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Covid sparks a wave of Audience Research by SA Radio Stations

Updated: Feb 25




Necessity has indeed been the mother of invention when it comes to the slew of audience surveys carried out by South African radio stations over Covid. The industry-standard RAM (Radio Audience Measurement) survey is based on face-to-face fieldwork and was severely hampered by the pandemic lockdown.


At Ultimate Media we’ve had many queries from clients and media agencies as to where they can source up-to-date radio audience data. This need for accurate research has been heightened by the intuitive perception that listening habits changed over the lockdown e.g. people tuning in later and also listening via digital devices. The BRC (Broadcast Research Council) have had the unenviable task of trying to keep the audience data relevant and accurate over the past 8 months. But the non-digital collection of data made it impossible to measure these shifts.


Our starting point was to contact the stations to see what they were picking up. We then produced a number of updates for our media agency clients which collated the feedback from the stations. It was clear from the get-go that listening appeared to be spiking significantly. There also appeared to be a major increase in listening via digital devices. Qualitative feedback showed that listeners wanted more news and information and that ‘connection’ was a big factor in driving increased consumption of radio. We do believe that advertisers missed a major trick by not making more use of radio during lockdown (radio spend was down over 40% during that period while digital spend decreased only marginally). However, in defence of advertisers, the fact that radio’s RAM data is not measured in real time (or anywhere close) would have been a real factor in driving brands to advertise on channels with more dynamic measurement systems. But that’s a challenge for another day.


So, in the absence of an industry standard measurement, the stations had to quickly swing into action. Jacaranda FM and East Coast Radio were first out of the blocks with a pre-lockdown listener survey which was the first indicator of significantly increased listening. Primedia Broadcasting followed suit with a listener survey which highlighted changes in listener content preferences. SABC’s research was far more anecdotal but it mirrored the shifts that the commercial stations were picking up. Ultimate Media surveyed a number of top SABC presenters and the most noticeable trend that emerged was that listeners wanted more information and more ‘connection.’ A number of the presenters reported huge increases in social media engagement after their shows. It was if listeners needed to extend their connection beyond the 3 hours of an on-air show.


The ongoing uncertainty over when face-to-face fieldwork will resume seems to have spurred many stations to take a more structured approach to the audience research they conduct. Station research will always carry a subjective quality and it will never be a replacement for an objective industry-standard measurement system that allows media strategists to buy the audience they want at the most cost-effective rate. But, in the short term and in the absence of a return to RAM normality, station research is a valuable tool.


Charis Coleman, Market Engagement Manager at Kagiso Media, comments; “It is extremely important that in the absence of RAMS, we run our own data initiatives. At East Coast Radio and Jacaranda FM we are focused on brand health trackers. These surveys are run every 8 weeks to assist with profiling the listenership, profiling listeners’ listening habits, gathering feedback from listeners on programme content and using these insights to feedback into marketing plans and strategies.”


Radio stations are uniquely positioned to generate credible and frequent audience research. Listeners tend to trust their stations. They’ve already got a relationship with their favourite station and presenters so it’s not much of a stretch to ask them for their opinions. It’s a bit like phoning your best friend to ask what you should wear to the party on Saturday. Listeners love having their opinions canvassed.


Logistically it’s not that difficult either. Stations have thousands of listener contact details on record be it mobile numbers or email addresses. And they’re communicating with those listeners all day every day.


Primedia Broadcasting has assembled a panel of 10 000 listeners willing to be surveyed on a regular basis. It’s called PrimeConnect. Most interesting is that these listeners are not just Primedia listeners but also consumers of other stations.

We’ve been tracking consumer and listener behaviour using this tool over a period of 3-4 years, which has allowed us to gain strategic insights into the market” says Melissa McNally, Consultant Specialist: Research at PMB. “This resulted in our research and insights team developing a continuous radio tracker which provides the business and clients with insights into the current market, with specific emphasis on Gauteng and the Western Cape.”


To stress again, station-sponsored research will never take the place of objective industry accepted BRC research when it comes to making an informed radio buy. Perhaps they best serve to validate a station selection which the RAM numbers and Telmar run have already identified.


Where station research definitely helps is in making informed programming decisions. Kfm 94.5 Station Manager, Steven Werner told us about an internal tool they use called Pulse which “measures content responsiveness and heat maps (with regard to) particular content pieces, themes and topics across our platforms.”


Outside suppliers like Colony and Fabrik are trying to make the process of real-time engagement easier so as to better inform programming decisions. Jonathan Lumley from Fabrik says;

“Imagine your radio station had a way to put everyone in one place and get them to send you voice notes from your own app, and then build up a profile of that engaged audience? Imagine you could find out how many people were listening to you at any given time and were able to picture that listening behaviour to understand over time what it actually means.”


AME stations, OFM and Algoa FM, use Colony to survey their audience on a regular basis. Colony manage radio stations’ daily interaction with listeners via sms and WhatsApp which, in turn, makes dipstick surveying of those listeners easy.


According to Nick Efstathiou, CEO of Central Media, a very simple Colony survey conducted by OFM during Level 2 lockdown showed that “62% of their listeners were more likely to shop for DIY products than they would have in levels 3,4 or 5.” It’s not empirical research but it’s a gem for any DIY product to have access to, not to mention a programme manager making daily content decisions. OFM and Algoa FM also make extensive use of BrandMapp and TGI to survey their audiences.


Perhaps Covid will spark a rethink in the radio industry as to how we conduct our audience research. It certainly needs to be more dynamic and real-time. The danger, from an advertiser point of view, is that the most up-to-date research is always more likely to come from the commercial brands. SABC still commands 60% of this country’s radio audience yet, in the absence of conducting their own listener surveys, the only research the SABC can rely on to prove their case is BRC RAM data. And the more out of date the RAM data becomes the harder it is for them to do that.


Station-sponsored research is an invaluable tool in validating station selection but it should never replace an objective industry standard. It’s an ‘and’, not an ‘or.’






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