A couple weeks back, I did something I haven't done in months – I came home from work and watched cable news for more than three hours, hoping to catch up on that day's stories. For me, this was a break from my normal after work media routine, and it has happened again in recent days. My media patterns are shifting, and it begs the question of whether this isn't happening outside my sphere.
Over the past few months, Jacobs Media has been conducting one-on-one interviews with Millennials, as well as radio news listeners. These disparate groups are telling us the same thing; interest in politics is driving an increased interest and focus on the news, whether they like it or not.
Ironically, today on Presidents' Day, it's an opportune time to catch our collective breath in order to better understand how politics – spearheaded by President Trump's upset election victory – may be changing the media usage equation. And of course, that has an effect – both good and bad – on radio ratings.
A recent analysis in the Columbia Journalism Review by Jed Gottlieb suggests the President's impact on news and our attention spans is like a “black hole,” sucking the oxygen out of the media room – TV, movies, radio, music, and whatever else is in the way.
Gottlieb points out that even big music news stories – the Grammy awards and Beyoncé's pregnancy – have been overshadowed by incessant Trump coverage. He notes that media outlets that specialize in music – Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, and even Ultimate Classic Rock – have shifted their emphasis toward politics, often at the expense of their meat and potatoes music stories. And he has page views and retweets to back up his claim.
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Much of this shift in coverage by music and culture publications is a premeditated reemphasis on the political scene in order to maintain some level of attention for these media brands. A music writer – Annie Zaleski – who I've spoken to in the past about Classic Rock related stories – told Gottlieb that “prognosticating about the Grammy Awards seems like such a frivolous thing to write about when there are senators to call.”
Of course, the downside of a music media publication refocusing its efforts on politics is the inevitable backlash from fans who don't expect or want political coverage from a site or outlet specializing in music and entertainment.
For News/Talk radio and radio talk shows in general, there's no problem here. In fact, the only question revolves around how to keep up with the frenzied pace of each day's events, including weekends. Similarly for public radio, the dilemma is how to maintain a balance of news coverage when Presidential news events are like a fire hose, bumping other stories off their news magazines, like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
For music radio, it a very different challenge. The political maelstrom that's been roiling for months has only intensified since the inauguration. That leaves stations that specialize in formats like Country, Classic Rock, and Hot AC with an attention-deficit disorder as their audiences are distracted by the politics of today.
In some ways this is nothing new. Ratings have always been impacted by external factors such as weather, Christmas music, and local sports stories. But these distractions have a shelf life.
The political landscape – outside of perhaps a cataclysmic event like 9/11 – has rarely played much of a role in reshaping listening habits, especially affecting music radio.
Until now. Media events, driven by the White House, Trump Tower, or Mar-a-Lago have a continuous pattern. Every day brings new revelations, announcements, press conferences, and tweets. And news outlets can't get enough of it.
And it's not likely that perceptual research being conducted as I write this post is going to shed any light on these outside impacts, based strongly on emotion: fear, elation, anger, excitement, and other extremes that transcend interest in the latest hits, a weekend special, or even a big giveaway.
As it turns out, ratings for this year's Grammy Awards increased, moving ahead of mediocre performances in both 2015 and 2016. While social media surrounding the Beyoncé/Adele controversy stimulated activity spikes, so did much of the political activity and symbolism from artists as diverse as Busta Rhymes and Katy Perry. Forbes suggests speculation and anticipation of music celebrity political rantings may have stimulated more curiosity and interest in an awards show that seems to get more irrelevant with each passing year.
There's no easy answer, but external political events, news stories, alerts, and controversies are big attention-getters that drive ratings increases for cable news, as well as accounting for flourishing subscriptions for newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post It would not be surprising to see public radio stations enjoy increases during this spring's mandatory pledge drives as well.
So if you're a music station in the middle of this media morass, perhaps the best course of action is to do what you've always done. But, there's also a call to focus on ways to ensure that everything you do sounds as big as possible. While consistency may be part of the foundation that drives ratings results, you have to capture enough attention to merit tune-in to begin with. “Another commercial-free hour of music to help you get through the workday” isn't as likely to cut through in these tumultuous times.
That doesn't mean you shelve benchmark and other expected programming features. But perhaps it does usher in a mindset that pushes news and creative ways to showcase your social media activity, as well as your contests, imaging, promotions, community service, and your personality shows to be as attention-getting as possible. Bland, steady, and mundane aren't going to get it done in this environment.
After all, you're competing against the Tweeter-In-Chief, and no one understands media attention and impact better than the President.
Enjoy your Presidents' Day holiday.
Thanks to Dave Beasing for the heads-up on the CJR article.
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