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A Classic Upset in the Race for Radio Format of the Summer
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A Classic Upset in the Race for Radio Format of the Summer

With Labor Day now in the rearview mirror, Americans are back from summer vacations, kids are back to school and seersucker suits are back in the closet as we head into fall and winter. With the release of the August portable people meter (PPM) radio-listening trends, we can see which formats benefited the most from summertime audience trends, and a surprise contender has emerged from the pack.

During June and July, Country and Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) both made a play to land the coveted title of “format of the summer,” as Country popped in June, cooled in July, and was then overtaken by a spike in top-40 listening. In August, however, neither format could keep their momentum going, giving way to a dark horse that pulled in solid audience share throughout the summer. Compared with Country and CHR, Classic Hits has quietly and consistently grown its audience during the past three months and finished the summer of 2014 with the largest percentage increase in listening shares of any major format during the summer.

In order to judge this race, we compared listening trends for the major radio formats during June, July and August with the average results from the first five months of the year, January through May. Based on the average quarter hour (AQH) share changes for the full-week (Monday-Sunday 6 a.m.-midnight) daypart over the past four years, the last three summertime “winners” have been Hot Adult Contemporary (AC), Pop CHR and Country, respectively.

This year, Classic Hits led the way, followed by Hot AC, Classic Rock and Country.

Summer Listening Trends – 2011-2014

Persons 6+ Summer 2011 Share Increase (%) Summer 2012 Share Increase (%) Summer 2013 Share Increase (%) Summer 2014 Share Increase (%)
Adult Contemporary (AC) -3.3 -3.6 -5.3 -4.1
Album Adult Alternative -11.9 -1.6 4.0 -8.3
Album Oriented Rock -4.4 3.8 8.4 Flat
All News -7.6 -2.0 -9.3 -14.3
All Sports -2.7 -5.3 -0.8 -2.4
Alternative -8.2 7.5 7.6 Flat
Classic Hits 4.1 0.9 2.2 10
Classic Rock 6.0 3.2 5.9 6.5
Country 6.2 3.9 8.8 6.3
Hot Adult Contemporary (AC) 26.3 3.6 5.3 6.7
Mexican Regional -3.5 -3.5 -5.2 2.7
News/Talk -5.1 -5.5 -7.8 -6.7
Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) 3.2 8.5 1.9 1.2
Rhythmic Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) -1.3 6.9 -1.9 -8.1
Spanish Contemporary+Spanish Hot AC -1.5 -7.2 -4.9 4.0
Urban Adult Contemporary (AC) 2.0 -1.4 -0.8 2.0
Urban Contemporary 2.0 1.1 1.9 Flat
PPM—Portable people meter. CHR—Contemporary Hit Radio. AC—Adult Contemporary.
Source: Nielsen

What’s clear from the results of this summer’s trends is that it will be hard to predict which formats will see the biggest spikes during the summer in the coming years. Many factors go into determining a summer hot streak, and things don’t necessarily remain consistent year-to-year. That’s what jumps off the page when analyzing listening trends since 2011; one year’s summertime success isn’t a guaranteed hit the next.

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

  • August’s results for the Classic Hits format were historic in several ways: the format set a new all-time high for both 6-plus (5.6%) and 18-34 (3.8%) listener shares, and the 25-54 results (4.9%) were the highest since the spring of 2012.
  • Even though the temperatures are starting to cool now as we move away from summer, Hot AC remains on fire. In August, the format set new records for 6-plus (6.5%), 18-34 (7.4%) and 25-54 (7.0%) listener shares. For perspective, Hot AC started out with a 4.3 share among 25-54 listeners after the PPM rollout was complete in early 2011.
  • Lastly, some interesting trends are visible among 18-34 listeners during summer months, when lifestyles and listening patterns adjust for the season. Pop CHR still rules the airwaves with this audience, consistently commanding more than a 12-share all the way back to the start of 2011. But when taking stock of the formats that have set new all-time highs with the 18-34 demographic this summer (Country, Hot AC, Classic Rock and now Classic Hits), it’s clear that these listeners have broad tastes. Access to technology and opportunity to listen when and where they want mean that a multitude of formats can compete for the attention of 18-34 year olds.

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

Persons 6+ Adults 18-34 Adults 25-54
News/Talk (8.5%) Pop CHR (12.1%) Pop CHR (9.0%)
Country (8.4%) tie Country (10.1%) Country (8.2%)
Pop CHR (8.4%) tie Hot AC (7.4%) Hot AC (7.0%)
AC (7.0%) Rhythmic CHR (6.4%) AC (6.9%)
Hot AC (6.5%) AC (5.8%) News/Talk (6.0%)
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.