Consumer Surveys · December 10, 2020

CHR – Contracting Hit Radio

By Larry Rosin

So much of radio’s self-image revolves around what we radio people know as CHR and what most listeners might call “Top 40.” Those stations that likely use “[City]’s #1 Hit Music Station” as a slogan. Those brands so many grew up with and still look to as leaders – the Kisses, Hots, Powers, Bs, Zs and Channels that populate the format.

And yet, according to Nielsen’s ratings, over the last few years, CHR’s ratings are consistently, and increasingly, fading away.

The nearby graph shows CHR’s total week shares in Nielsen’s PPM markets for each year – January through November (to avoid the Christmas distortions). As you can see, among all listeners (age six and older) the format’s share of radio listening has stepped down steadily in each year since a modern peak in 2014. The drop from 2016’s 8.1% to this year’s 5.5% represents a rather precipitous 32% decline in just four years.

In 2016, CHR was the second-most listened to format, behind only News/Talk. With this year’s tally complete, CHR now ranks tied for fourth, having fallen behind Adult Contemporary and Country.

You might be thinking to yourself – “Is this just a function of young people listening to less radio? Thus making CHR shares harder to attain?” While 18-34 broadcast radio usage is down, CHR’s purchase on that audience is down as well. The second graph shows the same trend but among 18-34s. Shares to CHR are down 30% among this group. CHR has been the highest ranking format among 18-34s in each year since PPM came along, but the gap is dwindling – now less than one point ahead of second-place Country.

And you can cross off two other possible hypotheses:

• Are there simply fewer CHR stations?
o No. Per Nielsen, the number of stations they track in the format is essentially flat.
• Is the listening being lost to other near-neighbor formats?
o No. Rhythmic CHR is also at a record low. Hot AC is at a record low and dramatically tapering off from a 2015 peak. Not-as-near Alternative is at a record low, despite a number of stations switching into the format. Country is at its low 6+ and just above that level 18-34. Urban, Spanish Hits and Active Rock all are essentially flat.

At the same time, the reach, or ‘cume audience’ to many of these stations remains robust. As an example, look at New York, where Z100 currently sits in seventh place in share, but second in cume. Or to find a more extreme case, Chicago, where WBBM-FM (B96) is 19th in share but ranks fifth in cume.

Clearly, something is happening with contemporary music radio across the board. Perhaps there is simply a dearth of compelling current music to play across all contemporary formats – and CHR is just a few hit songs away from changing the trajectory. Maybe the ultra-high spin rates employed by most contemporary stations, but especially CHRs, has caught up to the listeners, creating a high-cume/low TSL vortex. But it seems far likelier that the issues are more fundamental.

The biggest clue to what might be happening comes when one considers this: Among 18-34s, both Classic Hits and Classic Rock are at record high shares. This could be a statement about ‘current’ music and its relative quality. However it seems more likely a factor of who is spending more time listening to radio versus less. Those interested in the newest music are likely scratching that itch more effectively with other, non-radio options – leaving behind bigger shares for those who want to mostly listen to older, ‘classic’ music. Understanding this phenomenon is the first key to figuring out a new way to engage with radio’s competition for those younger listeners.

Get our latest insights delivered to your inbox.