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How Formats Looked Then … And Now

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Spoken word radio, despite the much-reported travails of the News/Talk format, still commands roughly the audience share it did in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, or perhaps even more.

Top 40 radio has long rebounded from its mid-‘90s nadir, but has never equaled its numbers from the late ‘80s.

Spanish-language radio in its various forms is actually larger in Nielsen’s PPM measurement than it was during its late ‘90s/early ‘00s growth spurt in large- and medium diary markets, but Mainstream/Active Rock radio commands less than a third of the share it did at its peak.

Those are some of the trends that emerge when you compare the national format ratings calculated by Arbitron between 1989-2001, published at the time by Billboard and its radio business publication, Airplay Monitor, with the various national calculations available from Nielsen today. While those differing sets of numbers don’t offer an exact comparison, they do tell intriguing stories about the arcs of various formats, then and now.

During the ‘90s, Billboard classified stations in Arbitron’s nearly 100 continuous measurement markets, serving as an arbiter for format designations. Those format trends, reviewed here in a previous article, ended in 2001, but the current Nielsen Audio provides different format reports—its 2013 Radio Today calculation of all markets (diary and PPM), and VP/audience insight Jon Miller’s monthly look at PPM format rankings.

Nielsen’s current calculations are based on self-reported formats and reflect the wide variety of ways that stations self-identify (e.g., there are separate numbers for stations that identify as both Christian Adult Contemporary and Contemporary Christian). We’ve crunched those numbers together to replicate the broader format communities seen in our ‘90s calculations. The 2015 PPM number seen here reflects an average of January-September listening.

Despite the differences, many of the format trends between 1989 and 2001 are telling when looking at the strength of formats now, even when comparisons aren’t exact. And even the contrasts that reflect differing computations show how a format’s health is due in large part to how we choose to calculate it. During the ‘90s, it was not unusual to see national shares shift with musical growth or the number of available stations. While diary methodology informed the ‘90s format trends, especially for AC, the tiered rollout of PPM from market-to-market became a variable unto itself.

Here’s how the formats trended in three year intervals between 1989 and 2001, compared with recent numbers provided by Arbitron’s Miller. All numbers are based on year-long averages, except the 2015 PPM number based on a January-September average.

Adult Contemporary began the ‘90s as the highest-rated format nationally, driven in part by the number of available stations between Mainstream AC and Hot AC/Adult Top 40. Even as Mainstream AC stations publicly struggle to modernize, the combined numbers are the strongest in more than 20 years, thanks to the recent success of Adult Top 40.

Album Rock, including successors such as Active Rock, was almost a double-digit format when our measurement started, and would actually become one briefly, peaking at a 10.2 share in the summer of 1991. Album Rock began a steady decline around 1994, both as a result of Alternative’s grunge-era rise, but also because rock radio lost its New York outlet, and other major stations evolved to Classic Rock. While much publicity has been given to once-significant formats like Easy Listening and Smooth Jazz that have virtually ceased to exist, the current rock numbers are also shocking in light of its former strength.

Alternative stations have finally eclipsed their Album/Active rivals, at least in PPM, something they weren’t able to do even during the “new rock revolution” of the mid-‘90s. Although Alternative sometimes feels like it is headed for the niche status it held in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s—playing indie rock, not guitar rock, and increasingly heard on FM translators—its current numbers are closer to the mid-‘90s peak than to its truly miniscule pre-Nirvana numbers.

Classic Rock had just overtaken the Album Rock format from which it splintered when the Billboard numbers ended in 2001. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see two Classic Rock stations in a major market. Despite concerns about an aging audience, the growth of the “Greatest Hits” and Adult Hits formats, and fewer market battles, Classic Rock remains healthy entering its fourth decade with ratings comparable to its ‘90s levels.

Country, after its phenomenal early ‘90s growth, fell off in the second half of the decade, driven by the loss (or abdication) of the young audience, fewer stations (partially as a result of consolidation), and the absence of a major New York outlet. Country is the format where direct comparisons are most difficult—if you include the smallest markets, as the Radio Today report does, it favors the format. In

PPM, despite the current national excitement about the format, its number (based roughly on the top 50 markets) is still short of even its pre-Garth Brooks late ‘80s number.

News/Talk/Sports – Despite the very visible ratings declines of a handful of prominent News/Talk outlets in recent years, one could say that the audience for speech-based radio hasn’t been as much diminished as redistributed. Sports stations were already on the radar in 1989, but have undergone an FM building boom in the last decade. Those, along with the public radio outlets that would not have been part of the Arbitron ‘90s numbers, have kept the combined spoken word formats as the leaders they were through most of the ‘90s.

Oldies stations don’t call themselves “oldies” anymore, but we’ve kept that designation for the purposes of direct comparison with the format as it exists today—stations usually reported to Nielsen as “Classic Hits” and referred to on the air as “Greatest Hits.” The advent of PPM gave the format a much needed boost in the late ‘00s at a time when many operators were ready to abandon it altogether. So did the advent of Adult Hits—a format that is increasingly harder to distinguish from Oldies in era. Even though some major-markets still have no “Greatest Hits” station, the format is stronger in both PPM and combined PPM/diary markets than ever.

R&B, including both Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop stations and Urban AC, is also a difficult direct comparison because the ‘90s numbers include a number of prominent major-market stations that still self-identify as Rhythmic Top 40. If stations like KMEL San Francisco and WPGC Washington were included, R&B’s national number today would be higher. That said, Urban stations were visibly impacted by the advent of PPM, and it has been almost impossible to separate methodology and sample collection from those format trends that were also taking place at the time.

As previously noted, it was easy to see R&B radio explode in the ‘90s based on a growing number of stations, an expanding number of subformats, and the musical dominance of Hip-Hop. That dynamic growth rebuts the oft-repeated contention that PPM methodology had “corrected” previously exaggerated listening levels; why wouldn’t that “exaggerated” number have been consistently huge throughout? In recent years, Mainstream R&B has experienced a mini-building boom in major-markets, while artists like Drake, the Weeknd, and Fetty Wap have returned its music to pop culture prominence. Not insignificantly, Miller’s monthly PPM reports have frequently highlighted growth in the Mainstream R&B format.

Religious – This designation includes most religious-based formats, but particularly reflects the growth of Contemporary Christian in the ‘00s as well as the inclusion of noncommercial outlets. During that era, the programming distinction between commercial and non-comm Christian ACs narrowed, and PPM showed that both could be significant players in major markets.

Spanish-Language Radio’s numbers reflect Spanish Contemporary, Regional Mexican outlets and the gold-based Adult Hits stations that came into being during the last decade. Again, there are significant differences in Nielsen’s overall and PPM-only numbers that make it hard to truly parse the format’s post-PPM strength. What can be said is that in the diary era, it was typical to see several Spanish-language stations near the top of any market. That is a less common sight in PPM.

Top 40’s numbers here include both Mainstream and Rhythmic outlets—a distinction that has worn down in recent years. The reemergence of Top 40 as an all-ages format and cultural driver has been one of the key radio stories of the last five years. By either measurement, Top 40 is more successful now than at any time during the ‘90s, or even during its 1998-2000 rebound. It is not, however, comparable with its 1989 numbers, at a time when the format was already thought to be declining.

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

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