Each quarter Harker Research tabulates the Arbitron 12+ performances of all stations in the top 50 markets and produces a format report card. Unlike other format analyzes where larger market stations have a disproportionate impact on the results, we examine the performance of each station determining whether the station gained or lost share. We then tally the station count to determine whether more stations within a format gained or lost share. Using this method, we can more clearly assess the health of formats.
We categorize each station into one of 32 different formats and then analyze both individual formats as well as broader formats. For example, we track Hot AC separately from Mainstream and Soft AC in addition to the broader category of all AC stations. We also track both year to year performances in addition to book to book performances. While more commonly reported, book to book changes are not particularly useful in assessing the health of a format. Book to book wobbles tend to cancel each other out revealing no inherent trend. In contrast, year to year comparisons are more likely to indicate whether a format is growing or in decline.
This Winter, one of the biggest success stories was Hot AC. Comparing Winter 2008 to Winter 2007, nearly twice as many Hot AC stations gained share as lost share (60% to 33%). In contrast, Mainstream AC was essentially flat, with 47% gaining while 45% lost share. The challenge of making sense of book to book changes can best be illustrated by the two formats' performances in the Winter book compared to Fall 2007. Two thirds (68%) of Mainstream AC stations declined in the Winter book compared to the Fall book, while 84% of Hot AC stations gained.
One might suspect something ominous is going on with Mainstream AC until one realizes that a high proportion of Mainstream AC stations program Christmas music during the Fall book, and therefore have a Fall spike. All the gains of the Fall book are given back in the Winter, so a high proportion of Mainstream ACs drop in the Winter. A smaller proportion of Hot ACs program Christmas music, so the format tends to contract in the Fall and regain its losses in the Winter.
Most Rock formats struggled to make gains. By a two to one margin, more Active Rock stations lost than gained share (64% to 33%) while Classic Rock fared only slightly better as 50% lost while 37% gained. Country continued to erode. Only 39% of Country stations gained over their Winter 2007 numbers while 54% lost share. A number of high profile stations have dropped Smooth Jazz over the past few months and the Winter book results should heighten concerns over the health of the format. Stations that remain in the format did not fare well. Losers this book out-numbered winners by a two to one margin (57% to 29%).
It was a good book for spoken word. The contentious Presidential primary season may have fueled the gains with 55% of News stations and 50% of News-Talk stations gaining over their Winter 2007 numbers. In the talk category, Sports was a notable exception where only 30% of stations gained share while twice as many (59%) lost share.
Here's how the broad format categories stack up ranked by the percentage of stations that gained share over their Winter 2007 numbers: