For those of us in audience research, you often learn that it takes time for wide-scale change to take hold across an entire population. My friend, Pierre Bouvard, someone who has seen his share of research with Coleman and Arbitron, is fond of saying:
“Perceptions are like glaciers – slow to form and slow to melt.”
And on most days, that's true. But these are not ordinary times. Entire conventions of behavior, habits, and traditions are eroding or forming – sometimes in just a matter of days.
For radio programmers and content creators, this is a precarious time, because all those “givens” they've learned about their target audience may be altered, upended, or are in the course of changing right before our very eyes.
As you're reading this blog post, our second COVID-19 study is in the field with a goal to capture the mood of the public – specifically, radio listeners representing commercial, public, and Christian music formats. As the data rolls in, we will know much more next week, including how perceptions are shifting as the pandemic moves across the U.S.
By studying our own data, as well as research being conducted by other organizations and companies, we are in the process of identifying archetypes or personas that are developing as a result of the virus and the havoc it is wreaking on the country – and around the globe.
One of these is what we're calling “comfort seekers” – people seeking solace during the course of this ordeal. And it can come from a variety of sources – food, drink, old movies and TV shows – and of course, music.
The second wave of research from MRC Data / Nielsen Music – “The COVID-19 Tracker” – tells us that many people have listened to new music through the course of this event. But it's noteworthy that more than six in ten say they have listened to music they had “not heard in a while.”
We might be seeing the results of that rush to comfort – or nostalgia – in the Nielsen PPM numbers for May, in the process of being released nationally this week. Nielsen Audio is tracking all of their format categories across the past three months – in essence, since the outbreak took hold in America, leading to stay-at-home restrictions virtually throughout the country.
While News/Talk stations (unfortunately, Nielsen combines commercial stations with public) are clearly the biggest winners, Classic Rock is one of the few music formats enjoying ratings increases. It's had an excellent run since COVID-19 became part of our collective lives. Again, this is another one of those indicators that these “comfort seekers” are gravitating to music they know – and love.
But that's radio. The fact is, we're seeing these same trends on the video side of the street. ESPN's hit documentary focused on NBA great, Michael Jordan – “The Last Dance” – is a multi-episode trip through a sports nostalgia past. It has done really well, especially given the apparent end of the actual pro basketball season, as well as the lack of professional and college sports – at least for now.
With all respect to the NBA stars of today, it is far more comforting to go back a couple of decades to a different time, and a different place that is seared in every sports fan's memory.
And then there's PlutoTV. Now owned by Viacom, it's a free multi-channel streaming video platform. Big deal, right? But Pluto TV specializes in stuff you're seen before. That includes old favorites like “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “Jerry Springer,” “Golden Girls, and yes, “Jersey Shore.”
Slate's Andrew Paul points out that on Pluto TV, it's possible to get lost in reruns of shows like “Cops,” while also taking in the nostalgic commercials shown on these channels that remind us of “the good old days” of television.
For Pluto TV, the economics are especially positive. Obviously, syndicated “trash television” shows is cheap to buy, cheap to produce, and less expensive to air. But as Paul points out, it is also programming that has been “able to withstand the passage of time.”
Just like great Classic Rock songs and artists from decades ago.
As you might expect, there's a therapeutic aspect to this. An article by Dr. Hal McDonald in Psychology Today – “Using Nostalgia To Cope With COVID” – reminds us of the power of positive memories in the coping process.
Of course, this can focus on media – or even food – like defaulting to Pop Tarts and other comfort goodies we enjoyed from our past that (temporarily) make us feel better.
As Dr. McDonald points out:
“Nostalgia is, in fact, a common response to distress, and actually serves an adaptive function that can help us emotionally weather tumultuous circumstances such as the one we’re all living through now.”
The therapeutic power of Classic Rock? Apparently so.
According to Forbes, psychiatrist Dr. Neel Burton refers to the nostalgia phenomenon as “a vehicle for traveling beyond the suffocating confines of time and space.” In essence, it's a way to get back to a placeholder in our lives that's more comfortable and even psychologically safer.
There's something here for every radio PD, whether you program a Hip-Hop station or a News/Talker. Finding your audience's comfort zone – or their nostalgic safe place – might be a smart piece of strategy right about now, even if you just sprinkle it in – like chocolate chips.
Between your air, your weekends, your nights, your website,, and your social media, there are ways to push the buttons of “comfort seeker,” bringing them escape during a time that's frankly not the happiest. That's when comfort, warmth, and connection make the biggest impressions. “Finding the joy” is something any radio station can do, even if it means looking back in the rear-view mirror.
Back during the early years of Classic Rock, critics (and there were many) referred to the format “as a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.”
As we've learned over the past 30+ years, it's not a bad place to hang out.
Especially when you're waiting out a global pandemic.
You can access the MRC Data / Nielsen Music – “The COVID-19 Tracker” second wave is below. Thanks to Haley Jones & Scott Musgrave.