Hobbs Report cover

The unprecedented events of 2020 produced mixed results for news/talk radio. The coronavirus outbreak of March-April and the November election and its accompanying drama drove massive listening spikes that lifted the format’s audience share to its highest level since 2012.

That is among the topline findings from the seventh edition of the Hobbs Report, the annual news/talk ratings deep dive compiled by Gabe Hobbs Media in tandem with Nielsen. Based on 138 news/talk stations located in the 44 non–embedded PPM markets, the study was presented Thursday at the first all-virtual Talk Show Boot Camp.

Last year was marked by share gains for the majority of stations in the sample, especially commercial news/talkers. Among adults 25-54, 83 stations (62% of the sample) increased their share in 2020 and 38 declined. Of the 38 that decreased, only three were FM commercial stations.

Examining 25-54 AQH persons paints a different picture: 26% of stations were up, 68% were down. In 25-54 cume, 20% were up and 79% were down.

News/talk performed better with adults 35-64, which was included in the Hobbs Report for the first time this year. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of stations went up in share while 31% increased their AQH persons and 31% added cume.

Powered by the pandemic and election listening spikes, the news/talk format’s share in the advertiser-coveted 25-54 demo shot up 12% in 2020 to 2.8 from 2.5 in 2019 for its best performance since 2012. It did even better among 35-64 year-olds, surging 15% from 2019 (3.3-3.8) for its highest share in at least four years.

The picture wasn’t as rosy when viewed through the lens of AQH persons and cume, both of which Hobbs said were negatively impacted by the pandemic. Among adults 25-54, the average news/talk station in PPM markets experienced a 12% decline in AQH persons in 2020 and a 14% decline in cume. The format performed better in 35-64, with AQH persons down 8% from 2019 and cume down 9%. The data shows these AQH and cume declines as part of a 10-year downward trend.

“2020 was a year of mixed blessings,” Hobbs told Inside Radio. “All talk stations saw serious cume erosion beginning in April. However, the time spent listening of those that remained with radio, especially on the commercial side, went through the roof. This made for good share achievement – because overall listening was down – but not good on the AQH persons side.”

The study compared three different types of news/talk stations: AM commercial, FM commercial and FM non-commercial and found significant differences among them. In 2020 FM commercial led the news/talk pack with a 4.2 share in adults 25-54, compared to 3.7 for FM non-commercial and 1.5 for AM commercial. The same went for adults 35-64 with FM commercial on top with a 6.4 share (up 21% year-over-year), followed by non-commercial FM at 3.8 (up 5%) and AM commercial with 3.1 (up a whopping 24%). FM commercial stations also saw lower declines in AQH persons and cume in both demos.

Twin Listening Spikes

The study shows news/talk experienced two major listening spikes last year, one from the pandemic and the other from the election. And commercial and non-commercial stations benefitted differently from their coverage of those major news events. From February to April, the format’s overall share trended 2.6-3.0-3.1 in 25-54 and 3.5-4.0-4.3 in 35-64.

It cooled down over the next three months, before gaining steam in August for the election. From August to November, news/talk advanced 2.7-2.8-2.9-3.2 in 25-54 and 3.8-3.9-4.1-4.4 in 35-64.

“We’ve got a pandemic spike and an election spike,” Hobbs told TSBC attendees. “The way we reached the highs we did in 2020 with pandemic coverage and election coverage was with TSL, primarily.”

A breakout of the month by month data shows commercial stations did better with their pandemic coverage than non-commercial. And while both did well with the election, non-commercial news/talk’s election spike lasted longer.

“[Non-commercial news/talk] didn’t do nearly as well with pandemic news,” Hobbs said. “They did great with election news. But their spike is much more muted during the pandemic than ours is.”

The study, which tracks the format over a 10-year period, is based on 138 news/talk stations located in the 44 non-embedded PPM markets that generally average above a 1-share and are Nielsen subscribers. The breakout is 62 AM commercial stations, 24 FM commercial stations and 52 FM non-commercial stations. The data includes 120 monthlies spanning Jan. 2011 – Dec. 2020, excluding Holiday surveys.