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Radio's COVID Era Strengths: Emotional Connection, Personalities, Local Focus.

During the pandemic, radio's emotional benefits – companionship, mood elevation and escape from daily stress – were more likely to be main reasons to tune to a favorite station, with 76% of listeners agreeing that they felt a sense of connection to that station, a significant increase from a year ago. That's just one of the key findings in Jacobs Media's Techsurvey 2021, “Radio in the Year of COVID.”

For radio stations that were really doing their jobs last year, that emotional connection became a big deal,” Jacobs Media President Fred Jacobs said during a webinar Thursday. “That tells us about the value of delivering on people's emotional needs, especially during intensely difficult times.”

The results are based on Jacobs' annual online survey of more than 42,000 core radio users from 470 participating stations, conducted Jan. 5-Feb. 7, 2021, notable as the prior Techsurvey was from the same period in 2020, so prior to the COVID lockdown. While the results are non-projectable to the entire U.S. as most respondents are members of participating radio stations’ databases, they do provide an important barometer of media usage trends among some of radio’s most loyal listeners.

While personality first surpassed music as a main reason for listening to a favorite station in 2019, pre-COVID, it's taken the pandemic to push it over the 60% mark, with that number steadily creeping upward since 2017's Techsurvey, when it stood at 56%. “During COVID, when a lot of people were wearing their emotions on their sleeves, the radio personalities that tapped into that did a great job of embracing their audience,” Jacobs says. Hearing a listener's favorite songs or artists, a main reason for listening for 70% of the sample in 2014 – down to 66% in 2017 – has declined in importance to 55% in this year's Techsurvey, a signal that, as Jacobs says, “[personalities] are eclipsing the music in many stations' brand makeup.”

Proving the power of personality during COVID, the most notable formats where it's the main reason for listening are CHR (74%) and hot AC (73%), where Jacobs says “personality absolutely matters.” Other personality-powered formats include rhythmic urban (69%), sports (68%), rock (67%), urban AC and news/talk (61% for each).

As radio's shows and hosts have become more important for listeners, not just music in general but specifically music discovery continues to lessen in importance. While nearly 40% of people who took the survey who are core radio listeners cited that as a main reason for tuning in their favorite station back in 2014, that number has steadily fallen to 25% of respondents.

Not surprisingly, radio's local orientation, which has gained in importance going back to 2017, played a larger role in listeners' lives during the pandemic. Nearly nine in ten (87%) of Techsurvey's core listeners strongly agree or agree that radio's local feel is one of its primary advantages, with nearly half (49%) in the 'strongly agree' category, up from 43% in 2017. “Local mattered more during the pandemic because so much about COVID depended not on what was going on in Washington, DC but in your community,” Jacobs says. “That's what radio, when it's on its game, covers best.”

Against this backdrop, the survey shows a decrease in time spent listening among survey respondents, with 12% saying they use a favorite station less since COVID. Aside from radio, only local and network TV and social media show a double-digit decline. Listening for four hours or more daily continues to trend down, at 43% overall in 2021's Techsurvey with significantly lower likelihood among GenZ (34%) and Millennials (33%).

A main contributor to this trend is the decrease in time spent listening in cars given the move to working from home during the pandemic, with 7 in 10 core listeners (71%) giving this as a main reason for listening less to AM/FM in the past year, compared to 33% a year ago. Add to this AM/FM's continued decline in in-car use since 2017, from 65% of time spent to 58% in 2021, and a corresponding increase in connected smartphones in cars, from 71% of smartphone owners in 2017 to 78% as reported in this Techsurvey. “Almost 8 of every 10 people now are able to pair their phones with their vehicles one way or the other,” Jacobs says. “Once you're able to do that, a whole new world of content in the car opens up to you.”

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