way from emotional scene to emotional scene.
And that brings us to the radio broadcasting industry. As we know from years of Techsurveys and our own experiences, radio listening and one's connection with a station and its personalities is often colored with a rainbow of emotions, from companionship to mood elevation to a sense of community.
Radio can be right there on the ground for what could be a joyous and celebratory cascade of events – if it captures the zeitgeist of this moment.
That means retooling and in some cases, resurrecting your station's “ground game.” It's time to have the van and other station vehicles tuned up, washed and ready to go.
Many stations will have to rehire and perhaps even rebuild their “street teams,” obliterated by the pandemic, but are now a bridge to cities and suburban visibility all over the metro.
In some cases, new promotions and marketing directors will need to be recruited and trained. As we are learning, finding great candidates for all these roles may be challenging in this topsy-turvy economy where the only constant is change.
If there's a way to pull off an effective “swag strategy,” this would be fine time to do so, perhaps with logo ware commemorating this moment in time.
It's not a stretch to imagine how this summer could spawn a vacation explosion as millions take the opportunity to get away. (And what will that do to PUMM levels?)
And then there are all the weddings, graduations, and other “circle of life” events that were put on hold, cancelled, or otherwise dashed by the pandemic.
In the next couple of weeks, we may watch America undergo amazing change. Radio has to show up.
This year at Virtual CES, a major theme identified by futurist Shawn DuBravac was the importance of “meeting the audience where they are – or are going to be.”
While much of that takeaway was gadget-related and techie in nature, the essence of his advice shouldn't be lost on an industry that desperately needs to provide a connection between audiences, advertisers, and communities.
Wherever your audience is going this year, find a way to go with them. And celebrate with them.
That's because the one thing that is very likely a certainty for the rest of 2021 is this:
You must be present to win
If you find that phrase motivating, descriptive, and timely, be my guest and steal it and use it as your station's marketing mantra for the rest of this year. (I did – Beasley's Heidi Raphael mentioned it to me a few weeks back, and I've been thinking about it ever since as we've seen the pandemic shifts.)
Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” We may have to up that percentage for the rest of this year.
As fast as radio had to retool and rethink every aspect of its operations last year, 2021 may go down as the beginning of a remarkable period in time.
Yes, Americans will have their ear buds full of Spotify, Pandora, and podcasts.
But they will also be present for the first time in a long time at events and destinations that have been off-limits, even unthinkable for a long time now.
If there was ever a time to reforecast your goals for the year ahead, it is now.
Meet this moment.
You must be present to win.