Is Radio Out of This COVID Nightmare?

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Ben Downs is the VP & General Manager of Bryan Broadcasting in College Station, Texas. The company owns 11 stations, including two-time Marconi Award winner and three-time Crystal Award winner KNDE-FM. We checked in with the boss to get his take on how 2021 is shaping up now that people are receiving the vaccine, including Downs himself.

Radio Ink: The Vaccine is here, what sense are you getting from the community, the people you talk to about it, even though the roll-out is slow?
Ben Downs: It’s beginning to sink in that we’re going to miss another Spring Break and maybe even our 2021 summer. Generally the people in charge of the Covid vaccine distribution have never had the task of administering so many injections at speed. Nobody’s happy about how the roll-out is going, but there are some bright spots as some areas are getting the routine down.

Here in Texas there are a few people like my wife and I who have had both doses and more people are added daily. I suppose if we had unlimited vaccine and 24/7 injections we could save the summer. But that doesn’t seem likely. Even if we all had our shots, there are places like the EU and Canada that just don’t want us in there, yet. The people I talk to hope to be wrong, but expect another year to wear our masks, wash our hands, sneeze in our sleeve, and hope for better days to come.

Radio Ink: What is the business community feel?
Ben Downs: They realize they have to change. We have new hotels with 250 rooms that are only opening 20. Bars are buying food trucks to get qualified as restaurants which are then mostly take out. I drive around town and I see businesses that were fatally injured by the early shutdown (here in Texas we’re mostly open). I see businesses that survive by adjusting to less revenue. And there are a few deep pockets who are in a position to wait it out. Our movie theaters are all open, yet they’re mostly empty. I don’t know what’s taking the place of date night, but so far, it’s not dinner and a movie. Significantly, it’s not just the little guys; we’re seeing national chains calling it a day.

To me, I think most businesses realize that consumers have changed their behavior and it’s put brick and mortar at even greater risk. But when you see a secular change happening, you can’t fight it. You have to ride the wave. Despite their best efforts, there are some things that Amazon cannot deliver. The business community is beginning to see that those things are where opportunity remains.

One consumer behavior that didn’t change is the need for information about this pandemic. We maintained our investment in providing news and information and we repurposed our English language news into Spanish on our websites and email blasts. Obviously nobody knew what to do when the pandemic struck. Breaking format to carry local press conferences and provide essential, dependable information made us important to the community. And its health.

Radio Ink: How are pacings looking compared to the middle of 2020?
Ben Downs: Easiest comps I’ve ever had to beat. If you didn’t know where we were in 2019 you would think we’re invoking some kind of sales magic. But the risk is not over, and it takes just one good-sized stock market “correction” to knock us back down, but the second quarter 2020 was so bad, there’s no need comparing against it. Two quarters like that would pretty much close the doors.

I think the only comparison we should make is grading 2021 against an average of 2018 and 2019. April 2020 was such a massive hole, if we compare 2021 to same quarter 2020 we get a false sense of recovery. I imagine a run on a bank in 1930’s felt the same way March and April 2020 felt to us.

Radio Ink: Overall, how is your company doing?
Ben Downs: We’re so lucky to be in a state that is mostly reopened. We’ve stabilized from the Awful April, though we remain cautious. We keep a tight rein on expenses and we’ve been able to keep everyone on staff. But, we’re faced with whole categories of businesses that are nearly all gone. Hospitality took a massive hit, and while we didn’t sell a lot of advertising to hotels, we did sell a lot of advertising to the companies where hotel workers shopped. As well as the clubs where they played.

In April 2020 we the oil market collapsed (Texas, remember) with oil “selling” for negative $1 a barrel. Then we had 60,000 college students leave town for Spring break and not come back. But each month more and more students return to in-person learning. And the national economy is normalizing. That return makes a big difference to the economy of a college town. So far we’re showing solid pacing against 1Q 2020. And we had better be pacing well against 2Q or we might as well go home.

Radio Ink: Is Radio out of the woods yet?
Ben Downs: Radio lives in the woods. As a business, we survive by reinventing ourselves as needed. And as a community information resource, we have more to do than ever.

This pandemic advertising collapse isn’t a competitor like all the others that came before. And the pandemic resets a lot of things in the American economy. Local businesses are going to be hard pressed to find a way to do business as normal; the ‘V’ shaped recovery only happened for Amazon. Radio has begun to take the advice we’ve preached for years.

We’ve worked to find new categories to replace the ones that have gone away. We developed new, more frugal ways to do business. We’ve taken close looks at events, digital, new formats and new listener outreach to replace the dollars that evaporated. When the country reopens we’ll be ready to make the most of it.

There are market forces at play that are very powerful. There’s no magic wand that will put things back the way they used to be and if we think we can continue to do business and interact the same way, we will end up in a bad place. I wouldn’t say we’re out of the woods or that we’ll even know what ‘out of the woods’ looks like. But most operators can see the pathway that will bring us back to strength and stability. Which is a lot more than what we had in April.

Ben Downs is the GM of Bryan Broadcasting and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]ryanbroadcasting.com

Our previous interview in this series:
Ed Levine – Galaxy Media

On deck for Friday..Ron Stone

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is a refreshingly honest assessment not only of a medium, but also how COVID-19 has affected a region and station group. Often when talking about the market, GMs and SMs will claim their groups are booming while all indications are the market is crumbling around them. As a media buyer it’s easy to see through that kind of bs.

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