During the COVID-19 pandemic, radio broadcasts into homes, workplaces and hospitals have provided essential updates on health measures and provided solace to scores of people cut off from their loved ones.

In its more than 110 years of existence, radio has evolved with the many changes in our world and proven its resilience. Despite an increasingly busy media landscape and the rise of digital communications, it remains the most widely consumed medium at the global level. The United Nations recognizes the value of the medium annually through World Radio Day every February.

World turned upside down

“Radio is a medium that connects tremendously because it is happening right here, right now; it is fast and interactive,” says Michael Dujardin, Channel Manager at Qmusic, the largest commercial radio station in Dutch speaking Flanders, Belgium in an interview with UNRIC.

In a world turned upside down by the pandemic, radio stations have had to adapt to assure the continuity of their programming.

“Our technical team managed to get two mobile radio studios antenna-ready in just one weekend, allowing radio DJs to present from home,” says Dujardin.

Nostalgie radio presenter Jean-Marie Debol in the radio studio. Photo courtesy Alexis Vassivière

Thirst for information

As the health crisis unfolded, radio responded to “the public’s thirst for information,” explains Olivier Labreuil, Head of News and Contents at Nostalgie, francophone Belgium’s most listened-to radio station.

“Radio (…) has been the window through which the population has scrutinised the evolution of the pandemic, day by day,” he adds. It provides key information on government restrictions, health measures, ever-rising case numbers as well as updates on the roll-out of the vaccine.

At Nostalgie, the station focuses on providing “constructive news”, by sharing facts-based information and trying to give its listeners reasons to be hopeful.

“We have always asked journalists to take a step back and not to just give figures, which are often a source of anxiety, without putting them into perspective with other facts, which are typically less frightening,” says Labreuil.

Journalists must also sift through potential false facts and unreliable information, as media battle an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation during the health crisis.

“I would rather be the last one to share the news, and be sure that I am not spouting nonsense,” explains Labreuil, adding that journalists at the station cross-check information against various sources before announcing it in their bulletins.

Rising numbers tuning in

The health crisis has also led to changes in listening patterns. Whilst the collection of official audience figures has been made more complicated by the pandemic, radio stations have witnessed greater numbers listening in to their online platforms.

“We notice a shift in listening behaviour because people are working from home. Partly because of this, online streaming figures (…) have increased by 52% compared to the previous year!” says Dujardin.

Special shows have been introduced to help listeners escape from their daily reality. Dutch speaking station Studio Brussel, for example, introduced the event “Café Quarantaine”, with Belgian artists performing online concerts as cafés were closed. During the first wave, Qmusic created the show “Blijf in uw kot” (Stay in your shack), in cooperation with its sister TV channel VTM, filming different presenters live from a corona-proof shack.

Breaking the solitude

With COVID-19 restrictions leaving many cut off from friends and family, radio provides both comfort and a voice.

“Radio breaks the solitude that many people are finding themselves in right now. It is essential to have someone speaking to you, to explain what is happening in the world and near you,” says Labreuil.

Now, more than ever, radio remains an essential medium to keep society connected.

“In times where people need connection, radio is in a stronger position than ever before,” concludes Dujardin.