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Making The Grasp Equal Our Reach

These are the top five radio stations in New York:

AC WLTW (Lite FM), Rhythmic Hot AC WKTU, Top 40 WHTZ (Z100), Classic Hits WCBS-FM, and Adult Top 40 WNEW (Fresh 102.7).

Here’s Los Angeles: Top 40 KIIS-FM, Adult Top 40 KBIG (My 104.3), AC KOST, Classic Hits KRTH (K-Earth 101) and CHR KAMP (97.1 Amp FM).

Philadelphia: AC WBEB (101.1 More FM), Classic Hits WOGL, CHR WIOQ (Q102), Classic Rock WMGK, and CHR WZMP (96.5 Amp FM).

Charlotte, N.C.: AC WKQC (K104.7), CHRs WHQC and WNKS (Kiss 95.1), Adult Hits WLKO (the Lake) and Country WSOC.

If you follow the 6-plus PPM ratings every month, enough to keep a running tally of which stations are doing well, this list probably sounds a little bit off to you. Out of the top five, there are three or four stations that you think of as dominant, but one or two that you thought were mid-pack.

Because these are the stations that are top five in their markets in cume. It’s a number that Nielsen makes publicly available for subscribing stations, but it’s not a number the trade publications print.

Often, the combination of a healthy cume and a mass-appeal format does translate to healthy shares. But there are also top-five cuming stations with a three-share 6-plus. Or less. In Las Vegas, there’s a heritage station with top 5 cume that is No. 16 in share with a 2.7.

Most of the stations with high cumes but mid-pack shares are “big box” formats — there are Hot ACs, Mainstream ACs, and second CHRs that often fall into that category. But there are also markets like Charlotte where both CHRs are mired in a years-long war of attrition despite healthy cumes.

Programmers grow up in the business taught that cume matters only when paired with a healthy Time Spent Listening. A station with a high cume and low or even declining TSL is considered troubled by definition: It’s a station people want to like, but can’t fully embrace.

Pointing out to your bosses that you have a healthy cume amidst diminishing TSL won’t protect your job indefinitely. Neither will pointing out that the other station’s TSL is plummeting even faster.

We don’t live in a world that thinks of radio’s success primarily in terms of cume. If 6-plus share has historically been dismissed as a beauty contest, what does that make a cume story?

And yet, when we discuss radio’s overall health, reach is seemingly everything.

Because those reach numbers in the low-to-mid 90% range have been all that most people have heard quoted in recent years. Diminished listening levels are discussed much more furtively. And in recent years, they’ve been seen through a funhouse mirror of encoder processing. As broadcasters, we’ve hinged “telling our story” on a number that could include a few minutes of unintended exposure, or one QH a week.

I’ve come out of the last few industry conventions feeling that broadcasters are more clear-eyed about their issues. There is a better ratio of optimism to self-delusion. But we’re still used to telling that reach story. And when our reach surpassed that of network TV, we loved our reach number even more.

That I’ve been looking more at the difference between cume ranker and share recently reflects the influence of longtime friend Robert Unmacht, publisher of the Tom Taylor Now newsletter. For months, Unmacht has been dissecting monthly PPM, especially the wars of attrition between Country stations where the bigger cume guarantees nothing. Nashville’s gold-based WSM-FM (95.5 Nash Icon) modestly edges its two younger/hotter Country rivals in cume, but share isn’t even close.

Looking at cume vs. share makes one reexamine the format wisdom of the PPM metered ratings measurement era: “PPM loves cume! Program for cume!” And looking through the cume rankings, what you see is a lot of second CHRs and Hot AC radio stations with not much to show beyond, well, cume. “Big Hits + Big Cume” works for some stations, but not all of them. And programming for eight minutes of listening at a time gets you, well, eight minutes of listening.

Looking more often at cume also further debunks the notion that Urban and Spanish-language radio simply can’t expect big shares in a cume-driven PPM world. WWPR (Power 105) New York, a 3.9 share station this month, is sixth in cume. Rival WQHT (Hot 97) is eighth in cume, with a 3.0 share. These are not radio stations that nobody listens to, and there are other Urban stations whose cume rank outperform their shares.

The concept of Urban as a micro-niche that was finally being reported accurately by PPM is one that a dismaying number of non-Urban broadcasters were willing to accept.

There’s no mockery intended of those stations that have big reach that doesn’t translate to higher shares. Maybe we should look at them differently. They do have big brands and, in the parlance of real estate, “good bones.” There’s no programmer who wouldn’t gladly accept a new assignment at such a station.

I’ve never heard any PD with a low share blithely quote me a cume story. They’re working hard to convert those listeners. They regard their issues on the station level as fixable, and if they don’t, the next occupant of the office does. PDs who need to convert cume to share have a mission, and a starting place. And so does radio overall. Because people want to like us.

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Profile photo of Sean Ross
Sean Ross is author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and VP of music and programming of Edison Research.

2 Comments

  1. Profile photo of fmdj1


    From experience, one area where cume can honestly mean more than share is public radio. When a public radio station does appointment-type programming with changing formats, by nature they are not spending as much time on TSL because a certain switch in audience is to be expected. Of course, the goal of many public radio stations is to serve under-served communities, so cume can actually represent a better win than share depending on the format(s). This also can help the station in fundraising, both because there is a larger audience to make an appeal to during pledge drives, and because underwriting can be tailored to specific audiences, even giving the station the ability to sell a sort of faux-multi-station package for underwriters who want to reach multiple audiences. The largest disadvantage, however, is for stations that wish to secure CPB grant money as it relies on a more traditional model of AQH in judging the success of a station, pushing many of those stations towards single-format, TSL driven programming decisions.

  2. Profile photo of Chris Huff


    In some countries, cume does take precedence. In over-radioed Italy for example, GfK’s RadioMonitor ratings publish AQH listeners as an afterthought to the primary “total listeners” metric. And prior to TNS taking over the ratings license in Russia, its predecessor COMCON only published reach data for stations.

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