The Divergent Paths of Music Radio & Its Listeners

Since 2001 Bridge Ratings has been tracking and trending media consumption. Broadcast radio, internet radio, satellite radio, streaming, social media - it all is part of the daily manner in which audio consumers spend valuable entertainment time.

Traditional radio is no longer the only option.

So why are radio programmers missing the boat and not reflecting the tastes of their audiences.

Much has been writing in recent years about the strengths of traditional AM/FM radio (its reach of 93% of the population) and its weakness (annual time-spent listening reductions).

Traditional radio’s music exposure structures no longer align with audience need.
— Dave Van Dyke, President Bridge Ratings

For many, music radio these days still uses structural exposure playbooks from the 1970s.

What's wrong with that?

Music radio song category structures and exposures no longer align with how the audience consumes music and in our latest findings here at Bridge Ratings, we've discovered that passion for music radio is slipping for 75% of the four major music formats we analyzed: Top 40 (CHR), Country, Urban Contemporary and Alternative.

Reduction in passion for music radio doesn't necessarily mean less passion for the music; on the contrary.

Of the four music radio formats we studied, only Urban Contemporary continues to align its programming to the needs of its listeners.

The Study

Methodology: Bridge Ratings has been tracking radio usage since its founding in 2001. Since 2001 each year we have randomly selected 5 radio stations in the four music formats in three market categories: Major Market (Ranked 1-10), Medium Market (Ranked 11-40) and Small Market (Ranked 41+). This totaled 20 radio stations per music format in each market category. Sample sizes varied by format and by year.

We tracked listening occasions per personal interviews and on-line surveys.

For each member of our sample aged 12 and over, we tracked their preference and passion for each type of music associated with each of the music formats (Passion Index).

The result was a comparison of weekly listening tune-in occasions and the passion.

The following charts summarize our findings:

Top 40

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As with all of these format examples, Passion for Pop music on Contemporary Hit Radio/Top 40 remains high over the sixteen year term of this study. What has changed is the number of weekly occasions of listening. Drop-off began as early as 2006 - long before many of the alternative methods of consuming Pop music became available. The divide between the passion and the tune-in is significant for this format yet provides an opportunity.

The gap between the Passion Index and the Tune-in Listening Occasions represents the growth potential for these formats.
— Dave Van Dyke


Click on image to enlarge.

According to our samples, passion for Country music has sustained its high numbers throughout this period having reached its highest point today. And as well-programmed are many of the Country radio stations reflected in this study, the passion for the music and the number of times listeners tune-in each day has slipped and in 2010 began to diverge into a Country music life group that is not as satisfied with Country radio as it could be. The gap between the passion index scores and the tune-in occasion number is the potential the format has for growth.

Alternative Rock

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Evidenced in most of these music formats is the growing gap of non-alignment and nowhere is it more evident than in the Alternative Radio segment. Passion for the Alternative music category which can include everything from Alternative, Punk, Indie, Rock and Alternative Pop remains greater than the satisfaction levels delivered by the stations represented in this next chart. Despite the drop-off, the passion for the music is only 14% lower than it was in 2000 while tune-in to these radio stations on average has dipped faster after a high in 2007.

Urban Contemporary

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An example of well-aligned radio to its audience is Urban Contemporary as shown in the following chart. Passion for the music and tune-in occasions have followed similar growth trajectories since 2000 and today the format is performing better than ever. Does this have anything to do with the fact that Urban music tends to be the most-consumed whether by stream, download or physical purchase? We believe it does.


According to a separate research study of radio program directors conducted late Summer 2016, only 44% of radio programmers used some form of music research. 70% of the group that doesn't use music research depends on published airplay charts to choose and manage their playlists.

The slow disintegration of station tune-in occasions not only aligns with advances in technology but also seems to align with an era when budget for solid station product research began to be cut or reduced and as revenues dried up since 2005, costs were eliminated and research was one of the victims.

The disconnect between listener expectations and radio’s music programming provides an opportunity.

Radio today continues to reach over 90% of the U.S. population weekly. And it's no secret that with all the entertainment options available, traditional radio has competition for the short attention span of most listeners.

With the varied audio options available to radio consumers, frankly they've gotten more sophisticated in their tastes, needs and expectations.

Our listener panels and the charts in this report point to one of music radio's key vulnerabilities: listener expectations are not being met.

Even listening behavior of older demographics have significantly adjusted to the influence of new technology.

The disconnect between listener expectations and radio's music programming provides an opportunity.

The radio industry can view this data in hindsight and wonder why time spent listening is dropping. However a return to investment in the product in the form of research, talent and marketing could resolve or at least halt the deterioration in listener commitment to radio stations that play music they are passionate about.

Music Radio's Poison Pill

While discussing the Bridge Ratings' streaming data for his station the other day, the station's program director and I raised the question of what traditional radio's purpose was in 2016.

With so many options available to consumers, studies have consistently shown in recent years that traditional radio's role is to play the hits, the songs listeners want to hear again and again.

Yet, radio's role has always been to play 'the hits'.  It's just that today we are fortunate enough to have the tech that actually shows what the hits are.

Radio has proven to be the curator of choice.
— Dave Van Dyke, President Bridge Ratings

We see it time and again in our radio usage field studies: today consumers choose radio for the most popular music and choose streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, even Pandora when they desire to control what they listen to and when. Radio has proven to be the curator-of-choice. It is clear that traditional radio and music streaming together have been expanding the consumption of music in the last two years.

Then why are so many radio stations not reflecting as close as they can to 100% of their listeners' favorite music?

The information is readily available through on-demand streaming research which Bridge Ratings provides to stations around the country on a weekly basis.

As I've written in this space previously, on-demand streaming is a much better indicator of true music appeal and consumption that any other music research radio relies on.

The least effective method of managing music rotations is a poison pill by programming by consensus, i.e. watching the published airplay charts available and programming based on how songs rise and fall on those charts.

Read my blog "Stop Programming By Consensus" for more detail.

This method causes slow station death as listeners tune out more than they tune in because they are seeking the quick satisfaction of hearing their favorites.

Those industry publications are printing charts based on hundreds of similarly formatted radio stations the results of which is a chart of averages of airplay by programmers who are each watching each other's playlists.

Add the music industry's release strategies and we end up with a chart that really is the furthest thing from reliable data on radio listeners' favorite music.

Using published airplay charts to determine music popularity causes slow station death as listeners tune out more than they tune in.
— Dave Van Dyke, President Bridge Ratings

Case in point.

We recently did an analysis of four key radio music formats: CHR, Urban, Country and Alternative to see the correlation between published airplay charts and true music consumption reflected in on-demand music streaming charts.

Radio finds itself in a position to be led by the available technology - on-demand streaming data.

High correlation means that the two charts - published airplay vs. on-demand streaming of identical lists of songs - are fairly well aligned or similar.

These results may surprise you.

Keep in mind the definition of the word "correlation". Correlation measures the strength of association between two sets of variables. In this case, we are checking the correlation between published airplay chart rankers and on-demand streaming rankers.

Here are the correlations:

How to read: 65% of the top 100 Top 40 (CHR) songs on published radio airplay charts correlate in rank with on-demand streaming charts. 35% of the top 100 Alternative Music songs on published radio airplay charts correlate in rank with on-demand streaming charts.

  • CHR/Top 40 - 65%
  • Country - 60%
  • Urban - 44%
  • Alternative - 35%

The CHR/Top 40 correlation is surprisingly high. The airplay and streaming charts are fairly highly correlated at 65%. This may be attributed to the fact that Top 40 hits are more universally consumed or that Top 40 programmers are more unified in their song choices and rotations.

The same can be said for Country with a 60% correlation. 60% of the top 100 songs on published industry music charts hold rank positions with a margin of error +/- 10%. The remaining 40% hold weekly ranks that do not represent the true consumption by fans of the format as determined by the on-demand streaming research Bridge Ratings analyzes each week.

But it gets more interesting.  

Of the radio music formats dissected for this report, Urban is next with 44% correlation to the published charts top 100 songs by rank.

There are many examples of songs that rank considerably higher on station streaming charts compared to the published charts available.

And we often find songs on published charts with lower rankings for longer periods of time when compared to on-demand streaming data especially when examined by station and market.

The Alternative charts we've studied only correlate with 35% of the songs ranked by airplay. The format certainly offers a unique mix of hit singles and hit album cuts and that variety may be feeding the significant variance between actual airplay and actual consumption determined through on-demand streaming analysis for both Alternative and Urban radio.

For Alternative radio, Twenty-One Pilots is creating all sorts of challenges for radio programmers these days. With the huge success of their current album, we're seeing a number of 21 Pilots' songs rising into the top 75 most-consumed songs by that format's primary listeners. Some of these songs are currents released in the past 45 weeks but many are gold and radio programmers using old school format playbooks are struggling to properly reflect the popularity of this group.

So they don't play many of the most-highly listened to songs by this group. Or if they play some of them, they are not being heard nearly enough by the target listener.

Coldplay is another example. And there are many others.

Traditional radio doesn't seem to have truly migrated to using on-demand streaming data to program its stations. For the first time, radio is no longer able to dictate its musical approach to listeners. Rather, radio finds itself in a position to be led by the technology - on-demand streaming data.

And that reversal of roles is causing consternation among those whose responsibility it is to reflect the tastes of today's music consumer as it applies to radio's role as the source of hit music.

Through viral sharing and social media recommendations, music fans and radio are now on divergent paths.

Bottom line: published airplay charts - in general - do not correlate with actual consumption of music as represented by on-demand streaming charts. Radio listeners have very good taste in music and through viral sharing and social media recommendations, music fans and radio are now on divergent paths.

Radio station programmers who understand this reality will reflect today's true music consumption behavior and will properly reflect consumer tastes.

Dave Van Dyke

Methodology: Correlations were calculated by running correlation analyses comparing an average of four of each music format's top 100 published lists during the month of September 2016 with Bridge Ratings' on-demand streaming rankers for each music format. Song rankings outside of the standard deviation of +/- 10% contributed to the overall correlation variances noted in this analysis.