The rise of online radio and podcasts – and locking in new listeners

Online radio and podcasts have enjoyed huge rises in popularity in 2020. Now is the time for the digital mediums to seize the future.

History has a peculiar way of repeating itself. Take Guglielmo Marconi, the man who networked the world. The young inventor sent the first wireless signal from the attic of his parents’ country mansion in Bologna and, years later, the first live entertainment broadcast from his Wireless Factory in Chelmsford, just 20 miles down the A12 from our Aldham HQ.

The 100-year anniversary of that seminal moment in Essex which paved the way for modern radio and TV was marked earlier this year (June 2020) amid the pandemic. Here’s the irony – Marconi had to shut down his factory in the global lockdown caused by the Spanish Flu after the First World War, delaying his ground-breaking broadcast until June 1920.

Fast forward a century and amid another global pandemic, the ‘Father of Radio’ would no doubt be excited to see new life being breathed into the old medium, powered by the internet and dovetailing with its 21st century cousin, the podcast.

Credit: Branislav Nenin

Ratings revival

If video killed the radio star, then lockdown revived it. UK commercial radio stations enjoyed their largest ever audience in the first quarter of 2020, with a record 36.3 million listeners, City AM reported. Separate research by industry body Radiocentre found commercial radio listeners are tuning for 26 hours each week on average, compared to 14 hours prior to the first national lockdown.

This surge has unsurprisingly been driven by the enforced working from home culture and those self-isolating. Disorientated workers who have swapped offices for kitchens and bedrooms, and people experiencing social isolation, have sought solace in music or a connection with the outside world through current affairs coverage or light entertainment.

Digital formats are growing their share of the market and now account for 62% of total listening, thanks to smart speakers and apps. The average home now has nine devices connected to the internet, our survey found. Meanwhile, radio giants Bauer and Global reported a digital listening rise of 15% in daily reach while children’s radio station Fun Kids had achieved an 80% increase in total streaming hours.

Shifting sands

“We are seeing shifts in media consumption across the UK,” Radiocentre’s CEO Siobhan Kenny noted.

Just ask Keith Bailey and his fellow Great Moulton residents in south Norfolk – just one rural community in our Hyperfast rollout that’s currently suffering from slow copper-based internet.

“An elderly neighbour still can’t listen to the radio online,” the 68-year-old lamented. “We don’t have the bandwidth to cope with our current demands.”

But are these behavioural changes temporary or permanent?

Time will tell but audiences are forming new consumption behaviours and data usage is only zooming along in one direction thanks to full-fibre broadband like our Hyperfast network.

Along with a captive audience undergoing a mass psychological test that no-one signed up for, now is surely the perfect time for radio to reinvent itself and claim a strong foothold.

Click here to get Hyperfast Broadband

Podcast proliferation

Podcasts were already booming in popularity before lockdown. The latest official figures from Ofcom revealed around seven million people in the UK now listen to podcasts every week. That’s one in eight of us and an annual leap of 24%. Entertainment was the most popular genre and, perhaps surprisingly, people who classed themselves as regular users listened to seven podcasts a week.

“Podcasts are transforming the ways people listen to audio content,” Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s Director of Market Intelligence, remarked at the time.

Could the opposite now be true? Podcasts are renowned for being flexible, responsive and tailored to current audience tastes, and with more spare time on our hands than perhaps ever before, and perhaps with a yearning for human dialogue reaching new heights, the market could see a glut of niche podcasts hitting the digital airwaves.

In contrast, big players like Spotify, which saw a 31% rise in paid subscribers earlier this year, will be looking to take advantage of a new wave of diverse customers seeking light entertainment, analysis of current affairs, and thought-provoking ideas. Online radio and podcasts are enjoying something of a zeitgeist movement which they couldn’t have predicted at the start of 2020.

With reports of advertisers coming back from lockdown hibernation and huge public consciousness of their importance, this could be the best time for the digital mediums to seize the future.