Music Radio: A Kingdom of Gold


(By Larry Rosin) If one were to put the ‘bundle’ of radio formats that depend on new, hit music together, in the fashion of a mutual fund, it would have performed disastrously over the last decade. It is not an exaggeration to say that ‘contemporary music’ is in a crisis at American radio, and if this trend cannot be reversed, or at least halted, there may be vast implications.

With the full year of 2021 now in the books, the radio industry can take a look at updated information on format trends. Helpfully, Nielsen totals the results by format in PPM markets and has since the rollout of that methodology in 2011. So, we now have the full ten-year interval for comparison. And what a decade it has been.

Here is a table that summarizes the changes with the biggest gainers on top and the biggest losers at the bottom (data courtesy Nielsen – 6+ share):

There are stories up and down the chart, but by far the biggest movers in nominal terms are the two forms of “Contemporary Hit Radio” – what Nielsen calls Pop CHR and Rhythmic CHR. Combined these two flavors of the CHR format have gone from 11.9% of listening in 2011 to 7.2% of listening in 2021. That is, in round numbers, a FORTY PERCENT decline in the share of listening to this foundational radio format.

Meanwhile Country Radio is at its all-time low in share in 2021, as is Alternative. Urban Contemporary is where it was a decade ago, but that covers over the fact that it was more than one full point higher (3.8% vs. today’s 2.7%) in 2017. The only formats with the word “Contemporary” in the name to have gone up are Spanish, which has risen modestly, and Contemporary Christian, which has soared in share over the last decade.

Bear in mind, these are all shares of radio listening. So, the general declines in total listening aren’t directly factored in here. This is the ‘share of the pie’ regardless of the size of that pie. Even though radio listening is declining among 18-34s at a much faster clip than among those age 35 and older, the data just doesn’t help the argument that what we are seeing is merely the aging profile of radio listening at play.

That’s because even among 18-34s listening to contemporary formats is way down. Rhythmic CHR share is down more than 50% among 18-34s since 2011, and Pop CHR share is down 29%. Country is at its PPM-era low among 18-34s and so is Alternative. Urban Contemporary is down over 30% from what it was just four years ago.

What seems to be the logical conclusion from these trends is that the declines for music radio formats that depend on ‘new hit music’ in its various forms are coming from a differential form of loss within radio listening. It’s not the general falloff of listening, or the faster declines among 18-34s, it is that the people who had turned in the past to radio to hear the ‘latest and greatest’ are reducing their listening faster than the public at large. Hence all the contemporary formats falling together.

As of today, radio maintains a strong bond with the music community. One still hears artists talk about the thrill of hearing their song on the radio, the labels partner on radio concerts, and airplay clearly boosts an artist.

But the trend is clear. When one scans through the individual market ratings, one sees Classic Rock, Classic Hits, Mainstream AC, along with news and sports stations taking the top slots. American music radio is rapidly becoming a Kingdom of Gold, where one mostly hears the hits of yesteryear, the songs that radio made into hits back when radio made the hits.

Larry Rosin is President of Edison Research, which he co-founded in 1994. He can be reached by at [email protected]


  1. Gee, could it be the quality of music? Could it be that uncensored music is one of the reasons streaming is utilized by the younger demos? Could it be a lot of reasons? It’s understood that the “classic” formats are doing well-as “older” listeners still utilize AM/FM radio. Larry, we love your posts and this one contains some of the most dangerous words a broadcaster can hear.

    “The people who had turned in the past to radio to hear the ‘latest and greatest’ are reducing their listening faster than the public at large.”

    Wonder what those broadcasters can-and will do about it.


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