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The Radio Recovery

January 25, 2021

We sit in a somewhat unique position that allows us to peek under the hood of radio stations in PPM markets across the country. As we work with our clients to help increase both revenue and ratings we are seeing the formation of some notable trends.

There is no doubt that the nationwide lockdown in the middle of the March survey resulted in a negative effect on radio listening. This effect bottomed out in the April book and has since then shown gradual improvement. The emphasis is on the word gradual, as radio’s recovery has resembled the Nike swoosh rather than a “V.”

Specifically, here are some trends we are seeing …

Cume – Cume levels have not returned to their pre-pandemic levels. We have seen cases where stations remained #1 in cume in their target demos, but with levels that are tens of thousands lower than what they were prior to the shutdown. Cume is on the rebound, however it still has a ways to go before we get to the “normal” range.

Morning Drive – In market after market, we have seen a dramatic decline in the percentage of a station’s cume that tunes in Monday-Friday 6AM-10AM. Most of the time this decrease is in the double digits. My standard line with our clients is: “This is not your fault.” Morning shows could set their hair on fire and few would notice. Listeners are not commuting at the same level. You can relate because you’re probably reading this in your home office. The WFH phenomenon is compounded by the fact that so many school systems are either virtual, hybrid, or starting later in the day. That said, in the last few months, we have seen morning radio begin to rebound. This is not (yet) a universal phenomenon. However, we have seen enough instances to believe there is some “there” there.

Other Dayparts – The good news is we are seeing steady usage patterns for Midday, Afternoon, and Weekend listening. In many cases stations are experiencing increased tune-ins during those dayparts. This is good information for any program director who is looking for recycling opportunities. Take from the big and give to the small – that is how you can increase occasions.

Average Weekly Time Exposed – Or, to us old schoolers – TSL. As with cume, TSL is slowly rebounding but remains below pre-pandemic levels. This varies, sometimes dramatically, by age cell. For the most part, older demos are rebounding much more quickly than younger ones. For example, Adults 45-54 have significantly increased their TSL since the lockdown, whereas Adults 18-24 have not. This may be why we are seeing so many stations “getting older.” Take a close look at not only your station’s demo breakdown but also how your market is tracking.

Mars vs. Venus – Over time we have noticed that Men give more TSL to radio than Women. Is this because high TSL formats like Sports and News/Talk heavily attract males or is it a sociological issue? Hard to say, but the numbers bear this out. This trend has continued during our recovery period as men have amped up their listening more than women.

Formats – Every market is different. Stations perform based on their reputation and appeal. However, as a general rule, we have seen formats like Classic Hits, Classic Rock, Urban, and Hispanic weathering the pandemic storm fairly well. New and News/Talk stations demonstrated a strong increase during the early stages of the pandemic but have started to ebb a bit, though they did benefit from the election cycle. Sports radio was devastated during the summer, but the return of NFL programming has provided a massive boost for the format. Formats that have been challenged during this time include AC, Hot AC, CHR, and pretty much any format living in the 18-34 world.

As The Ratings Experts, it is our mission to parse the Nielsen numbers. Our observations are based on months’ worth of research across multiple markets. Of course, this could all change as fast as the news cycle.

Still, chances are these trends will continue as long as the pandemic is raging.

-Steve Allan, Programming Research Consultant