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‘Headphone Adjustment’ and Organic Growth Drive 6% Listening Surge In October.

Radio listening in PPM markets experienced a sixth consecutive month of growth during Nielsen’s October survey, with a 6% jump in Average Quarter Hours when compared to September. Two-thirds of the increase (or 4%) came from the implementation of a new way to account for listening that occurs on headphones, known as the “headphone adjustment factor.” The remaining 2% is organic or what Nielsen calls the “fall growth period,” marked by a return to school for many, more cars on the road and the re-emergence of more typical fall lifestyles.

The new data shows a return to more normal listening following three distinct phases since COVID-19 upended daily life in early March: the lockdown months of April and May, the reopening phase in early summer, a period of stability in late summer and now the fall growth period. The October survey, which covers Sept. 10 – Oct. 7, reflects the post-Labor Day period when many schools are in session, more traffic is on the road, and more Americans are working outside the home. “All those things are moving together here to gives us these results,” Nielsen VP of Audience Insights Jon Miller said during a client webinar Tuesday. “We’ve recovered all but 5% of the average audience that radio had in March.”

The impact of the headphone adjustment was greater among certain demos. While all age groups ticked up in October, the largest increase came from persons 35-64.

That 6% jump in persons 6+ put October’s AQH at 95% of March’s level, up from 90% in September.

“The October AQH growth across the PPM markets was a combination of behavioral, or what we call organic growth, along with the headphone adjustment,” Miller explained. The bump from headphone listening is “a one-time trend break.” Future monthly increases will be purely the result of organic listening growth.

The 4% increase was in line with the 2%-5% guidance Nielsen gave when it first revealed plans to better account for the variety of ways that Americans hear AM/FM radio streams.

As Inside Radio reported in early September the company began to adjust upward quarter hour estimates for encoded station streams in the October survey to compensate for headphone listening uncaptured by the PPM. The adjustment is based on data from a survey of 5,000 former PPM panelists. Nielsen earlier said it would introduce the headphone listening adjustment in early 2021. It beat that target date by three months.

Morning Drive Soars By 11%

Broken out by dayparts, the new data shows a continued recovery in drive time listening, as measured by the PPM. Morning drive shot up 11% from September to October to reach 89% of its March listening levels. Importantly, 6% of that was from organic growth, or changes in listening behavior, and 5% from the headphone adjustment. Drilling down into hour-by-hour, the 7am hour grew a sizable 13% in the October survey. A critical hour for morning drive, 7am is the first hour of the day where listening typically spikes. “The fact that 7am is strong is a very positive sign,” Miller said. Listening in the 5am, 6am and 8am hours increased about 10%.

Midday listening in the October PPM survey grew to 96% of its March levels, afternoon drive to 94% and nights to 92%. “Where we see listening increases overall, we’re seeing that headphone is playing a part there,” Miller said.

In other metrics released Tuesday by Nielsen, radio's weekly reach is now 97% of it March level or 120.8 million in the 45 PPM markets. Keep in mind that the cume numbers are unaffected by the headphone adjustment. And 42 of 48 markets have now recovered to 90% or better of their March AQH levels while 15 markets now index at 100% or higher in October compared to March.

The new numbers show stability in listening location. For a third month in a row, 69% of listening occurring out of home and 31% in-home, in line with the ratio back in March. “Out of home is where radio excels. That’s why, as people are more mobile and return to working outside the home, even on a part-time basis, all of those things go into radio listening,” Miller said. “That’s where radio does its best work, reaching people out of home, reaching people in their car.”

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