Monday, June 23, 2008
Radio: Arbitron's Portable People Eater
Here we go again!
What can one say about an industry that embraces a failed technology (HD Radio) while battling another (Arbitron’s portable people meter) that could help it?
We’re in a time of classic movie remakes.
I propose a new twenty-first century version of Rebel without a Cause.
The original had James Dean playing the role of a rebellious teenager named Jim Stark, who had to prove himself a worthy gang member by drag racing stolen cars toward a cliff. The first one to jump before the car when over the edge was labeled a “chicken.”
I’m going to call the remake Rebels without a Cause.
Meet the rebels: John Hogan, CEO of Clear Channel radio; Lew Dickey, CEO of Cumulus Media; Alfred Liggins, CEO of Radio One; Bob Neil, the CEO of Cox Radio, and Charles Warfield, president of Inner City Broadcasting.
In this version they’re rebelling against new technology by choosing to drive their radio stations into an abyss rather than accept – and improve upon - change. Read the script here.
We are talking about Arbitron’s portable people meter.
Show me a survey or poll that’s perfect. You can’t.
Show me anything that is one hundred percent accurate. You can’t.
The People Meter has imperfections – I won’t argue with that. However, it’s an obvious improvement over the Arbitron diary.
Prove me wrong? You can’t.
The diary is over, terminated, finito. Say goodbye.
When I got my first full-time do-or-die program director position in 1973, some of the radio old timers I’d come in contact with were still grieving over the good old days of the Pulse and Hooper ratings services.
My future radio career was dependent on three four-week surveys. They were called A-R-B’s – an acronym for American Research Bureau, which conducted the surveys. ARB was renamed Arbitron a couple of years later. A small number of selected respondents kept a daily diary of their radio listening habits for one week out of the four week survey. The listening habits of those few diary holders represented all radio users.
Each Arbitron ratings period surveyed the last two weeks of the first month and the first two weeks of the second. They were known as the January-February, April-May, July-August, and October-November “books.”
Our promotion and marketing had to be geared for those four-week surveys. Forget about the other forty weeks. Sure, we had what we called “roll up,” which was radio’s version of pre-season games – and many stations bought into expensive – and often unnecessary - research to predict their Arbitron results.
Billboards for radio stations went up all over town; TV was saturated with radio spots, and newspapers were packed with mostly kitschy radio print ads.
Some stations would try and buy its audience with giveaways of houses, cars, and cash. Those that didn’t have the budget for big buck promotions had to compete by being the best they could be.
The results of those surveys – which were clearly called “estimates” – determined whose heads would roll and whose formats would change. Most importantly, the results of those “estimates” determined a station’s rate card. You lived and died by those numbers.
A few years later Arbitron extended their surveys. This year, for example, markets with four survey periods are in continuous measurement for 48 weeks, which started January 10 and will end on December 10.
And what did radio do with this new improved continuous survey? You guessed it. They rebelled against it. Stations could no longer crowd their promotional and marketing campaigns into four week periods – and programming had to maintain its attributes perennially.
Now, we are faced with the first real technological improvement that will appreciably reduce error. I repeat – reduce error – not necessarily eliminate it.
I fail to see a raison d'être why a system that records actual listening habits would be wrong for radio – unless the truth hurts. And it probably does.
There’s good reason why Arbitron’s people meters are making some radio executives nervous.
Diaries provided occasion for respondents to falsify or forget what they listened to. The personal people meter corrects those inaccuracies.
There is trepidation among radio groups that people meters, which record actual radio listening, will show serious decline in morning drive listening with some formats and demos. What if more former radio listeners now prefer television morning shows to radio, for example?
Twenty years ago most kitchens had radios. Today, most have televisions.
What about at-work, in-store, and in-car listening where, in some situations, terrestrial radio has been replaced by satellite radio and iPod docking stations?
There’s good reason why someone will pay to listen to radio. Think about it.
What about those who listen at work or at home on line? What if they are listening to streams of stations from other markets – or Internet-only stations? What if they're not even listening to radio?
What about a people meter respondent working or being in an environment for a significant period who has to listen to a radio whose station of choice is controlled by another?
Non-English speaking radio stations may also show an increase in some markets.
Rock stations may - or should I say - will learn that future growth will not come from mollycoddling lewd dudes and appealing to knucklehead nation.
Sure, they’ll have to be fine-tuning with the people meter. Show me any product that provides use and measurement statistics that isn’t continually upgraded as technology necessitates.
Radio strategies with programming, promotion, and marketing will change – maybe for the better – and, for certain, the industry will have to adapt to a new learning curve.
Radio isn’t alone. Nielsen is adding people meters for television viewing. By 2011, Nielsen people meters will be in all top fifty television markets.
It’s believed that with television, Nielsen’s people meters will show increase in UHF and cable viewing and that “sweeps weeks” will become meaningless since the Nielsen people meters will be able to provide continuous weekly surveys.
Of the major radio chains only CBS Radio has chosen not to be part of the radio rebel gang challenging Arbitron. They’re preparing for radio’s impending extreme makeover. Maybe CBS does have a grip on radio’s future.
For the rest of you, stop looking for villains to blame radio’s ills on. Just stop your whining and learn to live with it. It may even be good for some of you. If it isn’t, well….what’s the old saying? The elevator’s at the end of the hall.
Fleetwood Mac Attack