Ross On RadioInsight: A New, National Look at Formats

Selena Gomez Kill Em With Kindness InterscopeThe national share of listening to Country radio is nearly 15% and more than 6-1/2 shares ahead of the next music format, Mainstream Top 40. Classic Hits, the format that took possession of acts such as Fleetwood Mac and Billy Joel from Adult Contemporary, has become a bigger format than AC. News/Talk radio, despite a seeming free-fall in recent years, continues to command double-digit listening, even ahead of this year’s election.

Those are just a few headlines from a special look at national format ratings from the fall 2015 Nielsen survey. Nielsen releases its own format headlines based on its monthly PPM data in top 50 markets as well as through its “Audio Today” reports, some of which we analyzed last fall. Those are based on self-reported formats from stations’ info packets (occasionally at odds with what a station is considered to be by the programming community, or just not updated), as well as more granular format groupings.

Like the Billboard/Airplay Monitor data of two decades ago, this is a custom run (with Nielsen’s kind assistance) to see what the format landscape would look like with our designations and updates for certain stations. The format shares reflect listening for fall 2015 in all market sizes. And some format rankings are definitely different from the prominence of those formats in the music/radio trade community.

Format Share
Country 14.8
Mainstream Top 40 8.2
Classic Hits 7.9
Adult Contemporary 7.6
Classic Rock 6.6
Christian 6.3
Spanish Language 6.3
Urban AC 5.3
Hot AC / Adult CHR 5.2
Hip-Hop/R&B/Urban 4.9
Sports 4.0
Album/Active Rock 3.3
Alternative / AAA 3.0
Rhythmic Top 40 2.0
Classical 1.4
Miscellaneous 1.2
Adult Standards /Easy 0.6
Jazz / Smooth Jazz 0.3


If we combine some formats (e.g., rhythmic and mainstream top 40) to reflect the format landscape when we first began calculating these numbers—reflecting the less-fragmented days when the first Billboard numbers were calculated—they look like this. (The Billboard data reflects only continuous measurement markets, roughly the top 100, and doesn’t trend perfectly for Country, with its stronghold in markets 100+, but looks very similar in many cases.)

Format 2016 Share 2001 Share
News / Talk/ Sports 16.8 16.4
Country 14.8 8.7
AC / Hot AC 12.8 12.9
Top 40 10.2 9.7
Urban 10.2 13.1
Classic Hits 7.9 5.5
Classic Rock 6.6 6.1
Christian 6.3 2.7
Spanish Language 6.3 7.2
Current Rock 6.3 9.9
Classical 1.4 1.6
Miscellaneous 1.2
Adult Standards / Easy 0.6 2.1
Jazz / Smooth Jazz 0.3 2.9


Some thoughts prompted by the above:

News/Talk: The share for spoken-word radio has remained remarkably similar over the years. The difference is that four of those shares are now going to all-sports formats, which have in many ways become the FM entertainment talk formats for younger men that talk broadcasters were hoping to develop. The heavily publicized unraveling of a handful of heritage AMs in 2014-15 had the effect of casting shadows on an entire format. This year’s presidential election will quiet concerns about N/T for a while, although it still has issues of demography, podcasting, and the travails of AM to deal with.

Country: Its current numbers, while not perfectly trackable to the ‘90s/’00s data, are most comparable to the format during its early ‘90s Garth Brooks-era boom (the last time in which younger listeners swelled the audience numbers). Programmers worry about a preponderance of ballads and whether the younger listeners will leave again (or be chased away). But the format’s in a good place now. And if the community stopped resisting fragmentation, new approaches (either older or younger) could help increase Country’s numbers further.

Neither Mainstream Top 40 nor Adult Contemporary are anywhere near the numbers they sported in the mid-‘80s before Adult Top 40/Hot AC took hold as a separate approach, but Top 40 remains healthy. And if you consider the musical closeness between Top 40, Hot AC, and Mainstream AC these days, the combined formats represent 21 shares worth of exposure for any song that takes hold at all three.

Classic Hits benefits here from the inclusion of some Bob- and Jack-like stations that still self-report as Adult Hits as well as that handful of stations that still self-identify as Oldies. But the differences between Adult Hits and the “Greatest Hits” formats are decreasing these days, especially as the latter pushes into the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. And the ability of Classic Hits to avoid following Smooth Jazz or instrumental Easy Listening off the face of the earth (as it looked like it might in the mid-‘00s) is remarkable.

Christian radio has benefitted from the very public growth of Christian AC in the PPM era. The inclusion of non-commercial outlets, including the K-Love network, put many of those stations front-and-center for other broadcasters for the first time.

Urban radio, looked at as a whole, remains formidable. It also benefits significantly from the reclassification of some large-market stations from Rhythmic Top 40 to Hip-Hop/R&B. The 2001 numbers reflect a time when Hip-Hop was at its radio apex, and Mainstream Top 40 had product concerns. It also reflects a time when many markets had two Hip-Hop/R&B stations and two Urban ACs. Whatever the impact of PPM on Urban, it is true now that there is more enthusiasm about current product and a renewed station building boom.

In the industry now, it feels like a much healthier time for Alternative Rock than Active/Mainstream Rock stations, especially when you consider optimism about current product. In fact, Active/Mainstream shares are still slightly higher than Alternative shares. They’ve just fallen from a much greater perch. Alternative only became a 4-share format nationally at the height of the mid-‘90s New Rock miracle. And the combined numbers for both formats and Triple-A are still less than those posted by Classic Rock.

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