Days away from arguably the most interesting and impactful US Elections in the history of politics, and the viewer numbers of the big news players are soaring. The Trump vs Biden title fight transcends country borders and the results on Tuesday will have a genuine worldwide impact – for global financial markets, for the pandemic response, and for the ongoing popularity of spray tan.
In terms of ratings, Fox tends to consistently lead the pack with the Democrat-friendly channels following – but in terms of individual shows, one of the bigger audience magnets has been MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. She is different. She’s not a curmudgeonly white guy or a 50-something, stiff, overly newsy anchor. She’s raw and authentic and human. And in a very significant way, she does the complete opposite of the other primetime news programs.
Whether it’s Cuomo or Anderson on CNN or Carlson or Cavuto on Fox; their segments tend to run 4 to 6 minutes before the presenter rushes a final question to their Zoom panel of ‘experts’ and a block of commercials fires. Punchy, one thought segments, dotted between commercial breaks full of pharmaceutical company ads, starring smiling people living their best lives as the voice-over explains the myriad ways the new drug will make their existence miserable. But, Rachel breaks that pattern. Her show is paced differently. She stops down only 3 or 4 times during the hour for commercial breaks and is totally committed to long-form. One segment each show routinely runs up to 25 minutes. This approach has given her a noticeable point of difference – and it’s working.
COVID has changed the way people consume media. And some of the rules in our trusty playbook need to change too. Great content is everything now. EVERYTHING. The days of the stopwatch on break times should be gone. Iron-fisted programmers with hard and fast mandates on how long the mics can be open before the next song plays, just don’t fit anymore.
The length of a break still matters, of course. But it’s time to unshackle our best content creators and let them create. The line in the sand of success or failure should be the quality of the bit rather than the sheer minutes and seconds. Amazing content from your best people is unduplicatable, it’s sticky, and a longer, lean-in piece of radio is worth more than any tight, bright, well-programmed hour of music with disposable 3-minute raves. And yes, the music is still important too – but it’s no longer the core driver of tuning. Listeners can get music from 100 places now; they simply don’t need radio for that anymore. Ideally, the best songs will follow the best bits to extend listening but for us to win our share of the audio pie, it’s the content, the personalities, and their unique, memorable take on the day that will shape our future.
The coronavirus may have canceled fun in 2020 but it was the catalyst of a renaissance for radio. Content is king. People are the difference-maker. And audience standards are higher than ever.