Radio in PPM-measured markets reached 122.1 million consumers during May, according to Nielsen. That number marks a 9.4 million year-over-year increase from May 2020’s 112.7 during the coronavirus-spurred shutdown and the highest total since pre-COVID-19 March 2020, which saw 124.2 million. At least nine country stations — including the format’s two highest-cuming stations, Audacy’s “New York’s Country 94.7” WNSH New York and “US99” WUSN Chicago — experienced listener totals they hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. WNSH had a 907,200 weekly cume, followed by WUSN’s 834,800; for both stations, it was their largest cume total since March 2020.

Other PPM country stations seeing pre-pandemic cume totals as work and social life returns to a semblance of normalcy for many Americans include Bonneville International KYGO Denver (98.5) (408,800); iHeartMedia’s WGAR Cleveland (99.5) (357,800), WMIL Milwaukee (106.1) (340,900) and “The Big 98” WSIX Nashville (234,500); Cumulus Media “Nash Icon 95.5” WSM-FM Nashville; and Audacy “93.1 The Wolf” WPAW Greensboro, NC, and “94.1 The Wolf” Memphis, TN (81,800).

“People are using radio a lot, so we’re almost at pre-pandemic levels,” Audacy Country Format Captain Tim Roberts tells Country Insider. “Country is part of that movement, but I think there are a couple of other factors that play into it. We’ve been concentrating on improving our products, knowing that we had a ways to go during the pandemic. The pandemic forced us to be creative and inventive and think about how we do things.

Country currently ranks third among radio formats with a 6.2% share, behind news/talk (12.6%) and AC (7.4%). (All numbers quoted are 6+ AQH shares, Mon-Sun, 6am-12midnight.) Several country stations outdid that share individually, led by iHeartMedia WCOL Columbus (92.3) with a 9.3, up from 8.8; WSIX with a 7.8, up from 6.3; and Hall Communications “Cat Country 98.1” WCTK Providence, RI with a 7.8, down from 8.0. (WCTK also saw its best-ever presence in the Boston market, which is within the station’s coverage area.) Denver is the largest U.S. market where Nielsen’s June PPM numbers show a country station at No. 1, as Bonneville International KYGO (98.5) holds a 7.1 share to go with its 408,800 cume. “We’re finally starting to see those 2019 cume numbers again,” PD Brian Michel tells Country Insider. “Naturally, middays and PM drive, we’ve always dominated, and we were strong,” Focus on 25+ listeners, M-F, 10am-7pm, and that 7.1 overall share becomes an 8.3.

The June PPM results represent five consecutive surveys with KYGO atop the Denver market. “We’re a live and local radio station that focuses a lot of energy on the community, and I think that shows through,” Michel says.  “We like to think of KYGO as being this great community radio station that just happens to play good country music.”

In Columbus, OH, the other PPM market with a No. 1 country station, WCOL’s overall 9.3 becomes an 11.5 when filtered for women 6+. The popular “Woody & the Wake UP Call” morning show has an overall 10.9 share, second only to Ohio State University news/talk WOSU-FM; with women 6+, though, it’s a dominant 14.0.

Nashville’s WSIX picked up the most share of any PPM station, moving up 6.3-7.8 in a market where the three top country stations all saw share increases. Cumulus WSM-FM rose 7.0-7.1 and sister WKDF went up 3.3-3.5. So country’s overall share in Nashville climbed 16.6-18.4 in the June 21 survey, and the format’s overall cume increased 30,000 to 602,100 total.

Market share numbers topped 12 in three other areas. Pittsburgh went from 11.4-12.3 led by Audacy “Y108” WDSY (4.3-5.1). Three Cincinnati stations — Hubbard Broadcasting “B-105” WUBE and sister “97.3 The Wolf” WYGY, as well as Grant County “Classic Country 105.9 & 106.7” WNKN — saw increases that took the market share from 12.0-12.7. In Kansas City, MO, Steel City “Country 94.1 FM” KFKF’s 4.5-5.1 growth helped take country’s share there from 11.9-12.4.

Audacy WYCD Detroit (99.5) saw a full-point increase from 4.1-5.1, placing them in sixth in the market. The growth was even more pronounced in the 18-34 demo, where the station went from 6.6-7.9, putting it in a tie for first with iHeartMedia urban contemporary WJLB (97.9). “We’ve been pretty much a Top Five station in that demo,” notes Roberts, who programs WYCD, “but not always No. 1.”

KYGO’s Michel sees radio continuing to recover from the hit it took last year during the pandemic — a recovery that certainly is taking place at his station — but he doesn’t believe every station will experience that recovery equally. “Radio is definitely coming up again, but I don’t think all stations in our market are going to recover to the same pre-pandemic levels,” he says. “I think you’re going to see three or four mainstays and big choices that not only recover but probably exceed [their pre-pandemic levels], because they’re going to be top-of-mind choices for people as they get back into cars and leave the pandemic.”