Local radio ratings for this year’s Indianapolis 500 didn’t exactly hit the wall, but they certainly brushed the barrier and scrubbed some serious speed.
Overall listener numbers and those in the important 25-to-54 age range for May's race airing on four Emmis Communications stations decreased significantly from last year’s race.
The dent in radio ratings was likely caused by an 11th hour decision by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to air the race—the 100th running—live on television in the Indianapolis market for the first time since 1950. The race, which was televised nationally on ABC and locally on WRTV-TV Channel 6, was viewed by more than 350,000 central Indiana households, according to New York-based Nielsen Media Research.
The race was held May 29, and this month Nielsen released radio listenership numbers for the event.
The race aired locally on 93.1 FM, 93.5 FM, 107.5 FM and 1070 AM. In the 25-to-54 demographic, the race (noon to 4 p.m.) earned a 39.2 share. That means 39.2 percent of the people listening to radio at the time in that demographic were tuned into the race. That’s down from last year’s 58 share, according to Nielsen.
Despite the decline, the race remains “by far and away” the most listened-to radio event in the market, said Bob Richards, Emmis vice president of programming. This year’s Indy 500’s share was still about five times the size of a strong drive-time radio program.
Still, the race’s radio listening audience fell way short of Emmis’ earlier expectations.
Pat Walsh, Emmis’ president and chief operating officer, told IBJ the week before this year’s race that he was confident the local live TV broadcast would have little impact on radio listener numbers. He told IBJ he was anticipating a share—across all Emmis stations that air the race—of 70 percent to 80 percent. An 80 share would mean 80 percent of all people in the area listening to radio would be tuned to the race.
The cumulative audience for the race in the 25-to-54 demo also saw a sharp decline, from 147,400 in 2015 to 91,600 this year, according to Nielsen. The cumulative audience is the total number of people who tune in during the course of the broadcast.
The Average Quarter Hour, or AQH, number dropped from 72,300 last year to 30,000 this year, according to Nielsen. That number indicates how many people are listening to the broadcast at any given moment, and is a key number that advertisers watch to gauge their return on investment.
The cumulative audience for all age groups (6 years old and older) for the race dropped from about 380,000 last year to 220,000 this year, while the AQH number declined from 115,000 last year to just more than 41,000 this year, according to Nielsen.
One ad buyer told IBJ on Tuesday that those are significant declines. While the buyer’s agency got no guarantee of audience size from Emmis, agency officials are expecting some free future ad placements for their client to make up for the shortfall.
Since the numbers have only been out a short time, Richards said Emmis hasn’t yet talked to advertisers about the race broadcast’s audience size, and he declined to speculate about compensation.
“We’re looking at audience numbers that are down, but it’s still an audience size that is 13 times to 14 times higher than average audiences of that time,” Richards said. “It’s still the most significant radio broadcast of the year.”
Emmis has a contract to broadcast the race via radio that extends through next year, Richards said. He declined to elaborate on Emmis’ deal with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or on whether or not the track would in some way compensate Emmis for its late decision to broadcast the race live on TV in this market.
While most racing observers expect 2017 Indy 500 attendance to drop compared to this year's estimated 350,000—leading to the track to again black out the race on local TV—Richards said Emmis has not had that conversation with Speedway officials and he doesn’t expect to in the foreseeable future.
“We’re partners with the track and have a fantastic relationship with [IMS officials]. We support and understand what they did with the TV broadcast,” Richards said. “The race still delivered a massive audience for us this year and we look forward to being a part of it in the future.”