By Phil Valentine
Talk Show Host
NASHVILLE — The talk radio world has been holding its collective breath as March numbers come in. I had to talk several colleagues off the ledge who thought ratings were going to take a nose dive. After all, they said, nobody’s in their cars. They’re all at home. Drive time, especially, is going to take a beating, I was told.
I had to explain that ratings come from the universe of people who are listening to the radio, not the population at large. Even if that universe is smaller, talk radio’s numbers should be higher, not lower. If you’re listening to the radio these days, odds are you’re listening for information and perspective. That’s where talk radio shines.
My afternoon show would be susceptible to cratering if the theory of fewer listeners held true. Instead, we jumped from a 12.1 in February to a 14.8 with our target demo of men 25-54, strengthening our #1 position. Most of the rest of the station saw a nice bump too. Same with all adults 25-54 where we moved back into second place from a 7.9 share in February to a 9.6 share in March.
What’s really interesting is our “universe” in PM drive only shrank 4% overall with listeners 6+. Even more interesting is our weekly cume with adults and men 25-54 actually went up. So did our time spent listening, which is understandable. If people are listening, they’re primarily listening from home without the constraints of a commute. This same scenario is being replicated on talk stations in many places all across the country. If they’re listening at home it probably means more people are moving their listening to the Internet rather than listening to the on-air signal.
The big question is, if more people are listening online are we getting credit for it? I put that question to the folks at Nielsen and this is what they told me. They said that listening online is included in the total radio numbers reported by Nielsen. In the PPM markets, the online streams have to be encoded in order to get credit. Many stations choose to combine the streaming audience with the on-air audience through what they call at Nielsen “Total Line Reporting.” They tell me even if the online stream is reported as a stand-alone and not combined with over-the-air, they still capture any listening to the stream. That online number is then rolled into the total. It sounds like from what they told me that even if you don’t encode your online signal you still get at least partial credit.
That’s probably why so many talk stations are spiking in the March numbers. Nielsen shared with me some interesting statistics. March online listening of all-news was up in March 112% with adults 25-54 compared to February. Your listeners didn’t go away, they just switched modes of listening. News/talk listening for that demo was up 20% online. This is where it gets really interesting. With adults 18-34, online listening to all-news was up 161%! For news/talk in that demo it was up 19%.
We all know this is where everything is going. We’re moving slowly but surely away from tower power to a place where your online presence is king. The coronavirus crisis just accelerated that process by possibly several years. And don’t expect this new habit to go away with the economy opening up. Many businesses will decide to keep some of their employees operating out of their homes. I believe the economy will be leaner and more efficient post-COVID-19. That means a fundamental shift in radio habits.
What many radio stations have not yet realized is there’s no difference between an online listener and an over-the-air listener. They treat them differently with parallel stopsets for commercials. The on-air listener hears different commercials from the online listener. Why? I couldn’t tell you, other than some companies see it as a new revenue stream. It’s actually cannibalizing the revenue stream they already have. If what Nielsen says is true, that online listening is rolled into the total ratings, then stations are selling a separate product that doesn’t really exist. Covering up on-air spots with online spots only waters down the impact for both sponsors. Sponsors buy based on results. If results aren’t there, they both go away.
Too many stations act as if on-air listening and online listening are somehow different. They’re not. I once held up my phone to a former program director and asked him what it was. “A phone?” he asked. “A radio,” I said. But this radio has many advantages over the old one. On this radio we can push alerts and notifications, we can solicit feedback, and we can interact like never before.
The explosion in that 18-34 demo looking for information means we in talk radio have some new audience members listening on this new radio. They don’t use their radio like the older demo uses conventional radio. They expect more content. They want to hear that great interview again in a podcast. They want to interact with you on social media. They’ve come to you in this time of crisis because you provide much-needed information. Now is the time to capitalize on that and make your talk station their new normal.
Phil Valentine is afternoon drive host at Cumulus Media’s WWTN-FM, Nashville. He hosts the podcast, “I’m Calling Bovine Scatology,” co-hosts “The PodGOATS” podcast and is a writer and filmmaker. He can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.