Pandemic predictions for audio: How the COVID-19 outbreak may change consumption, content, and advertising

Most of the world is staying home. That shift toward serious social distancing began with hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. But once people settle into new routines for the coming weeks, the media world can expect to see some big changes in how and when their works are consumed.

Data released this week by Nielsen found that media consumption during similar disruptive events rose almost 60%. In particular, streaming video by TV in the U.S. saw an average increase of 61% during two past crises. The company extracted those figures based on trends from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the 2016 blizzard in the northeastern U.S.

Obviously, the results for TV may not be exactly the same as those for audio formats. But it seems logical that any digital entertainment, from streaming TV and video games to podcasts and streaming audio, will likely see some amount of increased use with so many people staying home.

Audio can likely expect to see some boosts in consumption. Particularly for people who want to limit their screen time while housebound, listening to lots of music or binging a few podcast seasons may be an appealing option.

Despite the likely overall uptick, audio outlets should be aware of the reasons why they may also have a decline in audience. The biggest changes may be related to massive cuts in commuting. AM/FM radio listening in particular is closely tied to time spent in cars. Podcasts and audiobooks can also be a to-go for commuters, but those formats are also often enjoyed as background listening during chores or work. Their impact could go either way.

AM/FM radio is often seen as a reliable source of information in times of crisis. The pandemic is unusual though, in that disease isn’t generally disrupting communication infrastructure yet. Written journalism is well-equipped to cope with production from home, with the industry already working through a transition from print to digital. Social media is still one of the most powerful ways to share the latest information. Radio stations may have to play catch up in figuring out how to transition their studios to remote work, and to remind listeners of its value outside of entertainment during the daily commute.

Podcasts have also been able to react quickly to the pandemic in terms of content. The number of shows and episodes centered on COVID-19, pandemics, and public health, skyrocketed in a very short amount of time. This could yield very mixed results. Some listeners may be more likely to absorb as much information as they can to curb their fears, while other individuals may want a media diet of total avoidance. Shows that already cover health, science, or news may have an easier time keeping their audiences while pivoting to focus on the coronavirus. On the flip side, shows on other subjects may alienate listeners if they make drastic changes in tone or content.

Nielsen’s assessment of TV consumption also noted that advertising during a crisis can be a double-edged sword. Large numbers of people staying at home means a large, captive audience for ads. However, consumers may not want to or be able to leave their homes to shop.

The same is true for audio advertisements. A call-to-action that would require listeners to leave their homes may fall flat. But digital shopping or services might have a better chance at connecting with audiences.

It’s a scary, uncertain time. Even though some amount of financial losses are all but certain, audio has the potential to be a valued tool during a crisis. Audio can provide education, entertainment, and escapism. We could all use lots of those things in the coming weeks as we cope.

Anna Washenko