Data gathered from multiple radio research projects over the past eight weeks shows an alarming decline in Top Of Mind Awareness (TOMA). The slide in TOMA has been happening for a while, but it is accelerating and broadcasters should be more than concerned. I’d be freaking out.

As listeners return to somewhat “normal” behavior, an attention crisis is destroying Daily Cume results at all but the most established (and loved) shows and stations.

Losing a few listeners to other sources of entertainment isn’t new. I’ve always thought of a radio station as a Leaky Bucket. Imagine a bucket filled with water (listeners). But the bucket has holes that allow the water to escape. Some holes can be repaired. But as they are plugged, new holes emerge. Listeners leaving must be replaced or the water level declines.

The holes in many radio station buckets are getting larger. And most stations aren’t doing nearly enough to refill the bucket. This is a major issue.

Top Of Mind Awareness Is A Problem

Perceptual research projects point to several disturbing trends:

  • Listening has been disrupted long enough (over two years) to cause radio brands to lose Top Of Mind Awareness in the constant battle for attention. Consumers have found other sources of entertainment (streaming, podcasts, videos, etc.) that satisfy needs some didn’t know they had. This is not just happening with younger demos.
  • Spotify is the elephant in the room. In-car listening is returning, but listeners have found new ways to spend their listening time. Streaming usage has surged, especially on middays and afternoons. In surveys screened for radio listeners, as much as 1/4 (25%) of afternoon drive listening goes to Spotify and Apple Music. In one survey, Spotify was the #1 choice among 18-34-year-old radio listeners. Apple Music was #3.  And both are growing rapidly among the 30-39 demographic. Plus, Pandora and Satellite radio are much greater threats than two years ago.
  • Many emerging, growing, and previously “established” stations have lost so much ground in unaided recall (Top Of Mind Awareness) that they are almost starting over as a new brand.
  • The good news: Heritage shows (established for decades) have bounced back more than competitors that are relative newcomers.

Coleman Research summarized it well after analyzing dozens of studies:

…radio listeners believe they are listening just as much as they were pre-pandemic, there has been a general softening of recall overall—recall of stations, morning shows, talk show hosts, etc…it has a lot to do with branding and marketing.

This is a problem. A big problem. Many programmers are now digging in and wringing their hands over the smallest details that could cause listeners to tune out.

But guess what? Tune out happens. Even the best stations have a Leaky Bucket. Top of Mind Awareness brings them back. And TOMA is lower than I’ve ever seen it for most stations.

Plug And Refill The Leaky Bucket

By all means, fine-tune the station. Optimize every aspect. But that’s defensive programming. It’s plugging the leaks.

The only way to succeed is to refill the bucket with a smart, aggressive strategy designed to regain Top of Mind Awareness.

Here are three things to consider:

  • Focus On Didja Hear Moments. Design content to inspire the audience to tell others about it. Imagine them telling a friend, “Didja hear what (show) did on the radio. today?”. One method is branding content segments like this.
  • Develop Special Events. Programmers have focused on brand consistency to the point that stations have become predictable and boring. Consistency is good, but listeners respond to surprising moments. What are you doing to excite the audience each day?
  • Focus On Daily Cume. The greatest challenge is to be memorable and important enough to get listeners back each day. Devise a strategy to deliver specific tune-in occasions at specific times. A strong programming feature can be a “wedge” that refills the leaky bucket.


Regular readers recognize this familiar message. I’ve been banging this drum for years. Many experts observed that the pandemic has greatly accelerated trends, which is not a good thing for radio. Stations need to take action.

  • Radio can’t compete with streamers because we’re not willing to reduce or eliminate commercials.
  • Streaming services are becoming more popular and easier to use.

How can stations compete to fill that Leaky Bucket and earn more attention? Hint: it’s not information, music, or promotion. It’s air personalities. And not just in the morning drive. It’s time to develop personalities in all time slots.

We can help with strategies to capture and hold attention to talent that makes deep connections.

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