Crowded Fields: Radio Formats vie for Summer Listeners

Crowded Fields: Radio Formats vie for Summer Listeners

Although American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win is now in the rearview mirror, the race for radio’s summer format winner is just entering the first turn. Last month we reported that Hot Adult Contemporary (AC) and Country were sticking their noses into the race, and with the release of Nielsen’s May portable people meter (PPM) results, we see that the field of contenders has gotten even more crowded.

This annual “race” tracks the fortunes of major radio formats as warm weather months hit the calendar. When the June, July and August PPM results roll out, we identify the winner based on the amount of audience growth each format registers during the summer compared with the first five months of the year. And unlike American Pharoah’s dominating performance, none of our past summer winners have been able to repeat, let alone take three in a row: Hot AC (won in 2011), Pop Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) (2012), Country (2013) and Classic Hits (2014).

What’s more, each month in 2015 to date has seen a different set of headlines surrounding the formats that are gaining traction heading into the summer. In March, Pop CHR and Classic Rock made significant moves, while Hot AC and Country turned heads in the grandstand last month. Now, two more formats have joined the field: Urban Contemporary and Classic Hits.

In May, Urban Contemporary re-wrote the record books for a second consecutive month, following up on a strong performance in April. It’s May share of audiences aged 6 and older (3.6%), 18-34 (6.6%) and 25-54 (4.1%) were all new highs under PPM measurement. Simply put, the last year-and-a-half has been the best stretch we’ve seen yet for Urban Contemporary, and we’re now tracking the format as a contender in the race for this summer’s crown. Interestingly, this success – as noted last month – is not tied to the classic hip-hop trend that arrived on the scene in the fall. That’s because only two stations that have adopted that format recently are currently classified as Urban Contemporary.

Urban Contemporary May Listening Trends

Urban Contemporary May-12 May-13 May-14 May-15
Persons 6+ 2.8% 2.9% 3.1% 3.6%*
Persons 18-34 5.0% 5.3% 5.8% 6.6%*
Persons 25-54 3.0% 3.1% 3.4% 4.1%*
*New record.
Source: Nielsen

Last year, Classic Hits quietly came on strong down the stretch and claimed the distinction of top summer format, growing its share of audience by 10% over the summer months. This time around, it’s off to a similar start and gained ground in May. The 6+ audience shares trended 5.0%-5.3% from April to May, 18-34 shares increased from 3.2% to 3.4% and with listeners aged 25-to-54 the trend was 4.1%-4.5%. All of these results are on par with or slightly ahead of where the format sat a year ago, putting Classic Hits squarely into the race this summer.

For Pop CHR, despite cooling a bit in May, the 2012 summer format winner is still setting a faster pace this year than any of the last four.

Pop CHR May Listening Trends

Pop CHR May-12 May-13 May-14 May-15
Persons 6+ 8.5% 8.3% 8.0% 8.4%
Persons 18-34 12.8% 12.5% 11.8% 12.6%
Persons 25-54 8.6% 8.7% 8.7% 9.1%
Source: Nielsen

Turning our attention to Country (the 2013 champion), the seasonal warm weather growth trend continued in May, marking the third straight month of growth across all three of the listener groups we profile. And similar to April’s results, the May numbers continue to pace ahead of 2012 and 2013, but still lag behind last year’s record-setting run.

Country May Listening Trends

Country May-12 May-13 May-14 May-15
Persons 6+ 7.3% 7.9% 8.4% 8.0%
Persons 18-34 8.4% 9.2% 10.2% 9.3%
Persons 25-54 7.0% 7.6% 8.1% 7.8%
Source: Nielsen

Country’s 8.0% share among all listeners 6+ is the first time the format has been back above an 8-share since October 2014. The most recent three-month trend has seen Country grow 7.6%-7.8%-8.0%. The 18-34 audience (8.5%-9.0%-9.3%) and 25-54 audience (7.4%-7.6%-7.8%) have also followed suit, with the growth among younger listeners being the most dramatic.

And lastly, looking outside of the annual format of the summer consideration, Sports radio is continuing its own annual tradition, scoring higher audience shares in May as a result of major league baseball. In fact, this month’s growth trend is nearly identical to a year ago for listeners 6+ (going 4.4%-4.7% from April to May) and 18-34 (3.3%-3.6%), and it’s exactly identical to 2014’s results with audiences 25-to-54 (4.8%-5.3%). From here, Sports listening isn’t likely to peak until the fall when football season kicks off.

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

Persons 6+ Adults 18-34 Adults 25-54
News/Talk (8.8%) Pop CHR (12.6%) Pop CHR (9.1%)
Pop CHR (8.4%) Country (9.2%) Country (7.8%)
Country (8.0%) Hot AC (7.6%) Hot AC (7.3%)
AC (7.4%) Urban Contemporary (6.6%) AC (7.2%)
Hot AC (6.7%) AC (6.3%) News/Talk (6.3%)
PPM—Portable people meter. CHR—Contemporary Hit Radio. AC—Adult Contemporary.
Source: Nielsen


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.