Demand for COVID-19 news in March set off wild swings in listener behavior

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In Nielsen Audio’s March 2020 PPM survey, ratings of Persons Using Measured Media, or total market average quarter-hours, went on a rollercoaster ride.

The first two weeks of the March survey reported total market listening ratings above average from the February 2020 survey in most of the 45 metro areas. During the third and fourth weeks of the 28-day ratings period, PUMM reversed course and declined by double digits.

Overall, PUMM decreased between 6% and 15% from February to March for the 45 metro areas. PUMMs declined the most in markets on the East and West Coasts; markets in the middle of the country declined the least.

If Nielsen Audio’s annual Holiday survey covering most of December typically shows your public radio station losing its share of market listening while maintaining its AQH Persons due to an increase in PUMM, the March 2020 survey likely shows your station with flat or declining AQH Persons yet gaining in its share of market listening. While local events such as hurricanes have led to steep declines in individual markets before, we’ve never seen such a precise adjustment across all PPM markets.

Here are some highlights of what the March survey shows about listening in PPM markets:

Most news and hybrid-format stations gained share in March, but their AQH Persons declined during week 4.

When looking at 59 public radio news or news/music stations in the top 45 nonembedded PPM metros for March 2020, 48 of the 59 stations saw their AQH Share increase over February. At a factor of almost four-to-one, 47 of these stations set or matched their best share for the winter quarter in March; nine stations matched or recorded their lowest share of the quarter. 

But that’s AQH Share. What happened to AQH Persons or actual listening?

More than half of these news and hybrid stations (33 of 59) saw their AQH Persons increase from the February 2020 survey. For 23 of these stations, March was their highest month of listening for the winter quarter; only 15 had their lowest month of listening for winter. The fourth week of the March 2020 survey (March 19–25) was when most of the decline for news and news-hybrid stations occurred. Of the many news stations with exceptional performance during this survey period, I’d spotlight Baltimore’s WYPR-FM, which grew its AQH Persons each and every week of March 2020.

Listening behavior transformed before our eyes.

The first two weeks of the March 2020 survey represent listening from Feb. 27 to March 11. By most accounts, this was the “calm before the storm” of coronavirus. For residents in many cities, news stations went from being a preferred listening choice to a needed source of news and information; the increased demand for news drove AQH listening up. The last two weeks of March represent the dates of March 12–25, a period in which radio listening declined overall. This occurred as many listeners changed their work patterns and spent less time in cars. Many public radio news stations continued to increase their estimated AQH Persons listening; those that declined in AQH Persons continued to increase their AQH Share due to declining PUMM ratings in their local markets.

Public radio music stations had mixed results for March 2020.

Out of 12 Triple A stations tracked by Nielsen’s PPMs, six had their best survey of the winter quarter in March. Pittsburgh’s WYEP-FM, for example, had its best share in March and saw no decline in AQH Persons, while Boston’s WERS-FM increased its AQH Persons each week of the month. Out of 12 jazz stations, five had their best winter month in March, while two had their worst.  Chicago’s WDCB-FM increased both its share and Average Persons week by week in March. Out of 24 classical stations, seven had their best winter month in March, while eight had their worst.  KING-FM in Seattle and WETA-FM in Washington, D.C., both finished the March 2020 survey with more estimated AQH Persons in Week 4 than in any other week in the survey.

Evaluating the impact of changes in the news cycle

The short-term changes in listening behavior by audiences of all stations and formats tell programmers and content directors a lot about how their listeners manage major shifts in a news cycle such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Not all news stations went up, and not all music stations went down. For news stations that did not go up, why? And for music stations that did go up, why? 

Long-term ratings performance says a lot about a station. At the same time, short-term behavioral changes by a station’s listeners have been minimally impacted by the sample turning over; they provide a close-up view of how this sample of listeners dealt with their changing needs.

Looking only at top-line month-over-month data, it may appear that nothing significant happened. To get the complete picture of how radio listening changed for any station, you must first track that station’s AQH Persons to see whether the average audience was up, flat or down. Next, look at the station’s AQH Share for perspective against the market. Third, look at a station’s Average Weekly Cume; this will tell you whether the AQH changes resulted from unique listeners coming or going. Finally, look at changes in the station’s Average Weekly Time Spent Listening, but always in the context of Cume.

The RRC has only begun helping public radio stations access the valuable lessons and stories contained in the March 2020 PPM survey. It is unlike anything we have ever seen before. The big story for next month’s April survey will be whether local radio listening “flattens the curve” and PUMM returns to more normal listening levels.

As manager of PPM Client Services for Radio Research Consortium, Dave Sullivan assists noncommercial radio stations with the acquisition and analysis of Nielsen’s (formerly Arbitron) PPM data. Sullivan worked at Arbitron as a senior training specialist from 2000 to 2007. His background in radio also includes experience in sales and underwriting with WWMX-FM and WBAL-AM in Baltimore and WTMD-FM in Towson, Md. He has also worked as an audio engineer and play-by-play announcer for several stations.  

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