How The Beat beat Virgin (and other trends of Montreal radio ratings)

Numeris released its quarterly metered radio ratings today. There aren’t a lot of surprises, because it’s mostly the same numbers as the last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.

So instead of just excitedly reposting the top-line numbers or fetching the various spins by the broadcasters that make everyone look like they had the best quarter, I thought I’d take a look at some historical data and see how the stations are trending over time.

I did this exercise for Canada’s five metered markets for Cartt.ca after the last ratings book. If you’re a subscriber you can read them there: VancouverEdmonton and Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.

In this post, I’ll go into some more detail about the Montreal numbers, with charts!

Fall 2018

For the record, here are this fall’s market shares among anglophones:

  1. CJAD 800 30.2%
  2. The Beat 92.5 16.6%
  3. CHOM 97.7 10.7%
  4. Virgin 95.9 10.6%
  5. CBC Radio One 10.1%
  6. TSN 690 2.9%
  7. Rythme FM 2.8%
  8. CBC Music 2.7%
  9. 98.5FM 1.6%
  10. Rouge FM 0.9%
  11. CKOI 0.7%
  12. Énergie 0.7%
  13. ICI Première 0.6%
  14. ICI Musique 0.2%
  15. AM 980 0.2%
  16. 91,9 Sports 0.1%
  17. Circulation 730 0.1%

Market shares among francophones:

  1. 98,5: 21.4%
  2. ICI Première: 13.0%
  3. Rythme FM 12.7%
  4. Rouge 9.9%
  5. CKOI 8.3%
  6. CHOM 7.1%
  7. Énergie 5.6%
  8. The Beat 5.3%
  9. Virgin 4.4%
  10. 91,9 Sports 2.0%
  11. ICI Musique 1.9%
  12. CJAD 0.7%
  13. TSN 690 0.6%
  14. AM 980 0.5%
  15. CBC Music 0.3%
  16. Circulation 730 0.2%
  17. CBC Radio One 0.2%

One station is no longer on this list: francophone community station CIBL 101.5. The station is in the middle of a financial crisis. A manager brought in to turn its finances around subscribed to Numeris in 2016 after learning the cost wasn’t as high for community stations who didn’t need complete data. But the top line share among francophones never climbed above 0.1%.

Virgin vs. The Beat

The Beat launched in the fall of 2011, with a dramatic rebrand (including new call letters) of 92.5 The Q, formerly Q92. Gone was the “lite rock” image that focus groups associated with their mothers, replaced with a big marketing campaign, new “hotter” adult contemporary music and some personalities snatched from competitor Virgin Radio. Within its first year, Cat Spencer, Nat Lauzon and Cousin Vinny made the switch.

Virgin, which had rebranded itself from Mix 96 in 2009, bringing in a network Ryan Seacrest show in daytime, made Freeway Frank and Natasha Gargiulo their new morning show (both are still there seven years later), and used Andrea Collins and Nikki Balch to fill daytime (Balch is also now at The Beat).

In the short term, there wasn’t any obvious trend in the ratings. The fall of 2011 was good for The Beat, but there was a setback in the winter. The stations were tied in the spring of 2012, but then The Beat fell behind again. Finally, starting in winter 2013, The Beat pulled ahead, at least among total audiences. Virgin still had the advantage in key demographics, which led to several books where both could claim to be #1.

The two remained competitive for a while, but then in 2016, and especially in 2017, The Beat started pulling away, and Virgin started slipping. In fall 2017, for the first time since Virgin became Virgin, it fell behind sister station CHOM in overall market share.

No one obvious change can explain the difference, but a few key things happened in those years that may have had an effect.

  • On-air staff: This is the one people like to point to because it’s the most forward-facing and emotional. But if you attribute The Beat’s success to poaching staff from Virgin, then you have to attribute its recent dominance to losing a bunch of people through resignations and layoffs: Kim Sullivan (2016), Sarah Bartok (2016), Natasha Hall (2016, to CJAD), Ken Connors (2016, to CJAD), Adam Greenberg (2017, to Virgin). Virgin, meanwhile, lost Collins (2016) and Shannon Brooksbank (2017). Despite some shuffling, neither station has added as much talent as they’ve lost (The Beat’s Rob Kemp and Meghan Kelly notwithstanding).
  • Management: 2016 and 2017 was also a tumultuous year for management at both stations. The Beat let go of program director Sam Zniber in 2016, replacing him with Martin Tremblay, a former Astral/Bell boss of their French music stations in Montreal. In 2017, Tremblay was rehired at Bell Media to head Énergie and Rouge but also Virgin Radio. The Beat hired Luc Tremblay (no relation to Martin) as general manager and made CKOI boss Jean-Sébastien Lemire program director (he’s since been replaced by Paul Awad). Virgin, at least, has had stability in its program director position, with Mark Bergman holding the role since Virgin launched in 2009.
  • Music: This one has the biggest impact but is the hardest to classify. The Beat’s Wikipedia page lists its format as “rhythmic adult contemporary”, but in the past few years it’s tried to expand its scope a bit, as shown by its branding, adding the tagline “Montreal’s perfect mix,” making it sound like the Mix 96 of old. Virgin hasn’t changed much, following the national brand but with the caveat that it has to meet the CRTC’s hit music limits for FM stations in Montreal. Other people are more qualified than I am to comment on this, but you shouldn’t underestimate its impact.
  • Talk/music mix: A lot of people who scan their radios through music stations will just keep going if they hear an announcer giving a traffic report or talking celebrity gossip. Which is why music stations like to keep their announcer breaks short. Like, really short. Like, seven seconds short. In a metered world, every second counts. I don’t have enough data to quantify how short those breaks are on average, but I did notice The Beat tightening up its breaks in recent years.
  • Promotions: There’s a reason radio stations have promotions departments. The Beat made a huge splash when it launched in 2011, and has been keeping the promotions game active ever since. Virgin has only recently been upping its game with highly promoted cash giveaways.
  • Everything else: The Beat does better in the winter because of Christmas music. People didn’t understand that “96” meant “95.9” on their dials. Some sort of voodoo curse. All sorts of other reasons could come into play for why this happened. All we can say is that something happened.

In short, I don’t know why The Beat has higher ratings than Virgin now. Maybe the 2011 rebranding work by then general manager Mark Dickie and PD Leo Da Estrela was a success that took a while to solidify as listeners slowly changed their habits. Maybe the marketing effort slowly got people (particularly young women) associating the station with hit music that’s more in line with their tastes. Maybe it was a combination of hard work by managers, on-air staff and promotions. Or maybe Nat Lauzon used her dog blog to pass a secret message to canines across the region to tune their owners’ radios to 92.5.

But The Beat is ahead. And that’s no fluke.

So what now? Does Virgin clean house? Rumours have been circulating or a while that Bell might drop the Virgin brand, especially after wiping away talent at morning shows in Edmonton and Toronto. I have no insider information on whether that will happen or not.

Another question to ask is whether anything really needs to happen at Virgin. Being the top-rated music station offers a lot of bragging rights, but it isn’t the most important thing to a company like Bell Media. If you’re breaking the bank to get that top rating (say, by poaching talent from your competitor), you could end up less profitable.

I don’t know if Virgin has accepted having lower ratings as a consequence of spending less on programming (technically I don’t even know if they’re spending less on programming, but it certainly seems that way). All I do know is that with another book showing it tied with CHOM (which is itself trending down), this can’t be a good day for Bergman and his team.

Talk

The one constant in Montreal anglo radio ratings is the dominance of CJAD when you count all age groups. With a 30% market share, it’s by far atop everyone else. And its share is increasing over time, despite the decline of AM radio generally.

I don’t have any really good theories on why this is, so I’ll just say CJAD deserves credit generally for its work over the past few years.

Meanwhile, just about every ratings report leads to angry comments about TSN Radio 690, whose fans are ever emotional about everything. They look at the 2-3% market share and blame it squarely on whatever on-air personality they don’t like.

The trend for the station has been flat over seven years, and a bit lower in the past year and a half, which happens to coincide with the time the Canadiens have been underperforming in the NHL. Despite how low it is compared to the other stations in the market, its share is about the same as sports talk stations in the other metered markets, generally between 1.5 and 4% (except for TSN 1050 in Toronto, which hasn’t climbed above 1% in five years).

The news has been much better for 91,9 Sports, which launched its sports talk format in the fall of 2015. Since then, ratings have improved greatly, despite a big step back this summer. Unfortunately that station’s future isn’t looking good.

Another success story on the francophone side is Radio-Canada’s talk station ICI Première, which has been closing the gap with 98,5FM, particularly since 2016.

Music

Here, I’ve charted total (anglo + franco) total average minute audience for all music stations since 2015 (when Numeris began including those figures in its top-line numbers). A few trends to note:

  • Rythme FM has lost its dominance. Whether it’s because of Véronique Cloutier leaving for competitor Rouge, or some other programming or music change, it’s now in a tighter race with other stations.
  • The Beat is #2. When you add both francophone and anglophone audiences together, the English music stations do quite well because of how many francophones listen to them. In summer 2017 The Beat almost became the most popular music station in Montreal. But otherwise it’s been #2 for two and a half years.
  • CHOM has more than twice as many francophone listeners as anglophone ones. The lack of a rock music station in French has led many to franco rock fans to choose CHOM even though it doesn’t play a lot of French music. Recently Énergie has tried to respond to that by adding more rock to its mix, but its reward has been to fall behind CHOM among francophone audiences.

  • Fewer people are listening overall. Add up the average minute audiences and you see a downward trend. Some stations, like CJAD and CKOI, are increasing their market share simply by holding onto their audiences as other stations decline. Is a 10% drop over three years something worth panicking about?

Let me know if there are other comparisons you’d like me to make. Note that the data I have doesn’t allow for breakdowns by time slot or demographic.

In the meantime, congrats once again to everyone for being #1!

The spin room

As usual, here’s everyone spinning their ratings success this quarter:

  • The Beat: Top-rated English music station, and top-rated station among anglophones 25-54 and anglo women 25-54 (video).
  • CHOM (video): Most listened-to rock music station in all of Canada, top station among men 25-54 in Montreal
  • CJAD: Top-rated radio station in Montreal among anglophones, with top eight shows
  • Virgin: 1.9 million listeners
  • 98.5: Most listened-to radio station in all of Canada, most listened-to morning show in all of Canada, all daytime shows #1 in the market, 52.2% share for overnight show with Jacques Fabi (video)
  • Rythme FM: Top-rated music station in Montreal (video)
  • Rouge: Ahead of Rythme FM among adults 25-54 (video)
  • Énergie: Ahead of CKOI among men 25-54 and 75,000 new listeners (video).
  • CKOI: Top-rated station in Montreal among 18-34 and 25-44, ahead of Énergie among all adults 25-54 (video).
  • Radio-Canada: ICI Première’s average listening time of 5.8 hours is highest in the market
  • Circulation 730: 1.1 million listeners
  • TSN 690: Literally nothing highlighted about it in Bell’s press release

And more independent coverage from Le Devoir and La Presse.

Diary ratings release

Numeris released its ratings for diary markets, including Quebec City, Sherbrooke, Saguenay, Trois-Rivières, Drummondville and Ottawa-Gatineau last week. You can see that report here.

Here are the top lines for market share by market in Quebec:

Quebec City

  1. ICI Première 106,3: 19.9%
  2. CHOI Radio X: 12.9%
  3. FM93: 11.7%
  4. WKND 91,9: 10.2%
  5. Rouge 107,5: 10.1%
  6. MFM 102.9: 7.6%
  7. Énergie 98,9: 7.1%
  8. Pop 100,9: 4.5%
  9. blvd 102,1: 3.9%
  10. ICI Musique 95,3: 3.1%
  11. CBC Radio One 104.7: 0.8%

Saguenay

  1. KYK Radio X 95,7: 25.7%
  2. Rouge 96,9: 23.1%
  3. Énergie 94,5: 12.8%
  4. ICI Première 93,7: 12.2%
  5. ICI Musique 100,9: 3.0%

Sherbrooke

  1. Rouge 102,7/94,5: 21.2%
  2. ICI Première 101,1: 16.8%
  3. Énergie 106,1: 15.4%
  4. 107,7fm: 11.9%
  5. Rythme 93,7/98,1: 7.3%
  6. ICI Musique 90,7: 3.8%

Trois-Rivières

  1. Énergie 102,3: 17.3%
  2. Rouge 94,7: 14.7%
  3. Rythme 100,1: 12.3%
  4. ICI Première 96,5: 11.8%
  5. 106,9fm: 9.9%
  6. ICI Musique 104,3: 6.1%
  7. CKBN 90,5: 4.6%

Drummondville

  1. Énergie 92,1: 24.5%
  2. Rouge 105,3: 21.7%

Ottawa/Gatineau franco

  1. ICI Première: 17.6%
  2. Rouge 94,9: 12.8%
  3. Énergie 104,1: 9.7%
  4. 104,7 FM: 9.7%
  5. WOW 97,1: 7.3%
  6. ICI Musique: 6.3%
  7. Pop 96,5: 4.1%
  8. Hot 89.9: 3.5%
  9. Jump! 106.9: 2.8%

10 thoughts on “How The Beat beat Virgin (and other trends of Montreal radio ratings)

  1. Derek

    On CJAD’s continued dominance of market share: used to be, I would flip between AM and FM whether I wanted local information or music. Now the choice is the same but the flip is between AM (CJAD) or my home-built, iPhone-powered music collection,. I’m sure many are in the same boat.

    Reply
  2. DGP

    My guess would be that The Beat has access to a few Personal People Meter devices. Since the sample size is so low in the English Radio pool a few devices can skew the results pretty dramatically. And my 2nd conspiracy theory is that shopping malls play The Beat on the overhead so any PPM participant will automatically track that signal. Could be why their French numbers are so strong too.

    Reply
  3. Dilbert

    First off, let’s be honest: The Beat isn’t really growing, it’s falling in ratings. In fact, it’s market share at this point is about the same as it was in 2011 (earliest points on your chart). While their format has certain given them a nice “hump” in the last few years, it’s slowly sliding down.

    However, they aren’t sliding anywhere near as fast as Virgin, which was almost in a free fall for the last couple of years.

    The real trend in the numbers is that fewer and fewer radio listeners are listening to music stations. As Derek pointed out, widespread use of personal music libraries and such is likely one source of decline, and that underlines also a question of aging: Younger people are more likely to be up on the current technology and likely to get their music from other sources (streaming, downloads, etc). It’s telling also that the number four music station for anglos is a Francophone station.

    Second, the Beat and Virgin both have a serious problem in the Franco listener market. CHOM outdraws each of them by about 50%. Net total listeners, CHOM is actually doing pretty well!

    Third, there is the “Bell” effect. Back in the day (do I sound old?), CJAD, Mix96, and CHOM had different news, weather, sports, and traffic. Now, they are all pretty much the same, Sports from TSN, news from CJAD, common traffic center, and so on. There isn’t any variety at play any more. When all but one of the top 5 stations are owned by the same people, there is little interest in rocking the boat, little possibility to make the on the air personality of the stations that much different. It’s generic, by the book, down to the minute dullness served fresh.

    Finally, and let’s be fair here: The rating system sucks, and the numbers are almost nonsense. Measuring single minute exposure risks putting accidental, incidental, and unintentional listening into the mix to generate an audience number.

    Moreover, the numbers show some pretty weird things. CJAD has 15,800 per minute average over the day, assuming 18 hours that means 17,064,000 listener minutes per day. with a daily cume of 176,100 listeners, it suggests each one of them averages 96 minutes per day. The problem? There is no simple way to know what part of that 176,100 are one minute listeners, and which are loyal. If 50% of the listeners are 10 minutes or less, the rest are tuned for literal hours.

    The other part that is missing is out of the global market size, what percentage actually intentionally listen to radio? By that I mean what percentage actually actively turn on the radio, control the content, and decide to listen to it, and what percentage are exposed at work or in a Taxi or what have you? Since the bar for a listener is an incredibly low 1 minute, unintended exposure seems to risk being an important number.

    Yeah, I know, long post – whatever. The final thing of course is that the sample size is relatively low, extrapolated widely, and may not have anything to do with reality. As someone said, all a station needs to do is score a few of the meters on their team, and their ratings shoot way up. Perhaps it’s the most telling thing, maybe those people who listen to The Beat and Virgin can’t be bothered to do the metering thing, and maybe more retirees that listen to CJAD have the time for it… who knows?

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The Beat isn’t really growing, it’s falling in ratings. In fact, it’s market share at this point is about the same as it was in 2011 (earliest points on your chart). While their format has certain given them a nice “hump” in the last few years, it’s slowly sliding down.

      The Beat’s trendline is flat since 2015 in average minute audience, and positive in anglo market share since 2011. I tend to trust more long-term data than just the latest data point, which is kind of the point of this post.

      Second, the Beat and Virgin both have a serious problem in the Franco listener market. CHOM outdraws each of them by about 50%. Net total listeners, CHOM is actually doing pretty well!

      This is almost certainly a question of formats. The Beat and Virgin compete with Rythme FM and Rouge FM (and even CKOI) for francophone listeners, while there isn’t really a francophone equivalent to CHOM. Hence, more francophones proportionally will be listening to CHOM. Unless The Beat or Virgin radically change formats, there isn’t much they can do about that.

      Back in the day (do I sound old?), CJAD, Mix96, and CHOM had different news, weather, sports, and traffic. Now, they are all pretty much the same, Sports from TSN, news from CJAD, common traffic center, and so on. There isn’t any variety at play any more.

      This is true, but is it important? Do people choose radio stations based on the uniqueness of the voice delivering traffic reports?

      The rating system sucks, and the numbers are almost nonsense. Measuring single minute exposure risks putting accidental, incidental, and unintentional listening into the mix to generate an audience number.

      This is true, which is why it’s good to have a larger sample size. These numbers are based on 24-hour monitoring over three months, and the trends I point out are quarterly averages of that over several years.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        “Hence, more francophones proportionally will be listening to CHOM. Unless The Beat or Virgin radically change formats, there isn’t much they can do about that.”

        The lack of variety in formats is perhaps it’s own failing. All aiming for the same core demographic means that they all get a slice of the pie, someone wins and someone loses. In a more competitive marketplace (more players and less regulation) you might see a franco station competing with CHOM. However, the regulations on French content and such make that impossible.

        “Do people choose radio stations based on the uniqueness of the voice delivering traffic reports?”

        The uniqueness of the voice isn’t just in the sound, but also how that voice interacts with others on the station. It use to be that the newscaster, the sports person, the traffic person… they all interacted with the host(s), sometimes staying around for a while to chat about stuff, adding dimension and character. They create an atmosphere that is missing when it’s all just a collection of parts. Essentially, it could all be delivered by a robot.

        “These numbers are based on 24-hour monitoring over three months”

        Which in turn leads to incidental listening being key in the ratings. If every day you go into a coffee shop, and it’s takes you 2 minutes to get a coffee, and they happen to have station X or Y on, you are now a listener – even if you had headphones on or even if you were talking on the phone, and so on. Get into a Taxi and another station is on and you are a listener – even if you are not listening. By making no distinction between active and passive listening (listening you choose to do rather than ambient noise exposure), the ratings sort of mislead and suggest the audiences are way larger than they really are.

        Reply
  4. Marc

    Virgin and The Beat still sound way too much alike. I think there is room for a “softer” listen-at-work station, what Q92 was. The demographic of young millennials (born 89-95) and oldest post-millennial (born 96-00) gen Z?) is owned by The Beat. Way back in the 90’s, that was owned by Mix96. So it would make a world of sense from a programming perspective for CJFM to make a switch. But Bell doesn’t care about that kind of thing and only about if they’re in the black or the red.

    Reply
  5. Graham

    having worked for 690, ratings mean a lot more than what you are dismissing. any % point increase or decrease was very important. Unless someone told you otherwise, 690 takes ratings extremely seriously.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Unless someone told you otherwise, 690 takes ratings extremely seriously.

      I don’t doubt that they do. But it’s hard to draw too many conclusions based on top-line numbers that have stayed low and relatively flat the past few years.

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    No offense to anyone who works there but I just cannot stomach the Virgin morning show. Time for a shuffle or shakeup.

    Reply

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