Long Read: Radio in a crisis

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 30 June 2020

This article first appeared in the AdNews May/June magazine. Subscribe here to make sure you get your copy.

Voices from different people over the airwaves as floods take hold in Townsville during the largest rainfall recorded for 120 years, a one-in-1,000 year event.

“It’s absolutely torrential” … “I haven’t seen it like this for 20 years” … “It is an absolute sea of water.”

The Ross River Dam was hit by 850,000 megalitres of rain, almost four times its capacity.

A directive on the radio: “Move to higher ground now.”

The SES: “We’ve had in excess of 200 rescues.” 

A caller: “That feeling last night of walking around your house trying to work out what you save and what you didn’t save is a feeling I never, ever want to go through again.”

An announcer: “... a police vehicle ... swept away”

“ … two bodies discovered in a storm drain.”

The storms and flood of late January, early February, 2019 caused two deaths and a third person was never found. Property damage was estimated at $1.243 billion. 

Radio, often the only way of reaching the community in a disaster, played a crucial role during the floods with 50 official emergency alerts.

But sometimes the most useful information comes when locals call their commercial radio station with live information, such as a blocked road.

Cassandra Cazzulino, general manager of Southern Cross Austereo Townsville, leads the operations of Southern Cross Austereo’s Hit 103.1FM and Triple M 102.3FM. Her team issued 350 safety messages over the first few days.

“There were crazy stories out there and, using the power of radio, we were able to deliver clear, concise, timely, accurate information to help people,” she says.

“When you’re going through extreme events, people rely on us. We’re a friend by their side.

“It’s an incredible level of trust that we’ve built over the years, and we take that seriously. It’s a huge responsibility.

“When things are happening they’re ringing us instead of others who should be their source of information.”

The station had staff from all operational areas taking calls, making sure that information went through a filter before it got to the newsroom or to announcers.

In the evening, the calls intensified. People couldn’t get through to emergency services. But the radio station is part of the Disaster Management Group in Townsville with direct access to reliable information.

“It enabled us to have accurate and up-to-date information,” says Cazzulino. “The situation was changing minute-to-minute, especially when the severe flooding was happening.”

At the radio station, water came through the ceiling but the building was not threatened by rising water.

“But just trying to get our team into the studio was difficult,” says Cazzulino. “But we weren’t going to walk away at that time when the community needed us the most.”

One staff member had to wade in waist deep water, passing rescue boats, to get to a high point, jump into a car and drive to the studio.

Another was doing Bureau of Meteorology updates while sandbagging the front door of his own house.

Cassandra Cazzulino lives in the suburb of Idalia. “That level of flooding was a first for me,” she says. “My suburb was almost completely flooded but I was a lucky one in that I didn’t have a river flowing through.”

The staff of a local radio station are part of the community. They walk down the road and are accountable for what’s been aired or said.

And during the disaster, some members of the radio team couldn’t be 100% available because they were with their families, trying to secure their own home.

“We know the people, we know which parts of the city are going to be in trouble, and so people rely on us for that information,” Cazzulino says.

“They call us, whether it be trying to find someone in the community, a loved one they can’t locate.

“And people are going back to radio instead of social media. The difference is trust.’

The radio station also played a strong role in the cleanup.

Listeners would call asking for help. One, a single mother, needed to move damaged furniture from the house to the side of the road. People, hearing the call out on the airways, turned up to fix it for her.

“We are incredibly fiercely local in all that we do,” says Cazzulino. “And one of the things for me is just I don’t want to be tokenistic. It needs to be true. I would say that we here in Townsville, hand on my heart, are one of the most fiercely local stations out there.”

In the days and weeks following the flood, the radio station rallied local businesses and handed out more than $43,000 of mosquito repellent, batteries, water, grocery and fuel vouchers.

About 30 Southern Cross staff were in the flood zone, cooking sausages, helping families clear debris and, as radio does, listening. People didn’t feel alone.

“We soon realised the massive impact to local business and we knew we needed to let Queensland know Townsville was open for business,” says Cazzulino.

The Do Townsville campaign came to life and, using Southern Cross’s national and local talent, the push was shared across Queensland.

Local artist Jade Holland collaborated with Busby Marou on a song she had written during the floods, called Lives on the Lawn. This raised money for localised flood support.

A Rob Thomas Triple M Garage session was organised for 5000 displaced members of the community. “This was a free event, we really just wanted to bring people together,” says Cazzulino. 

“We have a massive responsibility to not only keep people across what’s happening to keep them safe but to fill the void for those that rely on us for companionship.

“We hosted community BBQs and we offered free advertising vouchers to critically damaged businesses to help them share their key messages with the community

“In the weeks to follow we have had thousands upon thousands of people calling, thanking us for what we did on air and in the streets.”

A survivor

Audience numbers tend to rise in an emergency, says Joan Warner, CEO of industry group Commercial Radio Australia.

“Radio shines in a crisis and this last year we’ve been hit with the triple whammy – drought, bushfires and COVID-19,” she says.

“Each time, we’ve responded quickly with special programming and community initiatives that are only possible because we’re part of the local community, with deep relationships and emergency contacts on the ground.

“Our teams are used to broadcasting live, so they’re highly skilled at operating in pressure cooker situations.

“We’ve heard stories across the country of how stations are running programs to support mental health and helping to promote small businesses that are still trading and open for business. One network has even provided an ecommerce solution to help local cafes take orders.

“Listening goes up whenever there’s an emergency. For advertisers, radio is an obvious pick when there’s uncertainty. During the pandemic, with trading restrictions changing at short notice, networks in some cases have received an advertising brief and got a message to air the same day. 

“That’s the power of radio, so it’s frustrating that our longer term ability to keep serving our audiences in this way is under threat with the drift of advertising revenue to global digital platforms.

“Radio is a great survivor and we’ll keep adapting.”

The smoke

Floods in one part of Australia, drought in another. A year after the Townsville floods, the bushfires came.

Unlike the flood, the bushfires were expected.

“Everyone was preparing but when it did happen it came fast and bigger than anyone anticipated,” says Mike Crowhurst at Port Macquarie, NSW, the general manager, mid north coast, at Southern Cross with Hit 102.3 and Triple M 100.7.

“That was on a Friday afternoon and about three o’clock, we decided that both stations would go local, more out of precaution. We were talking with the RFS (Rural Fire Service) about where the situation was heating up, the spot fires starting to take control.

“We realised pretty early on, in the first hour or two, that things were getting extremely serious. It was getting out of control.” 

Crowhurst contacted engineers and the content and news departments. The local stations came off network programming and stayed local.

“We had the phone lines which go to network programming diverted back to us to ensure that we could take local calls,” he says.

“People were calling to give us updates on where potential road closures were happening. We had the showgrounds contacting us about people bringing their horses and livestock in.

“Basically we became the communication epicentre for the local people to get information and follow stuff up.”

More calls came in than those going to air.

“We didn’t want to be broadcasting anything that wasn’t proven or advised first,” says Crowhurst. “We’re always very cautious but trying to get people peace of mind.

“As the night went on, it became obvious this wasn’t going to be just fires that would be contained and everything would go back to normal.

“About 10 o’clock we made the decision locally that we were going to single cast both our stations over one. So that I could ensure rotation of all my staff.”

That meant six hours on, six hours off. Special local news bulletins were run. The RFS headquarters was on air every half hour doing updates.

“We were ensuring that local people could get what they needed to know,” says Crowhurst.

“On Saturday, with the fires everywhere, we were getting feedback from people advising of support bases where people, if they couldn’t get back to their homes, could go.”

At one stage, parts of the Pacific Highway, the main route north and south, were cut off.

“Local facilities were offering assistance or supplies and we were ensuring that information was getting out,” says Crowhurst.

“We kept local programming running right through until late Sunday afternoon-evening when at that point the fire levels had come back a little bit.

“In the following weeks, we kept information going. Obviously, from an animal welfare point of view, livestock and koalas are a major part of the North Coast. And we were working with the koala hospital, getting updates information through to them.”

Brand power

Radio also has the power to bring resources together quickly, to make change, to bring focus to an issue or event.

Christian O’Connell at GOLD104.3 in Melbourne used his breakfast show to create a brand, Heroes Gold beer, to raise funds for the Victorian Bushfire Appeal. And it only took 24 hours to get the idea off the ground. Hawkers Beer brewed the drop.

“This is just outstanding the way we can raise an idea, and our radio family can step up and take it even further than we could’ve dreamed,” says O’Connell.

Only two weeks from idea to brewing: six advertising companies provided pro-bono promotional support; 650 cases sold in its first three days; 1,300 slabs sold through pre-order; 64 x 50 litre kegs delivered; more than 5,000 pints of Heroes Gold poured; 29 pubs stocking the beer.

O’Connell  has been supporting small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis by creating free ads and running them on his breakfast show to his 1 million+ audience.

Disasters

Grant Blackley, CEO of Southern Cross (SCA), remembers the earthquake of 1989 in Newcastle where he grew up.

“Australia at any point in time will have a natural disaster,” he says. “Even in the cities, we see major storms. There is an ever-present threat of national disasters and, given that 36% of the population live outside of the capital cities, across a vast geography, you’re always going to find that there will be something.”

SCA’s simple mission statement is that it is “proudly national, fiercely local”.

“Everything that we do we put through that lens,” he says. “In times of natural disasters, that comes to bear, where we can bring our national infrastructure and influence and we can be fiercely local by what we do.

“In the recent bushfires we provided national fire updates, which actually kept everyone in Australia, seeing that we reached 95% of Australians every week, in the loop no matter where they were, either living or holidaying.

“We were actually doing updates every 15 minutes and pushing notifications through our apps for those people who had registered. They would know when an update was coming because we would ping their phones and effectively give them an alert that we were about to, or just had, provided an emergency update.

“And in the case of the bushfires, some of our people worked for about 28 days straight, through their own holiday break, to effectively keep their communities aware. That’s the level of commitment.”

SCA has 96 radio stations around Australia.

“Our digital news consumption was actually up 220% this December over the prior year, and it was up about 176% in January,” he says. “There was a need, and we were serving that need on a very local level.”

Radio keeps working when phone signals are jammed. “More and more people rely upon radio to provide that update to them in a timely manner,” he says. 

The pandemic

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, and Australia went home to work, radio became a companion and more than a source of information and entertainment.

“All shows across our network immediately pivoted to tailor
the content they were creating for both audiences and advertisers,” says Ciaran Davis, the CEO of HT&E’s ARN (Australian
Radio Network).

“While still keeping within their usual style, each show adapted to satisfy their audience’s desire for information balanced with light-hearted escapism and stories of hope.”

Between February and March, iHeartRadio Australia had a 31% increase in registrations and a 5% increase in time spent listening to ARN stations across the KIIS, Pure Gold and The Edge networks. Digital and social engagement also jumped with website users across KIIS, Pure Gold and The Edge up by 63% and page views 49% higher. Station Facebook video views increased by 90% and the number of Facebook users increased by 55%. ARN also recorded a 38% increase in time spent listening to podcasts on iHeartPodcast Network Australia.

“During times of crisis when people want to feel a sense of community, connection and hope, the power of audio is undisputed - regardless of whether audiences are accessing content via broadcast, on-demand audio or digital,” says Davis.

In the early days of COVID-19 in Australia, the uncertainty resulted in a fast fall in marketing activity across all media.

But radio still saw spending including from online retailers, home delivery services, energy providers, telcos, banks, insurance companies and the government.

“Backed by our data, we are showing advertisers that audio is the right medium for them to be connecting with audiences who are spending more time than ever engaged with broadcast, on-demand and digital,” says Davis.

“As we move to the next phase where many businesses are able to reopen, we know from past experience it’s the brands that have been able to keep their voice active in the market that will bounce back quicker.

“Evidence from past economic downturns has shown cutting all advertising has a negative impact on both brand health and market share in the long run.”

In the days of the coronavirus crisis, Christian O’Connell at GOLD104.3 in Melbourne still went into the studio.

“It’s like being on a deserted space station,” he says. “My executive producer is on the other side of the glass. We’re nowhere near each other.”

He sees radio as meeting a basic human need.

“What we really needed in these desperate times, truly extraordinary times, terrifying times, dark times, is human contact,” says O’Connell.

“It’s a human voice being you, and providing a bit of a guide, some comfort, hope, optimism.

“It’s what radio does when you strip it back -- from competitions, giving away money, reality star interviews -- to what radio was built upon, the radio you and I grew up with, around conversations that were funny, and people were looking to help each other out.

“It’s about being a touchstone for communities, a voice for the lonely, for the broken, and a guiding light, a beacon of warmth and of comfort and of companionship.”

O’Connell says people are finding this themselves, by helping out neighbours, looking out for others in the street.

O’Connell sends a message via WhatsApp to his elderly neighbour: “I’ve got to go to the chemist, get something for one of my daughters, can I get you anything?”

He feels good about that.

“I’ve been very humbled and I feel very, very fortunate that I work in a time when radio matters,” he says.

“I don’t take myself seriously, but I do take the opportunity seriously, and that’s an important distinction. I don’t overvalue my words or anything like that, but the opportunities that I have to provide something which is needed right now and to use that responsibility well, is a joy. I’m very, very lucky.

“My job in the morning is to entertain and to connect, really more than entertain. It reminded me that actually the most important thing I could do on any day, is listen to the audience.

“Now we’ve got to remind ourselves of gratitude, of hope,
of optimism, and the other things that are going well in the world and what we’re enjoying, rather than feeling the lack of. Otherwise we’re going to suffer from two pandemics.

“There’s the actual coronavirus and then there’s the anxiety, depression, those kinds of things that are actually going to affect us day to day.”

He believes in laughter. The absence of it is terrifying. “Life’s best coping mechanism is laughter.”

A tentative market

Radio, like other media, was hit hard from around the end of the second week of March with retail, entertainment and leisure sectors pulling campaigns. Revenue went faster than it was coming in.

Advertisers in radio look to a short window, perhaps only 12 weeks ahead and much of the advertising is a call to action, pushing a sale, a deal or an experience.

Peter Charlton, NOVA Entertainment’s chief commercial officer, was getting updates almost hourly in those first weeks. It was painful.

But that changed in April, he says. The advertisers started returning. “The core staples of commercial radio -- Harvey Norman, Woolies, Bunnings, eBay -- are spending. And government, both locally and nationally, plus telecoms, utilities and motors. But short term so they’re booking for across the month.”

Charlton calls it a tentative market, but one prepared to spend.

In terms of audience, listening during the day has grown. “Our streaming hours are up something like 13% across the day and they’re using all sorts of devices -- 38% of that is desktop, about 35% mobile and the rest through smart speakers,” says Charlton.

“Traditionally people turned to the radio in the car, now they are using more devices.”

Listening habits have changed. People are tuning in slightly later in the morning because they’re not having to get up earlier and start driving. They are at home and using devices. And people are connecting more with radio.

“If you talk to a producer of a radio show, the interaction is pretty big,” says Charlton. “If we start looking at other avenues of how people are listening, and if you then model that across, it’s up pretty significantly.

“I’ve had a lot of senior agency conversations and intuitively they too felt the medium, digital audio, radio in general, will be the go-to for a consumer.”

Charlton talks of trust with the audience, something he’s confirmed with third party research.

“Radio ranks as the number one most trusted medium,” he says.

“And then we had over 80% of Australians agreeing that radio presenters play an integral role, balancing that delivery of news, but also entertainment. Over 90% said they were happy for brands to keep advertising, but 84% expected them to change or adapt their messaging through this period. And similarly the research was suggesting that we’ve got a massively increased workday listening and probably slightly less at commuter time.”

Adaptability and speed have worked for radio. “On the second weekend in March we were rewriting copy and getting to air within hours for government around the country, particularly local government, and had built and adapted a booking process for after hours and weekend service.

“We even wrote creative for VicGov that they were using on public transport and wasn’t even broadcast just because they’re
a client and that’s how we work. So we’ve opened up that facility to all clients to encourage changing messaging, encouraging that flexibility.

“We’ve created an initiative called Creative Without Borders where our creative teams have built a bank of adapted audio to showcase how brands can turn change and make a connection with their brand messaging.”

And Nova is working at all levels. Advertisers are adapting to a more considered purchase, now that everyone is spending more time at home. CREATE, Nova’s branded content team within its sales force, has been made available to any agency or client.

Live reads, or shout outs called What’s Happening, are being tuned into what local businesses are offering.

“We are trying to work with clients in different ways to help them be reactive to the situation,” says Charlton.

He says it feels like listeners are moving to that only live experience that’s available to them, radio.

“It’s a trusted escape, personal and entertaining and it is creating a sort of soundtrack for our homes, which has meant that our audience is pretty robust,” he says.

“The advertising confidence in the medium is pretty strong. It’s still just a tricky time for lots of businesses, but the market’s working really well together.”

A younger audience

Radio is finding a lot of new ears.

At Nine Radio call volumes were up some 300% and email volumes from listeners 250%. Digital website traffic nearly doubled in March across Nine Radio talk stations - 2GB, 3AW, 6PR, 4BC - with page views up 87% month-on-month.

“Certainly younger listeners are taking part in talk-back, because they’re at home and there is a thirst to learn, and this [coronavirus crisis] is changing day-by-day, hour-by-hour,” says Greg Byrnes, head of content for Nine Radio.

“People are engaged because it’s directly affecting them because they’re locked at home and their life has changed.

“I think all news organisations have reported a boost in eyes and ears but in this medium, being talk and radio, we feel we have a particular role to play by giving reliable, trusted information out, and opinion, when it’s needed most.”

It’s about local

“We’re really focusing on local, and that’s not in relation to this story, that’s just radio in general -- local voices and local issues,” says Barnes.

His introduction to that was country radio. When he arrived at 2XL in Cooma, the big deal was the new roundabout that was being built at the end of the main street.

“Within a couple of days I realised that this was a really big deal to a local community,” he says.

Byrnes talks of the immediate power of radio where listeners can call in, state a problem and see a quick response.

“You can ring up and you’re immediately engaged with policymakers and decision makers and community leaders and neighbours,” he says.

The questions: “Is anyone else angry about this?” or “How can I solve this?” or “What’s the way around that?”

3AW has a segment, Radio Solutions, with people throwing random questions.

“And what we’re finding at the moment is there is so much unknown in relation to policy [during the coronavirus],” he says.

People want to know: Can they go and sit on that seat? Can they drive to their elderly parents and deliver food parcels?

“The beauty of talk-back, and the beauty of having announcers that understand that they have a tool that can make a difference, is we can answer those questions,” says Byrnes.

“Ben Fordham and Neil Mitchell touched on the issue of having a minimum of 10 people at a funeral. Some families might have more than 10 kids. Who stays at home? Who misses out? We can force review at the highest of levels, and we can move pretty quickly. And that is the power of the medium.”

A form of dial-in democracy where views are heard, problems solved, policies changed. And during coronavirus, where policy and rules are done on the run, people get confused and scared.

“Calls into the stations have tripled over recent weeks,” says Byrnes.

“People are picking up the phone and ringing 6PR and 3AW and 2GB and trying to get problems answered, problems solved.

“Very few of them, because of the numbers involved, are actually getting to air, but producers and phone operators are taking notes and trying to solve problems, because a lot of people are frustrated. They’re at home, they have their radio on across the day.”

They connect with the announcers. “They come to us to air that frustration, but also to get results, and we’re able to deliver that. It’s a wonderful position to be in.

“People want trusted voices, and all, right across the country, the response from listeners through the open-line and emails and digital shows that we’re playing a very important role.

“It’s an incredible level of trust that we’ve built over the years, and we take that seriously.”

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