The Last 45 Days – What Radio Has Learned

Remember the good old days? You know, 3-4 months ago? It seems like decades, doesn’t it? Yet in just the last 45 days or so, the radio world has turned upside down. It’s a whole new normal.

A couple of weeks ago, Ken Benson, Dave Denes and I hosted a free webinar that shared ideas, insight, and advice for programing and personalities during this trying time. You can watch the webinar on-demand (free) here. But in the two short weeks since that webinar, the story has continued to evolve:

  • About a dozen stations (as of this writing) in the U.S. have gone off the air, devastated by the decline in ad revenue. One station owner told me January and February were the best months in the company’s history. Now they’re worried about staying on the air through this summer.
  • Broadcasters continue to terminate, furlough and slash budgets, operating on a shoestring.
  • March PPM ratings have been released, revealing early listening trends through the first few weeks of audience disruption.

Lessons In The New Normal

So what have we learned? Plenty.

And what should stations do now? Adjust.

I won’t even wade into the quagmire of how to replace some of the revenue lost. But let’s examine what’s happening in programming and personality radio. Here are my early takeaways from 45 days of the new normal.

PPM Ratings: It’s Not Pretty

In spite of industry reports showing radio consumption higher in the first few weeks of stay-at-home, it’s not true. It’s not even logical. Think about it. Radio is most listened to in the car, followed by at work. At-home listening is a distant third. And a growing number of households have no traditional radios.

Yes, entertainment consumption is up. Nielsen released a media study that shows how consumers are spending their time now:

But that rising tide is not lifting all boats.

There’s no way radio listening is up, and we said as much in the New Normal webinar. It’s true that streaming AM & FM stations (online, apps and smart speaker usage) has increased. But that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to over-the-air listening that has been lost.

March ratings information has come in for PPM markets, and listening is down significantly. In some markets, AQH is off by nearly 40%. Here are some highlights:

  • Cume is lower for almost all stations that rely on a music base. CHR cume is off most, which makes sense because they typically have the largest cume to lose. Some CHR stations are down 45%. I know of one station that has lost nearly 60%of their cumulative audience.
  • As a result of lower cume, TSL for many music-oriented stations has gone UP. Which makes sense. This is explained in detail here and in The Ratings Game book (attached). As you know, when the cume is down, TSL will naturally go up because the cume decline comes from secondary listeners who aren’t big fans. Fans, on the other hand, continue to come to the station from home…usually drawn because of personalities.
  • Stations with morning shows that rely on personalities are holding up much better. Though their music-based dayparts are down significantly, the morning shows (all talk or mostly talk shows) are actually up in some cases. But most are at least flat.

More Evidence Of The New Normal

While they try to put a happy face on it, research and anecdotal reports support the decline in listening. Nielsen’s study shows streaming higher, but look a little deeper. Here’s how the Public is spending their time at home:

Only 40% are relying on the radio as a source of entertainment at home.

This is supported by anecdotal conversations with about 20 radio stations and morning shows the past two weeks. Personality shows (mostly or all talk) tell me phone response is higher than usual. In a couple of cases, it’s much higher. Most music-oriented shows are starving for reaction.

One show on a music-focused station in a Top 10 market said they had no calls in two days. Ouch.

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However, social media engagement has remained consistent, and in many cases, is higher.

How To Respond: Don’t Freak out

The pandemic has caused a chain reaction that can shake even the strongest programmers to the core. The disruption to listening is unavoidable. When external factors influence listening, smart programmers adjust. But this is anything but typical. There’s no model for responding to this disaster.

First, don’t freak out. And don’t make major changes to your station.

Many PDs see the ratings results and come to two conclusions:

  • TSL is up. The station’s biggest fans are listening more.
  • Morning listening is starting later in the day.

But be very careful in reacting to these apparent trends.

The TSL Increase Is A Mirage

Looking at the ratings, it appears the biggest fans are listening more, and that may be the case in some instances. But this apparent Time Spent Listening growth is misleading.

It appears station TSL is higher because heavier users make up a much larger percentage of the overall AQH than before. Real TSL from those remaining fans has likely increased a bit, but not much.

This metaphor explains it:

  • 10 people are in the grocery store. The average purchase of these 10 shoppers is $100.
  • Total of all purchases is $1,000
  • However, 4 of those shoppers are purchasing only $10. They just happened to stop by.
  • The other 6 shoppers are more intentional. They account for the remaining $960. That’s an average of $160 each for these heavy shoppers.
  • A week later, the four shoppers don’t return, leaving 6 loyal shoppers.
  • They purchase the same amount of products, $960.
  • Total revenue has declined from $1,000 to $960.
  • However, the average purchase is much higher. The average purchase is now $160 per person, rather than $100, because light shoppers have disappeared.
  • On the surface, the assumption is that existing shoppers are purchasing more since the average has increased.
  • But it has not. Heavy shopper behavior is the same. The average is higher in the absence of light shoppers.

That’s what’s happening at radio now. Don’t buy into the false impression of increased TSL. It’s not real.

Don’t Fall For It

In the past two weeks, I’ve talked to many PD’s that are considering making significant changes to music rotations and features on the morning show because of this “evidence”.

But stations that change the sound of the station is likely to disrupt those heavier listeners that seek the station because they love what the station sounds like now. Change could put them in motion. The light cumers are gone. They’re not tuning in at home. Don’t run off the heavy listeners!

For all stations, most remaining listeners are the biggest fans. The more high profile the morning show, the more fans that station is likely to have. That’s why stations relying heavily on personality and talk shows have held up much better so far.

Fans love the station for a reason. Don’t change the essence of the station to try and attract more of the at-home audience.

Having said that, small adjustments are in order:

Nostalgia: Most of us are seeking an emotional connection, familiarity and comfort to relieve stress. That’s why research on streaming the past few weeks shows a major increase in nostalgic songs. This is supported in the Nielsen study as well:


In times of high anxiety, we tend to gravitate toward older, more familiar songs. Radio become even more of an escape than usual.

For music stations, I recommend:

  • Don’t reduce rotation turnover in response to a perception of longer TSL. Play the hits.
  • However, adjust the music mix. Reduce the amount of current music played by introducing virtually no new music. The only new songs I’d consider would have to be huge hits by major artists (as defined by the audience,not the industry).
  • Replacing new music with recurrents and gold.
  • To maintain consistent rotations, increase the number of gold titles to support it.
  • Makes all changes carefully and slowly. Changing it too much will disrupt the remaining audience.
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Morning Show Adjustments

As much as listening location has changed, without a morning commute, listening has time-shifted as well. Listeners are sleeping in a bit longer and not getting around to the radio as early as they were.

This leads to a two logical questions:

  • Should we change the start time of our show?
  • Should we reschedule times of key features?

The answer is no to both.

Since most of remaining listening comes from our biggest fans, why would we disrupt that listening by making changes? Be consistent and ride it out.

A couple of PDs have even suggested reducing exposure of their most popular features. This is exactly the wrong time to remove key reasons that attract audiences!

There is merit to extending the morning show in some cases. Some stations relying on at-work listening are keeping the morning show on until 10. At Jack-FM/Calgary, Matt & Sarah are on until 9 am. At 8:55, they ask the audience if they want them to stay on awhile longer. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Occasionally, they’ll stay on for another hour, sometimes 20 minutes.


  • The stronger the show, the longer they should be on. Elvis Duran has been extending his show for an extra hour. That makes sense. It probably doesn’t make sense for a brand new show.
  • Shows in Stage 3 or higher in the Personality Success Path should consider staying on longer.
  • Do not change scheduled times of important show features.

Finally…Plan For The Future

At some point, we’ll reach the other side of this unusual period. We all look forward to that, of course.

But there’s a good chance radio listening is affected forever. As listeners settle into a new normal, new habits are formed. When life resumes (whenever that is), don’t assume previous habits will return.

Here are three things to do now:

  • I know budgets are tight, but plan now for recruiting listeners back to your stations and shows when the commute resumes.
  • This is a great time to promote key features and a show’s best content on social media. Follow the guidelines here for the best results. You could even steal ratings share.
  • Put more emphasis on personalities and content. What will attract stay-at-home listeners? The music mix? I don’t think so. It’s hard to stand out among all the entertainment options.

Finally, reflect what matters to listeners in your town, on this day, and at this time. If you need some inspiration or ideas, check out the Personality Magnet Show Prep service for daily, updated, curated ideas.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t change much. But adjustments are in order.



Tracy Johnson is President and CEO of the Tracy Johnson Media Group, offering programming & promotion consultation, talent coaching & development and digital strategy consulting. Get more information at or email

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