How can it be that in the midst of a struggling economy and a critical Presidential election that News and News/Talk stations are losing listeners?
How can it be that a format thought to be the future of local radio, the format that offers the most irreplaceable product has the worst momentum of any major format?
The latest Harker Research Format Momentum Analysis shows that large numbers of listeners have abandoned News and News/Talk radio over the past year, a trend that continues from last year.
As we explained in last year's analysis:
We determine momentum by looking at the stations that have been in a format for at least a year and see if each station is higher or lower than the previous year.
If a majority of stations are higher than last year, the format has positive momentum. If the majority of stations are lower, the format has negative momentum.
Only 40% of News and News/Talk stations in PPM markets are ahead of where they were in 2011. The majority of stations have lost share in the past year.
To put that into perspective, the momentum of News and News/Talk is more negative than virtually every music format we track.
Our first level analysis combines News, News/Talk, and NPR stations, but the losses are across the board. When we look at the performance of each format, it doesn't look much better.
More troubling is the fact that these latest declines continue a trend we first noted last Fall.
In our 2011 analysis we found that 62% of News/Talk stations had lost share compared to 2010.Today 58% of News/Talk stations are lower than they were in 2011.
As bad as that looks, News stations are in worse shape than News/Talk stations. Three-quarters are lower than they were last year. (Keep in mind there are few pure News stations.)
Even NPR stations show little momentum. Only 43% are ahead of where they were a year ago.
Median shares also suggest weakness in the formats.
Median share is the "mid-pack" share of the format. Half the stations have a higher share, half a lower share.
Using median rather than average to assess the over-all performance of a format is more useful because it isn’t unduly influenced by stations that do much better than most other stations in the format. (Think of what stations like WTOP or WLW do to an average.)
NPR has a median share of 2.8, essentially unchanged from 2011. In contrast, News/Talk’s median has declined 3.3 to 3.0, a 9% decline. News has declined by a third, but again, there aren’t many all news stations.
The across-the-board declines raise all sorts of questions.
Critics will claim that the declines are a consequence of polarizing conservative talk, but how does one then explain NPR’s lack of gains?
If that were the case, wouldn’t NPR be a natural alternative? Shouldn’t NPR stations move in the opposite direction of conservative talk, not in lock-step?
As the economy struggles, and we move closer to the Presidential election, shouldn't the audience for News and News/Talk be growing, not declining?
That's what we found in early 2008 going into the last Presidential election in our final diary-based analysis. It showed a format with strong positive momentum.
Well over half of News/Talk radio stations in the top 50 markets were ahead of their 2007 numbers. Of course that analysis was made when radio was measured using diaries.
Could there be something about the way PPM measures radio that’s behind the downward trend?
Consider that the formats with the greatest momentum in 2012 are Urban Contemporary and Urban AC. Urban gainers outnumber losers by nearly a 3:1 margin.
Spanish stations are on a roll, as well.
Share is a zero-sum game. For a format to grow, some other format has to lose.
What does all this say about the future of News and News/Talk on the radio?
Now that Arbitron restricts the use of non-client ratings, we can no longer conduct thorough Format Momentum Analyses like this. It will become increasingly difficult to track formats and see what's going on.
It could not come at a worse time for News and News/Talk radio stations.