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Has Pandemic-Related Listening Peaked?

| June 30, 2020

By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor

LOS ANGELES — Radio’s roughly mid-March through June COVID-19 coverage has at least one thing in common with the novel virus itself: More questions are raised about each than we have answers.

In a matter of just several months, the number of Americans who have perished owing to the widespread coronavirus is rapidly hurtling toward 130,000. It is absolutely numbing that some medical experts are now upwardly revising USA fatalities to a quarter of a million by the end of the year, as each new day sets a record for reported cases..

The nation’s unemployment rate has soared to double-digits – those filing for claims continues at a staggering rate. The economy has taken a substantial hit, and millions of Americans continue to institute self-imposed quarantine practices.

Heretofore seldom-used expressions in our country such as “stay-in-place” and “flattening the curve” are recited daily, as have “returning back to normal,” and  adjusting to life in the “new normal.”

Posted here this time last month was our April 2020 ratings overview in which the headline proclaimed it was a survey period “unlike any other.” Within the text, we opined that it, “very well might have been the most anticipated sweep since electronic measurement became radio ratings currency.”

In the electronic-measurement age (PPM), it is extremely significant when stations log sweep-to-sweep increases or decreases in excess of a full-share (6+).

To underscore the genuine rarity of what transpired in the April 2020 survey period, there were nearly four times as many of these swings then as were registered in April 2019. Indexed against April 2020, roughly 70% as many stations notch declines of -1.0 or greater, while only approximately 40% as many stations rack up a +1.0 or more (May 2020 versus April 2020, 6+).

Notwithstanding that “expect the unexpected” has become a multi-level, national mantra, it was a foregone conclusion that news/talk would be the beneficiary of numerous positive spikes. It was, of course, although it seems the listening crescendo to news-formatted operations was reached in March. Results from our May 2020 panel of news stations indicate 87.5% experience some degree of (6+) erosion; May 2020 news/talk (6+) stats are only slightly better, as 76% either regress from April 2020 (65%) or remain unchanged (11%).

That leads us to one of numerous questions regarding the May 2020 sweep.

With no sports activity or play-by-play to help guide them through a 24-hour programming day (NASCAR resumed May 17 and the Preakness was run on June 20), how on earth did three of every four sports talk stations finishing in their respective markets’ top 20 (75%, 6+) manage to record an April 2020 – May 2020 increase (62%) or remain steady (13%)? It’s probably the greatest ratings accomplishment this calendar year, and without question, confirms the “expect the unexpected” line.

Especially for news stations, dramatic listening upticks occurred in March; then even more so for news/talkers in April. Those positive stats though were followed by equally instant/precipitous May drop-offs, so it’s only natural to attempt to isolate the reason(s).

  • Has listener fatigue set in for radio’s coverage of coronavirus, and if so, how quickly?
  • Is the crisis being handled better by other media sources, with radio a secondary or tertiary choice?
  • Are listeners staying with radio, but opting for music on FM as a diversion?
  • Our two-part cume special (posted 6/24 and 6/25) could shed some light on this, but are spoken-word stations being sampled for shorter periods for a COVID-19 snapshot, rather than the full-picture?
  • What can spoken-word programmers in the coronavirus-era do to convert (what in many cases is a decent-size) cume to AQH?
  • With more people staying at home and in-car radio listening correspondingly compromised, how drastically have listening habits/locations to spoken-word stations changed (particularly in drivetimes)?
  • More about actual geography than blue state-versus-red state: Is COVID-19 coverage more welcome in some parts of the country than others?
  • It was ridiculously easy to predict a surge for news and news/talk stations, yet surprising to see such a quick/sharp decline. What’s ahead for June stats? Analogous to predicting virus hot spots: Will numbers skyrocket, plummet, or remain steady?
  • In both cases, we simply don’t know.
  • Survey dates for the May 2020 and June 2020 sweeps were April 23 to May 20, and May 21 to June 17, respectively. The first wave of June 2020 results will be released (Tuesday) July 7.
  • Watch for our four extensive “Takeaways” columns that week and thorough format overviews/scoreboards shortly thereafter.

Now, copious facts, figures, and observations about the past two momentous sweeps in a truly benchmark time in our country’s history.

Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com

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Category: Analysis