American life looking more normal is proving to be a boost for radio listening. “From a weekly reach perspective, audience levels are at their highest levels in 15 months,” said Nielsen VP of Audience Insights Jon Miller. The ratings company says radio in PPM-measured markets reached 122.1 million consumers during May, an eight percent increase from a year ago and the biggest number since March 2020.
More vaccines in Americans’ arms and a return to activities sidelined since the arrival of COVID could not have come at a better time. May is the biggest month for radio listening. Miller said during a webinar Wednesday that radio’s average quarter-hour (AQH) audience peaked at 7.8 million people in PPM markets in May 2021. That was a 20% increase from a year ago.
The PPM market data shows the gains were across all age and ethnic demos, said Miller. “This year we are anywhere from six to eight percent above where we were last year,” he said. The data shows slightly larger increases among younger listeners.
In a signal that listening is similar to pre-pandemic, Nielsen said in the PPM markets the format share trends are showing familiar themes seen through the years with the ebbs and flows of the news cycle and sports calendar reflected in radio listening.
News-Talk is the top format in PPM markets and that remained the case in May, although its 12.6% share was a decline from January when news events pushed the format up to a 15.2% share.
In other cases, some formats are riding a wave. The Urban AC/R&B format’s share in May hit 4.9%. “It is having some of the biggest months in many years,” said Miller.
In the Continuous Diary Measurement (CDM) markets, Miller said the data shows a “very stable” performance for radio which he attributes to Nielsen’s aggregating data from three months. “The range from the high point to the low point is not that big,” he said. “It’s been very consistent over the last 16-books.”
Radio listening often slips during the summer as regular commuting habits are disrupted by vacations and school break. Miller said it is tough to predict what will happen in 2021. “This summer may be a little softer than May because that’s what normally happens, but it’s been hard to predict what’s going to happen during this pandemic and the recovery.” Miller pointed out that last fall is when Nielsen started to see some gains in radio listening, and that may happen again this year.
Arbitron Senior VP Bill Rose said a lot could also depend on what happens with the pandemic itself, as vaccinations slow and a coronavirus variant spreads.
The Media Rating Council determined that Nielsen understated local TV audience estimates during the pandemic. Rose told Nielsen clients Wednesday that similar problems were not found in radio’s PPM and diary markets. For radio a quarter of PPM recruitment is done in-person, except in Houston where most panelists are recruited by Nielsen reps going door-to-door to people’s homes.
“The measurement processes were consistent,” said Rose. “In fact, we were remarkably successful having panelists in PPM continue to be part of the panel. If anything, they cooperated a little bit better during the peak of COVID.”