“Mr. Scott, damage report.”
Wouldn't it be great if like Captain Kirk, we could call down to the bridge to get an accurate assessment of 2020, and how radio and our stations are recovering lost listening?
As the COVID outbreak continues to evolve, radio broadcasters continue the process of tracking the health of its stations since things got out of control coming up on a year ago. The financial data is easy to measure, and yes, the ratings provide key indicators of growth, decay, or plateauing.
We know that for most radio stations, in-car radio listening is one of the key variables – the medium's bread and butter. In our soon-to-be-released Techsurvey 2021, we devoted questions designed to help evaluate driving changes and their potential impact on radio listening.
Nielsen also continues to track their “out of home” listening in the nation's biggest – and theoretically, most congested – markets when it comes to traffic. But in PPM, we don't get that helpful distinction between “in car” and “at work.” And while they are both of great importance to radio managers, their contributions to ratings gains and losses are different.
So, how can we accurately know just how the pandemic wreaked havoc on traffic patterns in various markets, and what effect it may – or may not – play on the health of a radio station?
For starters, we can do market research to find out. But for so many stations, that's a non-starter due to the lack of financial resources. And even if you could afford a research study, you'd have no previous information for comparison. Asking about driving habits right now would be helpful, but without pre-pandemic benchmarks to get a sense for how things are today – and how they've been trending.
The GPS makers – TomTom – to the rescue.
They have a nifty TomTom Traffic Index with lots of answers. You can get the world view, like this heat map showing traffic congestion. Here I've compared February, when things were “normal” to April when the lockdowns were plentiful. It tells a story.
(The video version is available here, so you can watch all of 2020, from start to finish.)
TomTom tracks 416 cities around the world, and that covers much of the U.S. You can dive into Phoenix, Chicago, or Tampa and pull up an extensive list of trends and rankings that help fill out the picture.
Here's a chart for Seattle, showing traffic on a day-to-day basis, including shading for COVID restrictions (which started earlier in the state of Washington):
For the year, Seattle traffic congestion was down 39% compared to 2019. You have to wonder how that might compare with PUMM levels in the market, especially during the least congested months.
But radio cares most about drive times – the dayparts where the industry typically invests the most. And where ratings success – or failure – is often determined. Looking at New Orleans, for example, listening levels took a nose dive in April, recovered in the summer, and stabilized near the end of the year. Still, morning drive was down 34% for the year, and afternoon was down 29%:
How might that translate to radio listening – specifically, quarter-hours? TomTom breaks it down. Here's Boston – with minute-by-minute losses in 2020. (Note: TomTom shows time saved per trip with a plus sign, but in radio terms, it would make more sense to see this minute rate preceded by a minus sign.)
That's a quarter-hour of listening lost in a typical 30 minute commute in both drives. And perhaps it leads us to a new metric: TLD – or Time Lost per Daypart. Imagine what that would look like for the Spring 2020 ratings period in most markets.
I also looked at some comparisons between what Nielsen was showing and TomTom's market index. Here's Riverside, CA, from last May, ranked as the worst PPM market for listening recovery compared to pre-COVID levels (right), contrasted with month to traffic patterns for the market (left):
In our ongoing quest to understand what's going on with in-car radio listening in our markets – and specifically, to the stations we care most about – this TomTom data is eye-opening – for programming, sales, and in some cases, to share with clients and marketing partners.
The good news is that traffic is getting worse.
And that, I never thought I'd say.
You can access the TomTom Traffic Index here.
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