Research Decoded #2: Cumulatively-Speaking

Co-Founder and Insights Director

It all starts here.

Without Cumulative audience, there’s nothing – it’s the essential fuel of radio audience measurement.

Next in my series on decoding common research jargon, we explore the practicalities of interpreting “cume” (for short) results, and what actions can improve them.

Whether you say Tomāto or Tomäto, its a major talking point on survey day.


To quote from Gfk’s 2015 Radio Ratings Tool Kit  Cumulative audience is the total number of different people who listen to a station for at least eight minutes (one quarter-hour) during any time period. Cumes illustrate audience size, as they estimate the unduplicated number of people reached by a station at least once during a particular time period. E.g. “Station K has 575,000 unique listeners between 5.30am and midnight, Mon- Fri.”

Everyone usually talks about this cume number in thousands (also known as Reach – especially in other media), because it’s a tangible, relatable way of describing the size of your audience. Even better if you can do it in millions – When You Got It, Flaunt It!

Playing the Percentage Game

But the more useful number for analysis is not your thousands (or millions), but the cume percentage.

Cumulative audience can also be expressed as a percentage of total audience or in thousands (000’s).For example, “Station K has 575,000 unique listeners between 5.30am and 12mn Monday- Friday. 54% of all listeners in this time period tuned in at least once to Station K.”

There are two major reasons for spending time on percentage …

1.       The Total radio cume audience can naturally fluctuate each survey. So, even if your cume 000’s goes down, your % might still increase, because the Total went down –  check percentage first before taking reactive action. Especially if your team feels deflated – it may actually be good news!

2.       It’s an excellent insight and reality-check, into how many diaries you had in play during the survey period, which I previously described in more detail here  . Simply by applying your % cume figure to the total sample, that’s how many diaries had any mentions of your station. Break it out by narrow demos, and divide by the weeks of the survey, and that’s the sharp reminder of why every single cume-diary is so valuable!

Interpreting & Managing Cume

There are many dimensions to cume, as interpretation depends on the context of your station’s competitive position, entertainment & information cycles, seasonal influences, format characteristics, and history.

There’s no one hard&fast rule on causes and effects, and how you can manage cume maintenance and growth.

Cume is mostly habitual

I’ve frequently discussed how much radio listening is driven by habit, and that includes cume.

Which may seem contradictory, as we often think of cume as generated by random channel-surfing when available to the listener e.g. in-car.

The trick is that even flicking is a habit – think presets – where the daily flick-menu of primary P(reference 1) station and secondary P2 choices is mostly predetermined.

New brands, and those in trouble, battle to even make it into this “cume-set”. And why launches need heavy external marketing to succeed.

Of course, there’s always the chance of being randomly discovered, but you can’t bet the farm on building “accidental” cume. That being good enough, people will find you and hang around – doesn’t happen on a large enough scale to be effective.

Cume needs marketing

Strong brands with high-performance breakfast&bookend shows, and/or a well-differentiated music position can often re-stimulate cume, just through their cume-set, social media following or database. Major content tent-pole events and promotions can remind surfers to land on you for a specific benefit, and gain some longer-listening as well.

Otherwise it needs the hard yards of some form of external marketing campaign to create new preset listeners.

BTW marketing radio is about call-to-action, not awareness. Just your name, breakfast show line-up, frequency and position isn’t enough. You can have a high level of awareness and still be ignored by your target. What ‘s the emotional, topical, content reason for tuning to you, right now!

Format can define cume

You can’t shoot for the moon in wild optimism, and over-promise to your shareholders, if there are natural boundaries to your format.

Brad March summed it up in the Tomato article “Cume and Time Spent Listening (TSL) is largely determined by format. Formats such as Rock / Classic Rock / Talk being low Cume high TSL, CHR being high Cume low TSL, Soft A/C a strong TSL format etc”.

I would also add that Talk can be high cume for top personalities, seasonal sport and dramatic breaking news. At its peak it can have both high Cume & TSL – but just think of the years of heavy investment needed!. It’s a very brave board that will back your proposal to enter, and dominate the talk space!

Be aware of cume benchmarks for your format competitor-set, and whether you’re trending higher or lower over a longer-term. Don’t take just one result as gospel, as with any survey result – and again cume % is the most reliable guide.

CHR is a prime example of a format that always needs high cume as a priority, but also can’t afford to let TSL slip too far. Because that can be a danger sign (see below).

Not all cume growth is equal

When all’s going well, your cume grows, and your share improves through longer TSL (next article #3).

However, there are nervous moments when cume is still strong, but share trends decline. Time to take a cool analytical look at the situation.

One reason can be positive –  marketing & promotion are bringing in new trial listeners. They’re sampling, but not yet staying longer until comfortable with changing their habit listening, to the point where you become their P1 choice.

This just takes some time and patience, as share will not only bounce back, but also increase to a new level.  Ideally you’re attracting heavy listeners in the mix, because of their high individual diary value.

Younger formats can also experience this effect, if they have a sudden influx of low-TSL teens. Or a high-TSL adult male format grows in lower-TSL females.

Cume as a hollow shell

The other type of reason is not so good. You may have been around long enough to build a preset cume habit, and establish “sticky” content for TSL, but something’s changed.

You may have lost a key personality, or your music is missing the mark. Worse -a new format competitor has taken that personality and directly challenged you on music. Or your execution is generally not as good as it used to be for whatever reason.

Your cume appears to be OK, but it’s a false impression because you’re becoming more of a secondary choice, and someone else is picking up favourite status.

As always, its best to view this as a trend, not a one-off. But if a trend, then corrective TSL action is needed, before even the cume starts a long-term decline.

At that point it’s a slow rebuild, or a relaunch/rebrand – or even a new format. Good luck with that one, as hard-won listening habits have finally been broken, and your “loved brand” equity, which can usually withstand some bumps, as listeners can be forgiving, has been worn down!

Cume can drive quarter-hour share

It’s also possible to attract so much cume through major dayparts, that your quarter-hour thousands are boosted to the point of creating a competitive share.

This is where a superstar personality offering, and/or sticky content can make you a consistently, compelling first choice, even for shorter periods of listening.

Takeout Exercise

·         Do you know the cume percentage trends for your format competitor set?

·         Are you and your competitors in cume % growth or decline over the  last 2 years or more?

·         Can you visualise that % as the number of actual weekly diaries that mentioned you  in the last survey period?

·         Is your current strategy aimed at being added to presets, and claiming diaries?

Eriks Celmins is Managing Director of Third Wave Media, international consultant for research, strategy and content.Full Member of Australian Market& Social Research Society (AMSRS).LinkedIn

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