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.