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Classic Hits Take the Crown for Radio Format of the Summer

6 minute read | September 2015

The passing of Labor Day and the annual shifting of perspectives toward the close of the year brings another opportunity to reflect on the trends that shaped the summer media landscape. And with the release of Nielsen’s August portable people meter (PPM) ratings for U.S. radio, it’s also time to judge which major national format saw the most lift in audience between June and August compared to the first five months of the year (January through May).

This annual race to crown the “format of the summer” is now in its fifth year, and for the first time, we have a repeat winner: Classic Hits takes home the title in 2015 and becomes the first format to win the race twice and the first to win in back-to-back years.

This year, Classic Hits faced some stiff competition from a number of other formats, including Hot Adult Contemporary (AC) and Country, both of which also had strong showings. But in the end, the audience share for Classic Hits jumped by nearly 10% (9.7%) this summer, the most of any major format.

Increase in Summer Listening Share by Format

Persons 6+ Summer 2011 Share Increase (%) Summer 2012 Share Increase (%) Summer 2013 Share Increase (%) Summer 2014 Share Increase (%) Summer 2015 Share Increase (%)
Adult Contemporary (AC) -3.3 -3.6 -5.3 -4.1 Flat
Album Adult Alternative -11.9 Flat 4 -8.3 7
Album Oriented Rock -4.4 3.8 8.4 Flat Flat
All News -7.6 Flat -9.3 -14.3 -13.4
All Sports -2.7 -5.3 Flat -2.4 -3.8
Alternative -8.2 7.5 7.6 Flat Flat
Classic Hits 4.1 Flat 2.2 10 9.7
Classic Rock 6 3.2 5.9 6.5 2.7
Country 6.2 3.9 8.8 6.3 6.2
Hot Adult Contemporary (AC) 26.3 3.6 5.3 6.7 4.2
Mexican Regional -3.5 -3.5 -5.2 2.7 Flat
News/Talk -5.1 -5.5 -7.8 -6.7 -4.5
Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) 3.2 8.5 1.9 1.2 -2.9
Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) Flat 6.9 Flat -8.1 1.9
Spanish Contemporary + Spanish Hot Adult Contemporary (AC) Flat -7.2 -4.9 4 -5.8
Urban Adult Contemporary (AC) 2 -1.4 Flat 2 -1.3
Urban Contemporary Flat Flat Flat Flat 4.7
Source: Nielsen

Summertime spikes are nothing new to the Classic Hits format. If you examine the long-term audience trend by month, it’s clear that summer seasonality is an important factor for the Classic Hits listener. There are noticeable spikes every summer, but the past two years stand out for how consistently and sharply the audience increased from the beginning of the year through the summer.

Digging a little deeper, we also analyzed four years’ worth of Nielsen BDS Radio airplay data to get a handle on how more than 30 major-market Classic Hits stations have updated their playlists. Not only have the last two summers been the best summers on record for the format, they’ve brought in more listeners. In fact, summer shares among 18-to-34 listeners have risen nearly 10% since 2012. This is a noteworthy trend for a format that is not generally associated with Millennials or younger audiences. The tables below also reveal a noticeable shift in the decade of music at the top of the playlist on Classic Hits radio since 2012. (Note: The songs are listed in order from most played to least even though the actual spin counts are not included).

Classic Hits Top 20 Most Played Songs – Summer 2012

Artist Song Year
America Sister Golden Hair 1975
Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville 1977
Van Morrison Brown Eyed Girl 1967
Rod Stewart Maggie May 1971
Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band Old Time Rock & Roll 1978
Stealers Wheel Stuck In The Middle With You 1971
Dobie Gray Drift Away 1973
Hollies Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress 1972
Steve Miller Band Rock ‘n Me 1976
Looking Glass Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl) 1972
Chicago Saturday In The Park 1972
4 Seasons December 1963 (Oh, What A Night) 1975
Bachman-Turner Overdrive You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet 1974
Steve Miller Band The Joker 1973
Elton John Crocodile Rock 1972
Eagles Take It Easy 1972
Steely Dan Do It Again 1972
Stevie Wonder Superstition 1973
Doobie Brothers Listen To The Music 1972
Orleans Still The One 1976
Average   1973

Classic Hits Top 20 Most Played Songs – Summer 2015

Artist Song Year
Journey Don’t Stop Believin’ 1981
Naked Eyes Always Something There To Remind Me 1983
Eurythmics Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) 1983
Boston More Than A Feeling 1976
Jett, Joan & The Blackhearts I Love Rock ‘n Roll 1982
Blondie Heart Of Glass 1978
Men At Work Down Under 1982
Lynyrd Skynyrd Sweet Home Alabama 1974
Bryan Adams Summer Of ’69 1985
Manfred Mann Blinded By The Light 1976
Eagles Hotel California 1977
Soft Cell Tainted Love 1982
Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville 1977
Pat Benatar Hit Me With Your Best Shot 1980
Queen Another One Bites The Dust 1980
Bon Jovi Livin’ On A Prayer 1986
Billy Joel My Life 1978
John Cougar Jack & Diane 1982
Fleetwood Mac Go Your Own Way 1977
Survivor Eye Of The Tiger 1982
Average   1980

This summer, more than half of the top 20 most-played songs by Classic Hits were from the 1980s. Three years ago, no songs in the top 20 came from that decade. And since then, the average release year among those songs has shifted by seven years from 1973 to 1980. These playlist changes have coincided directly with the two best summers Classic Hits has ever seen in PPM measurement, and we will be curious to see if the format continues to push the music farther into the 1980s when it’s time to break out the sunscreen and flip flops again next year.

Finally, below are several other highlights from Nielsen’s August PPM data across 45 markets* using the full-week (Monday-Sunday 6 a.m.-midnight) daypart audience shares.

  • Country contended for the format of the summer crown in 2015, finishing just a few percentage points behind Classic Hits. And while the format ended up staying flat during the summer months, with both the 6+ (8.2%) and 25-54 (8.1%) audience, the real story was among listeners 18-to-34. There, Country posted six consecutive months of growth, ascending from 8.4% in February to 9.7% in August. This month’s result matches the August 2013 numbers and trails only August of last year (10.1%), which was one of Country’s single-best months ever in PPM. Many eyes will be on Country as we head into fall after last year’s downtrend that immediately followed the historic summer of 2014.
  • On the spoken word dial, News/Talk got a head start this month toward its annual fall uptick coming out of summer. The format trended 8.5%-8.7% the past two months for overall 6+ and outpaced last August’s 8.5%. The same story held true with the 25-54 audience, trending 5.8%-6.1% to finish slightly ahead of the 6.0% result from August 2014.

August 2015 PPM Markets Top 5 Formats by Average Quarter Hour Share (Full Week Daypart)

Persons 6+ Adults 18-34 Adults 25-54
News/Talk (8.7%) Pop CHR (12.1%) Pop CHR (8.8%)
Country (8.1%) Country (9.7%) Country (8.1%)
Pop CHR (8.0%) Hot AC (7.5%) Hot AC (7.2%)
AC (7.5%) AC (6.6%) AC (7.2%)
Hot AC (6.8%) Urban Contemporary (6.6%) News/Talk (6.1%)

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.

Data used in this report is inclusive of multicultural audiences. Hispanic consumer audiences are composed of both English and Spanish speaking representative populations.

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