A radio ratings service sells information about listeners and listening patterns. Their customers are radio stations and advertisers or their agencies. Companies, such as Arbitron or Neilson, earn huge profits selling audience information.
Ratings companies draw supposedly reliable samples, of listeners. The basis for drawing samples is the known information about households, in every zip code in the country. The US Census Bureau collects relevant household information, which the research companies update, yearly.
Known information includes number of adults and children, in a household, their age and gender. Ethnicity, such as Black or Latino, is also important. Radio stations ostensibly devise formats based on such information.
A ratings company may send an introductory letter to households selected for the sample. The letter focuses on how important radio ratings are; it also outlines what the company expects of the household. A follow-up phone call, from the ratings companies, elaborates and clarifies the expectations and gets a commitment from the head of the household.
What the ratings company expects varies. A household might fill out a diary for two weeks, supposedly keeping track of radio listening from 5 am until 1 am. More likely, a household member uses a Portable People Meter (PPM) to track listening patterns.
Developed by Arbitron, in the late 1980s, PPMs resemble a pager. Worn on a belt, the PPM detects a unique tone sent from a radio station; the tone is outside the range of human hearing. While recharging, in a hub, say, overnight, the PPM uploads data using a telephone modem.
PPMs overcome the key problems of diaries, such as last-minute completion and faulty memory. Still, PPM data can easily mislead. PPMs mislead because the data it produces basis in stations "exposed to," without any sense of listening.
You walk past five stores, in a mall. Each store tunes to a different radio station. The PPM records the tone from each and five stations, to which you may never listen, otherwise, get a credit.
An upper-middle class male, who only listens to all news radio, goes to a mall to buy a gift for his wife. As he searches for the high-end jewelery store, he passes other stores. These stores tune to a Latino, Black, Korean, Religious and Country Music radio formats.
Each of these formats gets credit for a high-end listener. He never listens, only hears, such formats, occasionally, in the background, of his life. This is bias.
Radio ratings form the basis of advertising rates, most often based on number of listeners in each quarter-hour. Ratings determine station revenue. The fewer the number of listeners, in a quarter-hour, the lower the advertising rates; a station grabs at any way to include anyone in its audience.
Although station management rarely knows about the specific make up of a ratings sample, some control is possible. Stations rely on the impression formed in the mind of the listener. This station tries to form the impression it plays the most music; another station tries to form the impression it has the most entertaining personalities or fewest commercials.
An impression is the goal. Contests suggest the station wants to give something back to its listeners. Big contests attract attention: who doesn't want to win an all-expense paid dinner, with 17,500 of their closest friends, at McDonalds.
Radio ratings mostly base on smoke and mirrors. Ratings reflect what stations lead listeners to believe. Mostly, radio ratings reflect special efforts, by stations, to create a quick, if not lasting, impression.
In radio, the listener is nothing but a set of ears and a wallet. The station uses music, contests and, I hope, a live DJ to grab and hold listeners for less than 15 minutes, less than one quarter of an hour. Radio ratings companies rely on what listener claim.
Diaries lead to many ratings that PPMs supposedly fixed. Filled out at the last moment, before mailing back to the ratings companies, diaries reflected a two-week history based on memory. PPMs do the tracking, but raise other problems.
Some stations or radio chains claim PPMs overlook key parts of the listening audience. Ethnic stations, targeting Black or Latino listeners, claim the samples under-represent their listeners. Supposedly, not enough Black or Latino listeners receive PPMs
Ratings for ethnic-targeted stations fell, significantly, after PPMs came into use. This drives down ratings, advertising rates, revenue and, most of all, profits. The chains own hundreds of stations and usually exert much influence, but not in this case.
Still, other stations or chains claim the opposite effect of PPMs. The Country, Classic Rock and Greatest Hits thrive because of PPMs. Stores, for example, often tune to these innocuous formats; the formats get a credit from shoppers wearing a PPM.
When the ratings for a radio DJ are consistently low, say, once in five years, it's reason to fire him or her. There's no coaching and few second chances in radio. Radio management always thinks someone, anyone, can do the job, of any DJ, in a more cost-efficient way; that is, at a lower salary.
Too often, the DJ doesn't see her or his end coming. As radio usually has no advice loop, other than ratings, the DJ thinks he or she is doing a good job before the fall: rarely does anyone suggest how she or he can improve. Ideally, a programme director (PD) provides such advice, but almost never does.
A radio station that's active in its community usually has solid, steady ratings. Such stations don't take listeners for granted; the station staff works hard to get and keep listeners. When a radio station does not involve its staff in and with its community, ratings, advertising rates, revenue and profits are low.
Many years ago, WBZ-AM, in Boston, Massachusetts, solidified its place as the ratings leader. Community involvement was the key to its success; sister television station, WBZ-TV, channel four, ran a promotion called, "We're 4 You." When WBZ-AM pulled back its community involvement, it became vulnerable and now fights, hard, to remain the number one radio station in Boston.
The formula for radio success is much the same as for any business. Service your listeners, provide a product listeners need and want and, always, maximum involvement. A simple formula that relies on listening, not only "exposed to" over a PPM, to set a high-water mark for ratings, in the long haul.
Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.