A recent study shows that during commercial breaks, radio delivers on average 93% of its lead-in audience. But how many of these people are the original listeners?

December 2011: Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights publish What Happens When The Spots Come On, 2011 Edition. It offers valuable details about how radio commercials affect audience levels, based on Portable People Meter data. It triggers some questions as well. Let’s see if we can find some answers.


Significant amounts of PPM data

The report is based on a full year of Portable People Meter research from the entire USA and includes:

  • 18 million commercial breaks
  • 62 million minutes of spots
  • 866 radio stations
  • 48 PPM markets
  • 58.000 devices



www.radioiloveit.com | American research companies compared the average radio listener level in the minute before a commercial break to the average audience level in each minute of that break (photo: Thomas Giger)Commercial breaks of 1-6 minutes

Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights together compared the average audience level in each minute of a 1-6 minute commercial break to the same in the minute before the spots (the so-called lead-in audience). They focused on advertising breaks of back-to-back played, recorded audio of at least 30 seconds per spot. Live read commercials, station promos and breaks featuring only spots of less than 30 seconds were all excluded.



2½ stopsets of 3½ minutes

Within a 24-hour period, radio stations (in these 48 American PPM-markets) aired an average of:

  • stopsets an hour
  • 9 minutes of spots an hour
  • 3½ minutes of commercials per break



www.radioiloveit.com | Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights teamed up for a 2011 edition of the initial 2006 study about the effect of commercial breaks on radio station audience levels (photo: Thomas Giger)

‘What Happens When The Spots Come On, 2011 Edition’ is published by Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights, based on 1 year of Portable People Meter radio data from the entire USA (photo: Thomas Giger)



Radio commercial break research insights

Key findings about how spot breaks influence radio ratings are the following:

  1. Commercial breaks up to 3 minutes deliver over 95% of the audience level before the break
  2. Stopsets up to 6 minutes deliver at least 85% of the number of listeners before the ad break
  3. Morning shows deliver a higher audience level during spot breaks than other dayparts do
  4. Older listeners show a higher acceptance of commercial breaks than younger audiences
  5. Talk radio listeners don’t get turned off by spots as much as music format audiences
  6. Spoken word stations: the audience level is driven by format, not by demographic
  7. Music stations: the audience delivery during commercials depends on the demo
  8. Urban and Hispanic formats keep the highest audience rates during breaks
  9. Findings are very consistent throughout the year and in the entire USA



www.radioiloveit.com | The main conclusion of this research is that on average, radio-delivers 93 percent of its lead-in-audience during commercial breaks (graph: Arbitron, Media Monitors, Coleman Insights)

Commercial breaks of 1 to 6 minutes maintain a weighted average of 93% of the audience level that exisited in the minute before the stopset (all data and graphs in this article: Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights)



Afro-American and Hispanic listener loyalty

The researchers found out why morning shows have a relatively high number of listeners during commercial breaks. It’s because breakfast hours feature shorter ad breaks and a more constant inflow of radio listeners. Unfortunately the report doesn’t mention the reason why of all music formats, Urban and Hispanic have the highest audience levels during commercial breaks. It might be related to audience demographics; age and other characteristics (e.g. US Hispanics are frequent radio listeners).



www.radioiloveit.com | Audience levels during commercial breaks are relatively high among black and hispanic listeners and on ethnic-targeted music stations (graph: Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights)

Compared to all music formats, the average audience levels during commercial breaks are significantly higher on Urban and Spanish music stations, maybe driven by their specific listener demographics and backgrounds



Young listeners switch stations sooner

That older listeners are more ‘station loyal’ during commercials than young audiences is not a big surprise. Youth preferences quickly change, as I’ve learned from a music scheduling panel. My theory is that young people have grown up with technology and much content from many (old and especially new) media, so they developed a shorter attention span. And it seems logical that speech radio listeners tolerate spots more than music station audiences do. After all, most commercials are (perceived as being) a form of speech. It matches listener expectations of News and Talk radio audiences.



www.radioiloveit.com | Talk radio audience levels during commercial breaks are format driven; audience demographics play no significant roleSpeech radio: audience level format driven

News & Talk stations are an exception: practically all their listeners accept commercials on a large scale. Because talk radio audience levels during commercials are very high in every demographic (so it’s format driven, not age dependent) and the spot break duration almost doesn’t matter. Even in the ‘critical’ 18-34 demo, spoken word formats deliver 97% of their audience during spot breaks. Maybe one more reason why the growth area for radio is speech?



Music radio: audience level demographic driven

While for talk stations the audience demographic is almost irrelevant in terms of listening behavior during spot breaks, it’s definitely relevant for music radio programmers. Country stations deliver more listeners during commercials than CHR formats do as Country attracts a more than average concentration of 35- to 64-year-olds. CHR does the same for 18- to 34-year-olds. I think (especially young) music stations should plan their stopsets carefully. (Also because music listeners perceive commercials as an interruption; see the article on how to program radio commercial breaks strategically.)



www.radioiloveit.com | While News and Talk formats show a consistent commercial break audience level in every demo, different music formats show significantly different results as, for example, Country stations attract an older audience than CHR stations

Music station program directors should schedule commercial breaks carefully because their audience sees spots as an interruption of the flow, especially if their format attracts young listeners (as they switch stations more often)



‘Commercial perception is not reality’

Arbitron, Media Monitors and Coleman Insights summarize that while the existing perception inside the advertising (and even radio) industry is that radio looses many listeners during commercial breaks, on average ‘radio delivers almost 93 percent of listeners during spot breaks’. Their conclusion is that this finding ‘dispels the myth’ that during commercial breaks, fewer people listen to the radio than before the stopsets begin. That sounds good, but it leaves me with the following question:



www.radioiloveit.com | Radio listeners tune in and tune out all the time, also at commercial breaks (especially on music stations) as these are an interruption of regular programming - like a subway that reaches a station, where passengers enter and leave the train (photo: Chris Hondros)

Radio commercial breaks are like a subway that stops at a station; people jump on and off (photo: Chris Hondros)



Does it mean that 93% of the people who listened before a commercial break stay during that break – or that people leave and others come back instead of them?

Kim Myers of Arbitron Inc. says to Radio))) ILOVEIT: “Think about it like a subway in New York City. It makes frequent stops. When it pulls into a station, a bunch of people gets off and a bunch of people comes back on. From the audience level that you have when you start a commercial break, you have 93% when you go back into programming. It may not be the same listeners. Some get off and some get back on. That’s what the study showed us.”



www.radioiloveit.com | What Happens When The Spots Come On, 2011 Edition, shows that radio on average maintains 93 percent of its audience level before a commercial break during that break, but doesn't show detailed insights - like how many of these listeners are the same peopleHow many percent of the actual listeners stays and how many percent tunes out during the break, and is replaced by new listeners who tune in during that break?

“I don’t know if they looked at that or not. The goal was to show that radio delivers. That 93 percent number is what the essence of the study was.” Therefore she couldn’t give in-depth info, like how many of these 93 percent are actually the same people that were tuned in before the break.



Commercial breaks exchange complete audience?

The above question is inspired by what I’ve learned in a session of the UK Radio Festival where Dennis Clark shared useful Portable People Meter radio programming insights. He explained that a Country station in Atlanta lost one hundred percent of the original audience during a 6-minute commercial break, but they were all replaced by a whole new batch of listeners by the end of the break. Now that’s an interesting phenomenon! (Also because Country is a format where you’d expect more ‘audience loyalty’ as their listeners include many 35- to 64-year-old people.)



www.radioiloveit.com | Radio commercials, especially if they air on music stations for a young audience, should always repeat the most important or recognizable parts a few times (spread over the spot) in order to be effectiveRepeat your most important message

It indicates that advertisers always reach a relatively consistent amount of people, but that some listeners will just hear a part of the commercial. Keeping this in mind, I think that radio commercials should communicate the most important part of the message several times within a spot. To introduce a product or create brand awareness effectively, I’d say: include your product name or brand name (or sound logo) at least once in every 10 seconds.



Questions about radio commercial effect

I’ve contacted Coleman Insights to hear if they have found similar cases to verify the theory that long spot breaks may cause a complete station audience population to be swapped by a new army of listeners. Main questions: how many of these ‘93%’ are people who listened to the station 1 minute before the break, how many arrived during the stopset, in what tempo the number of listeners declines during the break and what is the ‘recovery time’ after the spots are over? When I get the answers, you’ll be the first to know. (How’s that for a teaser?)



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