News/Talk ratings slowly creep back up.
With work and commuting schedules back to normal and a ramped-up news cycle, news/talk ratings are starting to slowly inch back up. After a downward summertime spiral, radio’s top-ranked format has notched two consecutive up books, growing 8.7-8.9-9.0 in 6+ share in PPM markets from July-September, according to Nielsen Audio. But it may not be time to break out the hats and hooters just yet.
Year-over-year listening to news/talk radio in PPM markets was down 9% in September. “News/talk grew at a slower pace—about 4% in each demo since July,” Nielsen Audio media insights manager Tony Hereau said in a blog post. The summer of 2013 was the first time news/talk recorded three consecutive months below a nine-share since Nielsen Audio predecessor Arbitron began keeping format records.
Even though summer is historically the lowest time of the year for news/talk listening, the format’s summer shares have declined about 10% since 2011. Cable TV news networks are experiencing a similar trend, with viewership down by large double-digit percentages in the third quarter compared to the same period one year ago. Fox News fell 10% in total day average viewers while MSNBC tumbled 27%.
“It will be interesting to compare this fall’s results with 2012, when a presidential election and Hurricane Sandy dominated the news cycle,” Hereau says. Interest in last year’s election propelled the format to an 11.1 share in November 2012. Already, the government shutdown and widespread delays in Obamacare are providing grist for the news/talk mill that could help goose listening in the October survey. But whether they return to previous levels remains to be seen. Even Clear Channel’s widely admired talk KFI, Los Angeles (640) has been trending down steadily since March and ranked 13th in October with a 2.8.
The slow, steady decline in news/talk ratings are the product of a perfect storm: continuing deterioration of the AM band, audience fatigue with political talk and a migration of entertainment values to other types of spoken word formats, like sports and lifestyle talk. So says veteran spoken work programmer-turned-consultant Gabe Hobbs. In addition to growing interference that has the FCC focusing more on the AM band in the past nine months than it has in decades, Hobbs believes a lack of programming variety on AM, where most news/talk stations still reside and claim their biggest audiences, has lowered audience expectations for the band.
“Political talk, sports, religion and ethnic formats are pretty much all that’s left on the AM band,” he says. “If we can begin to diversify spoken word, especially on FM, we’ll see those shares grow substantially again.”
As an alternative to continuous political talk, Hobbs sees opportunities to offer local talk or lifestyle talk, such as Cox Media Group’s “102.5 The Bone” WHPT, Tampa, which ranked second in persons 25-54 in October. Hobbs thinks the government shutdown and Obamacare are likely to bring “a small ratings blip” but feels they could drive larger gains if hosts tilted the focus on those and other topics from political to lifestyle. “Instead of us against them or left versus right, flip it to how does it affect your audience and what can they do to improve their situation,” he says. “People are more interested in how this will affect them and what they should do than who they should blame and how they should vote.”
Hobbs thinks it’s equally important to protect and grow the news/talk audience’s dependence on service elements like traffic, weather, news, sports and information. “Those are still viable images,” he says. “Even though people use TV and the internet heavily for them, those media don’t travel well in the car.”