The State of Radio

Latin Pop Leads Format Growth While Country Remains No. 1 Overall Despite 14% Drop In Audience Share

David Menconi is a music critic/arts reporter and writer. He is a 2019 Piedmont Laureate and the author of Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown.

A five-year Nielsen analysis shows that the popularity of Latin pop has spurred growth of the Spanish contemporary format, while country music dominates all formats but is losing ground

Latin pop is not yet one of the top 10 radio formats in terms of audience share, but its growth during the last five years has put that milestone within reach. In a Nielsen analysis of radio format growth that compared average-quarter-hour audience share among adults 25-54 in the fall of 2013 and the fall of 2018 in Nielsen's Portable People Meter (PPM) markets, Latin pop -- Nielsen's designation for the format is Spanish contemporary -- which plays contemporary Latin artists such as Bad Bunny, Rosalía, J Balvin and Nicky Jam, tops the list with a 40% jump during the measurement period (see chart). Urban contemporary finishes second with 35% growth -- nearly twice that of the formats that follow: alternative (18%), adult contemporary (11%), classic hits (8%) and news/talk (5%).

The growth of the top two formats is not surprising, says Jon Miller, vp audience insights at Nielsen, because they "coincide with the rise of Latin contemporary, hip-hop and R&B" -- genres that have also burgeoned on on-demand streaming platforms. "While Spanish contemporary does not occupy the same musical lane as urban contemporary, some of the structural elements are the same," adds Miller. "The format plays newer, more mainstream music and appeals to a younger audience. Those younger listeners have helped both formats grow in recent years.”

When it comes to weekly average audience share, country music leads the pack, as it has for over a decade, with 13.3%, but the format has declined 14% in five years. According to Sean Ross, author of the Ross on Radio newsletter and a radio consultant at Edison Research, one of the reasons for the decline is that "country needs more galvanizing records. ‘Pop versus traditional’ is a red herring. It’s more ‘active versus passive’ -- things people care about versus music that’s just there," he says.

"Right now, country is in kind of the equivalent of pop music in 1981 -- the year before [Soft Cell's] ‘Tainted Love’ and [The Human League's] ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and [Prince's] ‘1999,’" adds Ross, suggesting that the decline will be temporary. "We might be on the verge of something like 1986 or 2003, when everybody was writing ‘what’s wrong with country’ stories right before Randy Travis and then Gretchen Wilson came along."

Right behind Spanish contemporary, the news/talk format has shown the second-most overall audience-share growth, 11.8% -- a 5% gain over five years bolstered by continued audience interest in politics and issues such as immigration, gun control and all things Donald Trump.

Adult contemporary’s rise into third place in the overall standings -- an 11% gain -- essentially came at the expense of pop CHR, which declined 12% between 2013 and 2018 and fell to fourth place. According to Miller, adult contemporary playlists have been trending younger and more current in recent years and featuring the music of younger crossover artists that, "in the past, would have been the exclusive domain of pop CHR, country or R&B formats," he says. "So, while pop CHR has declined, adult contemporary has grown, especially with younger listeners. Today, it's competing for the same audience as other contemporary formats."

The shift from pop CHR to adult contemporary is especially pronounced during the midday work-week daypart, when the latter format pulls an audience almost one full percentage point higher than its overall share.

“Midday is interesting, because it’s the bulk of the working day,” says Miller. “A lot of formats sell themselves as ‘at-work listening,’ especially adult contemporary, and it has come to be music that people want in the background while working.”

Miller doesn’t foresee any major overall changes to radio’s format pecking order anytime soon. But no matter the format, every station’s challenge remains the same.

“Radio is offering a unique experience for music listeners as compared to streaming, which is what it has always done,” says Miller. “Radio programmers understand going forward that this differentiation is key -- what we refer to as the stuff between the songs. People can get music from their phone, their watch, many different providers. That was not the case 10 years ago. So, why do consumers choose radio today from the large menu of audio options?” he continues. “A big reason behind the continued resiliency of radio as a media platform is that connection to the audience, particularly on a specific local level, which builds habitual listening. Stations with strong brands and connections to their communities will continue to succeed.”

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