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Seasons Change: Trending Radio Listening in September

4 minute read | October 2014

The arrival of fall in the U.S. marks an annual turning point for radio listening. Historically, fall and winter see the most radio tune-in during the year, and the uptick that occurs when the leaves turn is most noticeable as consumers everywhere make the transition from summer into the latter part of the year.

So, now that school is back in session, the mercury has dipped a bit, and the news and sports cycles have picked up, results from the September portable people meter (PPM) radio-listening trends reveal some surprising cooling trends for a host of music formats and some seasonal upswings in the spoken word arena. It’s worth noting that the September survey spanned parts of August and September, including the week of Labor Day, which is the traditional bookend to the summer vacation season.

The Classic Hits format made headlines last month by wresting the “format of the summer” distinction away from Country and Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), growing its audience shares the most of any format during the summer. Classic Hits couldn’t keep the momentum going in September though, which is indicative of a larger trend we saw during the month where some major music genres cooled off. Country, Hot Adult Contemporary (AC), Pop CHR and Classic Rock had all seen impressive growth in recent months, but listening for each format was flat or down in September.

For Sports and News/Talk, however, September marked a return to pre-summertime listening levels, following a predictable seasonal trend when audiences tend to spike. Sports shares among listeners 6+ were up 10% this month (from 4.1% to 4.5%) and up 9% in the 25-54 demo (growing from 4.7% to 5.1%). When football returns and the MLB pennant races come down the stretch each year, sports formats typically score larger audiences.

News/Talk also had a good September; the format’s shares among the 6+ demo were up 4% this month and have increased 9% since July. The 8.8% share is the highest for News/Talk since April. And among listeners 25-54, a 5% uptick in September (to 6.3%) was the best showing since March.

To get a feel for the cyclical nature of sports and news listening, the table below tracks the 6+ audience shares for each format in PPM markets since the start of 2011, and the annual rebound that occurs in the fall – something we will be tracking next month with October data.

Sports and News Listening Trends: August-October, 2011-2014

News/Talk 2011 2012 2013 2014
August 10.4% 9.5% 8.9% 8.5%
September 10.5% 9.9% 9.0% 8.8%
October 10.6% 10.4% 9.5%     –
Sports 2011 2012 2013 2014
August 3.9% 4.1% 4.2% 4.1%
September 4.3% 4.3% 4.5% 4.5%
October 4.9% 4.9% 5.1%     –
Source: Nielsen

Below are some additional headlines from Nielsen’s September PPM data across 45 markets* using the full-week (Monday-Sunday 6 a.m.-midnight) daypart audience shares.

  • For the first time in recent memory, Country has seen two consecutive months of downtrend in listener shares. The format’s 6+ numbers have gone 8.6%-8.4%-8.3% over the past three months, respectively, while the trend has been 10.2%-10.1%-9.8% in the 18-34 demo (25-54 listener shares were flat this month). Coming months will reveal more and tell us if this is the start of a larger trend for America’s No. 1 overall format or just a seasonal variation. It should be noted that the last time Country saw two down months in a row with listeners 6+ was in the summer of 2011.
  • An interesting part of Classic Hits’ success this summer was its quiet and steady growth with listeners aged 18-34. In September, the format posted a 3.7-share, just one- tenth of a point behind August’s all-time high of 3.8. This is another trend to keep an eye on as the year draws to a close; was this growth based on seasonal differences with younger audiences, or is there a larger change occurring as Classic Hits stations move their images and playlists farther away from the ‘oldies’ label with which they were once associated?
  • Last but not least, Urban Contemporary continues to have a banner year among 18-34 year-olds. September’s 5.8-share marked the second straight month of growth (from a 5.6-share in July), and barring any radical changes in the final quarter of the year, 2014 will be by far the best year for the format in the 18-34 demo since PPM measurement began.

September 2014 PPM Markets Top 5 Formats by Average Quarter Hour Share (Full Week Daypart)

Persons 6+ Adults 18-34 Adults 25-54
News/Talk (8.8%) Pop CHR (12.3%) Pop CHR (8.9%)
Country (8.4%) Country (9.8%) Country (8.3%)
Pop CHR (8.3%) Hot AC (7.2%) Hot AC (6.8%) tie
AC (6.9%) Rhythmic CHR (6.4%) AC (6.8%) tie
Hot AC (6.3%) AC & Urban Contemp. (5.8%) tie News/Talk (6.3%)
PPM—Portable people meter. CHR—Contemporary Hit Radio. AC—Adult Contemporary.
Source: Nielsen

*Note: Nielsen Audio officially has 48 measured PPM markets, but three of them (Nassau-Suffolk, Middlesex-Somerset-Union, and San Jose) are included in the larger New York and San Francisco metro areas. Therefore, the listening data from those markets are included in these results even though we did not break them out separately.

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