After a quieter week online to reflect on unfolding events, our next mailer looks at the fascinating world of audio.

Like everything else, the audio world has been impacted by COVID-19. Indeed, the soundtrack of our lives has evolved to include everything from neighbourly rows, to NHS claps, through to Zoom singalongs. As such, we thought we’d take a look at how audio behaviours and needs are shifting under the changing societal landscape.

A reminder of how things were 

First, let’s briefly establish what once was. Back in Q1, RAJAR’s and MIDAS figures painted the following audio picture: 

  • Commercial radio reached its largest ever audience (36.3m tuning in each week) while listening to national BBC radio stations fell compared to Q1 2019 (by 3.2%). However, BBC 6 Music hit a record audience (2.56m) and Zoe Ball’s breakfast show still had the most listeners (8.11m)
  • The industry average share for radio listening via digital platforms was up to 59% (from 51% in Q1 ‘18)
  • Live radio listening had fallen slightly within the broader audio landscape (74% share of all listening to 72%, Spring ‘19-’20)
  • Conversely, On Demand music listening (e.g. Spotify) had increased its share from last year (11% share of all listening to 14%, Spring 19-20)
  • Podcast’s share of all listening had remained consistent (4% share of listening from Spring ‘19-’20)

All of which pointed to a continuation of the slow evolution of audio habits in the UK. Then lockdown happened…

The sounds of lockdown

So since the lockdown, what have the UK been listening to, and how? In the absence of  updated RAJAR or MIDAS data, we’ve scoured online to see what looks to have changed since the end of March:

The physical factor of being at home will be responsible for driving a lot of these changes. But what we’ve been particularly interested in is what people have been turning to audio for. What is motivating them to listen. 

5 main audio needs delivered during lockdown

1 – Being informed 

In an unpredictable world, radio has become an increasingly key source in helping listeners feel informed and stay on top of world events across the day. Staying Connected During the COVID-19 Crisis research reports that 89% of respondents say that commercial radio is helping them stay informed, and 68% agree that it delivers trusted news. During early lockdown, Spotify also observed an increase in interest in news podcasts and responded by creating a COVID-19 hub that collects the relevant podcasts in one place – though this has since shifted towards other types of listening (more later). 

2 – Learning

It seems that the UK has been using the past few months as an opportunity to learn, to upskill and open our minds. Acast reports that “education is riding high with a 20% increase” in podcast listening. We’re sure that much of this can be explained by recent home-schooling, but almost half of the current Apple Top 20 podcast chart is made up of factual and / or cultural titles, with many inspired by the desire to learn about racism – such as About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge, Code Switch, Planet Normal and Today in Focus.

3 – Comfort and reassurance 

As the pandemic – and other news – continues to turn the world upside down, we’re seeking a sense of familiarity, reassurance and comfort with the content that we consume, as evidenced by recent MTM research. Filling our houses and headphones with the voices of favourite DJs, hosts or celebs via radio and podcasts can be a calming and reassuring constant in an otherwise turbulent time. Bertozzi (VP of EMEA sales for Spotify) details that after the initial spike of Covid-related content, people are now listening to “‘Throwback Thursday’-type playlists, and feel-good environments”.   

4 – Company and feeling connected 

A fundamental need that audio has always met is companionship, and this has been more important than ever. With much of the population working from home and restricted social activities, there’s been a surge in the feelings of loneliness; but radio has been helping to ease this feeling, as 84% agree that it helps to keep them company during lockdown

But audio isn’t just about company; it has a unique ability to connect people more deeply. Audience call-ins, games, interviews and the like take you ‘out of your home’ and connect you with other voices and experiences, fostering the sense of being part of something bigger – even just for a moment. 

Furthermore, Spotify’s new “Listening Together” campaign aims to connect people from across the globe, and is based on the phenomenon that “every moment, more than 30,000 people around the world press play on the same song on Spotify. Suffice it to say, listening connects us, even when we aren’t expecting it.” The service has also seen an increase in collaborative playlists, and more users are sharing content via social media to show friends and followers what they’re listening to. 

5 – Escapism 

Another core need to consume content – any type of content – has been to immerse and escape. Recent MTM research has seen many opting for podcasts or music playlists that detaches them from the news and negativity. Current data shows a rise in demand for comedy podcasts (up 24%), while Spotify has curated a Daily Wellness playlist in the UK and US, which brings together a personalised mix of motivational podcasts and feel-good music to “kick start their day”. 

And lastly, there’s strong psychological evidence that suggests music can help to relieve stress and boost psychological well-being. Researchers suggest that people should try to match music to the mood you want to have. It seems only natural that in a time of uncertainty and where many are feeling downbeat, they are calling for music to ‘feel good’. Interestingly, this is also reflected in Spotify’s observation of playlists such as sleeping, cooking, housework, well-being and yoga playlists proving popular, as we seek out content to detach from the world, and immerse ourselves in a particular activity. 

Food for thought

These needs are most definitely not new; lockdown and the global state of affairs has just intensified particular needs. With the easing of lockdown, we expect to see these needs continue to drive listening, as 2020 itself – no doubt – continues to throw curveballs our way. 

The ability of audio to meet the deep psychological needs of listeners, coupled with the increase in access through connected devices like Alexa and Google Nest, points to a significant opportunity for brands to step up and reconnect with consumers in a more meaningful and powerful way. Content providers should constantly remind themselves of these basic, human needs, and consider how their specific target audience want to be fulfilled.