Company News · October 8, 2019

The Secret to Longer TSL

By edison

Edison Research Vice President Megan Lazovick presented the following at The Radio Show in Dallas on September 26, 2019 in conjunction with the Radio Advertising Bureau. 

We are proud that the RAB asked us to look into what radio can do to increase time spent listening. And note I said “Radio”.  This is not just about your station, this is about all of Radio. Because TSL is falling.  Everyone’s TSL is falling.  Even if your station’s share is strong, even if that share is actually growing, I can almost guarantee that your station has less aggregate TSL than it did one year ago, and I can fully guarantee this if we compare to five years ago.

This is a topic we seldom discuss as an industry. We try, smartly, to keep advertisers’ eyes on the incredible reach story and while our reach on most of our stations and on the medium, in general, remains resilient and robust…the time spent listening to radio overall is dropping.

It’s not that long ago when there were essentially only two real choices for listening to audio: the radio or a CD player.  Think about the proliferation of options since then – principally streaming, satellite radio, and podcasts or digital audiobooks.  Think of the devices that we all carry now that make listening to anything easier.  Radio TSL kind of had to fall.

Edison Research has been tracking radio’s “Share of Ear” as compared to all other forms of audio.  And the numbers tell a real story.

Radio’s “Share of Ear” currently stands at 44% of all listening.  If you compare AM/FM, including its streams, to all other things people might listen to, radio commands by far the biggest share at 44%.

But if you look at this data point by age groups a far more interesting story emerges.  Among those 55 years old and older 63% of all listening goes to radio.  This is the world as it once was, with radio completely dominant. Among 35-54-year-olds, forty-seven percent of listening goes to AM/FM radio and its streams. But the story really changes when we look at younger people.  Today’s 13 to 34-year-olds, who make up one-third of the 13-plus population, give 27 percent of their listening time to radio.  They still cume – they listen – they just listen a lot less.

You almost certainly have noticed this phenomenon when it comes to shares in any market.  When Nielsen publishes their six-plus ratings each month, Classic Rock, Greatest Hits, Mainstream AC, keep gaining share, and younger-targeted formats keep losing.  It’s not that long ago when the top station in pretty much EVERY market was a CHR.  Now it’s next to impossible to find a single market that IS led by a CHR.  In market after market the top station is playing music for Baby Boomers.

While the competition for radio is a challenge for all age groups, that competition, naturally is way worse among younger people.  So as the RAB requested, we have engaged in several research inquiries to try to look at what is going on with TSL.

We conducted a national survey to find out why radio listeners tune out. We ultimately fielded a study of 1067 adults age 18 and older in early September, but before we put it in the field we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss any important topics, so we first we went directly to listeners. We brought some younger radio fans – all under the age of 35 – into our offices in New Jersey and talked to them about their radio listening.  And you will see they are legit fans of radio.  Let’s meet them on this video and find out what the like about radio…

While young people made me feel great about the future of radio – mainly because they were really good at pointing out all things the medium does well, they also did something else. They were extremely helpful in outlining the reasons why people tune out of a radio station. So, we added their responses into a long list of reasons why people tune out and we went on to quantify those behaviors in our national survey.

We asked which of the following is a reason why you change the station? I should note that we did not include things like “arrived at destination” or “had to leave” in the answer options. Here is our full list of reasons, which is a lot to digest, so they are grouped into five different categories of tune out and we’ll review this data by each category.

The five categories of tune out are:
Seeking Specific Content
Music Preference

FORCED: There are some things that you as radio programmers do not have much control over. These are reasons that force your listeners to change such as driving out of the signal range. Or often in my case, little children in the back seat insisting I play Lady Gaga. 64% of listeners say bad signal is a reason the sometimes change the station and 30% say that having kids in the car is a reason. 

SEEKING SPECIFIC CONTENT: Changing from talk to music at 64%, or from music to talk at 43%.  Fifty-one percent say they have changed the station to listen to a specific program on another station. And 32% have changed for traffic updates. There’s not much you can do to address this category of tune out other than making sure you have incredible programs that people will want to switch to.

 MUSIC PREFERENCE: Seventy percent say they change when they don’t like the song, 68% when they don’t like the genre of music, 66% change based on their mood, and further down the list we see 56% say they change after hearing too many repeated songs. The best you can do to address music preference tune out is to do your music research and make sure that you have a strong enough relationship with your listener that even when they switch away they will remember to come back.

ENGAGEMENT: The number one item on this list of reasons people change is “Want to find something different” at 74%. Yes, we know there are people out there that like to switch. But, this is something you can tackle by engaging them. By grabbing them in the first few seconds of a talk break with something compelling and by making sure you are playing the best music. All of these other reasons might seem like behaviors that you have no control over, when in fact, they all fall under the not-engaged category: seeking variety at 67%, want to browse channels and hearing too much talk both at 65%, bored or lack of interest at 58%.

If you had the most engaging content would they really be seeking variety? If you are crafting your talk breaks with the most succinct, entertaining topics, would listeners think it was too much? I’m not going to pretend I can coach a better talk break. Tracy Johnson of Johnson Media Group gave a great webinar recently about avoiding tune out,  much of it which covered how to create more engaging programming. I highly recommend watching it.

But, here’s the thing. You could have the most engaging content out there for three-quarters of an hour, and if you have one-quarter of less-than-engaging commercials, you’re going to have tune out. And especially among young people, that tune out may not be to other stations in your cluster or other stations on the radio dial.  They might tune to Spotify, or Pandora, or a podcast.

59% of listeners say just the start of a commercial break is a reason to change the station. Sixty-six percent of listeners said that hearing too many commercials is a reason. Certainly this is not something an advertiser wants to hear. When we take the time to think about improving the content on our radio stations between the ads, shouldn’t we also take the time to think about improving the commercial breaks as well? I’ll come back to this topic, but first, this slide shows all the reasons for tune out. Let’s now look at what listeners say is the main reason.

When we asked the main reason why they change the radio station, responses in the engagement and music preference categories tied for first at 28% and commercials next at 19%.

But let’s look at the response by just the 18-34-year-olds. Here we see the problem of engagement jumps up to 35%, and that’s not so surprising given we often hear how attention spans have dropped with the younger generations. If you are targeting this group of listeners perhaps you should think about making everything shorter. Short talk breaks, songs with shorter radio edits, and dare I say, shorter commercials?




When we look at those age 35-54, we see that the 24 percent say commercials are the main reason they change the station. This group, the group more often advertisers’ target demo, is the group that is more likely to flip the station when a commercial comes on.






Conversely, when you look at adults age 55 and older, commercials are tied with the lowest percentage on the list at 13%. Adults age 55 and older are bit more tolerant of the commercials on radio, but also, perhaps, more likely to be listening to commercial-free radio. Music preference and engagement are highest on the list of reasons why they tune out.





So now that you’re familiar with some of the top reasons for tune out, I’d like to go back to the video of our young listeners. As you watch the video, listen for the top tune out categories I have outlined.

So we heard a few of our main tune out categories: “If I’m getting a little bored” (ENGAGEMENT) & “whenever a commercial comes on because no one likes those” (COMMERCIALS).

But here’s what really concerns me about that video. When they flip, many of them are flipping out of AM/FM radio. We know that people are used to flipping stations. It’s a behavior that many have said they even enjoy. The challenge for radio as an industry should be to keep the switchers within the medium. Keep them from switching to internet radio or owned music.

Let’s imagine a world where a person is not allowed to switch. We decided to do an experiment with the young radio listeners that we interviewed. We asked them to listen to some local radio, and we played for them a recording of the top of the 10am hour from one of the U.S. top market’s highest-rated stations.  We recorded their reactions and commentary as they listened. The unedited audio segment included almost eleven minutes of commercials and over two minutes of non-commercial content.

I want to stress that this type of commercial break is something that hundreds of stations do all the time. A huge number of radio stations around the country, especially in PPM markets, stack up incredibly long blocks of commercials in order to play long blocks of music or other content.

And there is another crucial point to be made here – what this station is doing is almost assuredly SMART.  Despite the complete, undeniable impossibility of listening to all of these commercials, or at least maintaining any level of concentration through them all, this is PPM-maximizing strategy: have long blocks of content to rack up the quarter hours, and then sacrifice an entire quarter-hour completely.  It’s like gerrymandering – you isolate the people who vote for the other party into a single district.

But, I urge you to sit down with your actual listeners and ask them to listen to that type of commercial break straight through and you’ll witness what we at Edison saw. Respondents shifted in their seats. They fidgeted. They would have switched away from the station, given the opportunity. One young man began scrolling on his phone. Participants simply could not believe a commercial break could last so long.

Perhaps you are asking, “What about all the NEW listeners that would be tuning during that long commercial break?” Sure there are, but, don’t let anyone tell you that tune-in balances tune-out and each commercial in a break will still get the same amount of listening.  This is a myth, based on a tricked-up study from over a decade ago. They used a train as an example, saying that when the train comes to a station, some people get off and at the same time more people will get on. That would be a great analogy if the train was the only form of transportation – but we know that’s not true today. People can use uber now! Today listeners can easily switch to Spotify, or Pandora, or a podcast, and as the young people in our video showed, plenty of people do.


Here we asked all of our survey respondents if you had to listen to commercials and couldn’t change the station, which of the following commercial breaks would you prefer to hear on AM/FM radio?

Now also in this fantasy world, we are only playing eight minutes of commercials in an hour, but we asked respondents to choose which they would like to hear in that one hour: between one commercial break lasting eight minutes, two commercial breaks each lasting four minutes, or four commercial breaks each lasting two minutes. Just under a quarter of listeners preferred what is the current norm on commercial radio – which is one long break per hour.

The very things we are currently doing to maximize TSL – to maximize an individual station’s share of the ratings – these terribly long commercials breaks – are driving down TOTAL TSL.

I maintain that in positioning around long blocks of content interrupted by long (sometimes amazingly long) blocks of commercials, we are hurting the radio industry itself.  Because remember it is called the COMMERCIAL radio industry.  The commercial radio industry mostly makes money from getting paid to play commercials.  Advertisements.  And…therein lies the problem.

We program our radio stations, and we think of our obligation, around playing commercials.  And I am here to argue that the single biggest thing we could do to reverse the downward trend in listening time, is to think of our jobs as getting people to hear commercials.

If you listen to almost any podcast, you hear them thanking the sponsors for supporting their show and imploring the listeners to use these products and services. Getting someone to listen to a commercial is good for the advertiser…and it can be good for the listeners.

We should CELEBRATE commercials.  We would showcase and feature them.  We should thank our sponsors and explain to our listeners that by supporting our sponsors they are supporting us.  How many stations do you hear these days doing the exact opposite?  Demonizing the commercials?  Ending a break by saying: “Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to the music.”  Just using the phrase “commercial-free” positions the commercials as a negative. And if you must do long sweeps of music, at the very least make it a true sponsored occasion.

If we had commercial ratings we would, let’s be honest, almost surely play fewer commercials – showcase them more – in an attempt to maximize listening to each one.  Is there any doubt that if we played fewer commercials the total TSL might go up?  I personally think there is no doubt at all that advertiser ROI would improve. Why do I feel this way?  I have a real-world example.

In 2016 truTV cut national commercial time by 50% for all new series episodes in primetime. Turner Research conducted a study to determine the effects of Limited Commercial Interruption.

The results were that cutting national commercial time by 50% led to significant effects:

– Viewers watched longer, enjoyed the programs more, and were more likely to watch other programs

– Fewer ads led to greater brand recall and higher incremental sales

There is your precedent if you need something to bring home in order to make this happen.

And there are other ways to make radio’s ads more impactful: one is by making sure they are relevant to your listeners. Zonecasting – which is a technology that allows a station to air locally targeted ads and content, for example, is a way that radio can better serve its advertisers and its listeners. Advertisers get more targeted ads, and listeners get ads relevant to their lives.

Also, if the goal is to get people to hear the ads, and maybe even like the ads, we should test them. Jerry Lee has been arguing for this forever.  He has offered to test commercials for free.  Instead, we have 22-year-old salespeople with no experience writing ad copy (through no fault of their own)!

We asked our young listeners what they might improve about the ads and they had a few good suggestions:

How much time do you spend thinking about how you can improve your shows? And how much time do you spend thinking about how you can improve the ads? I’d argue that you should be just as concerned about the talent working on the ads as you are the talent live on air.


Think about people leaving radio completely not just about people switching to another station in your cluster

Rethink the game from “playing commercials” to “getting people to hear commercials

Plan the best clock for your listeners AND your advertisers

Reduce commercial load

Incorporate creative sponsorships within your shows

Create engaging commercials

Hire the best talent to write copy

Test your commercials

It turns out the secret to longer TSL was not much of a secret after all. You probably knew this all along but were too shy to say it aloud. Serve your advertisers with the most creative, most engaging, smartly-placed ads. Your story is not about reach anymore. Your story is about having the most engaging content – before, during and after the ads – Every. Single. Quarter-hour. Not just three out of the four.

And please, let’s not keep this a secret any longer.

The Secret to Longer TSL – Edison Research FOR RELEASE

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