Radio

Don't Measure Me, Bro

Why broadcasters fear accurate audience ratings

|

When Los Angeles' graying hipster population lost its finest radio station in December, an unlikely culprit was fingered. Mark Sovel, music director for Indie 103.1, an eclectic home for golden age punk and latermodel alternative music, claimed the station's audience had been fatally undercounted by a new Arbitron audience measurement technology: the Portable People Meter.

A host of government officials—including the New York City Council; the attorneys general of New York, New Jersey, and Maryland; and several legislators, among them the erstwhile senator Barack Obama—have shared Sovel's wrath, though their objections to the Portable People Meter (PPM) have centered on the possibility that the ratings technology undercounted black and Hispanic listeners. Indie 103.1, which has been replaced by a Spanish-language pop station, could make no such claim, but it's revealing that the PPM, a ratings system that is manifestly more accurate than its predecessor, has drawn the wrath of such diverse players.

The Portable People Meter does away with the old user-diary system of ratings collection, in which members of a population sample write down their listening diet throughout the day and send in their diaries at the end of the week. Instead, a sampled person now carries a small, pager-like device that automatically records the inaudible identification codes of stations with which he or she comes in contact.

Diary keeping, a sacrament more demanding and less forgiving than marriage, is not the ideal way to record the activities of a large sample of any population. Metered ratings, such as the system the Nielsen Company now uses to measure television viewing, provide a much more accurate accounting of daily media consumption. "In the diary, people tend to tell us they listen to two, maybe three stations in the course of a day," says Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky. "With PPM we find it's five or six, and that they are not listening in big, regular blocks. They listen in smaller blocks, and their listening is less habitual than the diary system indicated." They're also listening to less radio overall than previously believed—a repeat of Nielsen's discovery, when it switched to electronic metering, that broadcast TV numbers had been overcounted. Some radio stations have seen their audience numbers plunge by more than 50 percent overnight.

Although most PPM opponents focus on the way samples are selected, some raise objections about the technology itself. They note, for example, that a non-English speaker typically will come into contact with many English-language stations without actually listening to any of them. The technology also runs into some refusal issues, as participants object to carrying around a gadget all day long. But these problems are easily correctable. "Whatever shortcomings there are in the sample are more than compensated by the greater accuracy of the system," says Phil Napoli, a communications professor at Fordham University and the author of Audience Economics.

The electronic metering contretemps raises a weird but important question about communication: Is the audience's attention the thing you want to capture, or are you really after its inattention?

The effectiveness of Web banner ads was a subject of hot debate in the late 20th century. Because online audiences at the time were vanishingly small, banners were marketed to advertisers as a uniquely powerful tool. You weren't just providing passive exposure for your product. You were giving the buyer an easy clickthrough to the point of purchase, a billboard that raptures customers directly to your store.

For a while, advertisers paid huge premiums for the privilege. But as click-through rates remained, with few exceptions, at or below 1 percent (not terrible compared to the traditional response rate for, say, directmail campaigns, but far less revolutionary than promised), banner ads endured a nasty backlash. It didn't matter that the banner was still delivering old-fashioned brand-building by repetition and catchphrase that was no less Fahrvergnügen than what you'd get from billboard, print, and broadcast advertising. The banner ad's very interactivity was used as evidence against it.

Yet the dream of reaching more motivated buyers never went away. "Simple exposure to an ad is fading as something advertisers really value," says Napoli. "If you listen to the buzzwords today, it's all about engagement, recall, attentiveness, things like that. If that trend continues, advertisers will be willing to pay for other things besides exposure."

In principle, more accurate ratings—which uncover audiences for a much broader range of stations—
should benefit minority and niche broadcasters. So should the trend toward smarter targeted ads. But we can't underestimate the power of the status quo, particularly in the last heavily regulated media market.

All these struggles over scarce bandwidth are taking place while the supply of listening options continues to outgrow the audience. High-definition radio is struggling to find a market; a mere 330,000 HD units were sold nationwide in 2007, and 2008 figures are not expected to top half a million. Sirius XM, which valued radio listeners so highly it was willing to fight for them in outer space, is perilously close to extinction. Internet radio, where audience ratings are painfully clear, is growing at nearly 30 percent per year. Only in analog radio, where the spectrum is owned by the government, is supply still scarce.

Most of the thinking about communication and advertising was developed in this environment of scarcity. More than 15 years into the commercial Internet, it's still not clear how much or how little of that thinking still applies. The marketing research firm Yankee Group projects that online advertising revenues (across all sectors, not just radio) will top $50 billion by 2011. Per the old advertising rule of thumb, half of that money will be wasted. As the Portable People Meter controversy shows, we may not really want to know which half.

Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles.

NEXT: Another One Rides the Bus

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Thanks for the informative article Tim!

    When things are not going the way they did 100 years ago, run to the government to turn back the clock.

    What ever happened to low-power FM that was all the buzz a few years ago?

  2. I’d fear the possibility of a massive ratings spike when Nickelback’s playing, too.

  3. By signing this Executive Order I hereby mandate that PPMs shall be placed in all new vehicles beginning with the 2011 model year. Women and minorities have been under-represented on the nation’s airwaves for far too long. Vast sums of money are at stake, and a nation that prides itself on fairness must act quickly and decisively to remedy this fundamental inequity.

  4. Happy Harry Hard-on!

    Pump Up the Volume was quite possibly the greatest teen angst film of all time IMO.

  5. Hmmm… HD doesn’t stand for High Definition (for radio), although I think it’s essentially fraudulent the way the radio industry portrays it. If it stands for anything, it’s Hybrid Digital. I doubt anyone but the NAB could get away such a blatant deception.

  6. I like Pump Up The Volume, but just like the objection voiced on these very pages on the subject of V For Vendetta, PUTV sets up a system that no one would agree with and then dares to disagree with it.

    Heathers is the greatest of the teen angst films because it shows that angst as the vacuous self-obsession it really is, absurd in it’s murderous earnestness.

  7. I want a Flying Purple People Meter.

  8. PUTV sets up a system that no one would agree with and then dares to disagree with it

    Very well said. To me, that is what being a teen was all about though (at least back in 19mumblemumble). Everyone in authority was so clearly out to destroy us, remember?

    The difference of course is that Heathers made its commentary on purpose, while PUTV seemed to have been mostly accidental.

    Plus I think Nora’s were the first bare taters I ever saw on-screen.

  9. I was always more partial to Lala Sloatman, Nora’s tall blond friend that dressed like her closet threw-up on her.

    PUTV and Broken Arrow is a disorienting double feature for a cold Friday night.

  10. The sucking sound of John Travolta’s career kept distracting me from the Harry / Nora reunion in Broken Arrow.

    PUTV’s lines about cock rings were especially frustrating for a young fella in a pre-Google world.

  11. Here’s what I have to say (well quote) about youthful angst:

    Duke: The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.

    Otto: That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.

    Duke: Yeah, but it still hurts.

  12. And Repo Man goes back on the Netflix queue. Wifey’s going to be pissed when Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 drops another spot.

  13. I like Pump Up The Volume, but just like the objection voiced on these very pages on the subject of V For Vendetta, PUTV sets up a system that no one would agree with and then dares to disagree with it.

    The trouble with Pump Up the Volume is that they had a perfectly good anti-authoritarian movie about defying the FCC and a creepy school, and then it suddenly turned into a story about fixing the school’s problems (turns out you just need a new principal!), with characters who used to be alienated punks delivering sanctimonious lectures about everyone having a right to an education. Imagine what Heathers would have been like if the last reel was all about the girls going to therapy and learning to do something constructive.

  14. I want a Flying Purple People Meter.

    Presumably that would measure purple people?

  15. it suddenly turned into a story about fixing the school’s problems

    Point conceded. When Harry finds the incriminating memo about the knocked-up student getting expelled, the wheels sorta come off.

    Still, “Chuck U. Farley” was my go-to joke for almost a decade. (To the amusement of precisely no one.)

  16. When Harry finds the incriminating memo about the knocked-up student getting expelled, the wheels sorta come off.

    Actually, the memo is discovered by his crusading English teacher. Yet another of the film’s many fantasy elements.

  17. Imagine what Heathers would have been like if the last reel was all about the girls going to therapy and learning to do something constructive.

    If you get the DVD of Heathers (it has to be the 35th anniversary special edition extended cut or something like that), you can read the script pages for the original ending the writer/director wanted. It’s both darker and edgier, but even on the page it generates the kind of unintentional comedy that will make you glad the studio hacks came in and ruined it. It’s hard to come up with a good ending for a movie.

  18. What ever happened to low-power FM that was all the buzz a few years ago?

    It’s around, but (not surprisingly) has largely been neutered.

  19. I wonder if the more detailed and “accurate” information is more useful to advertisers.

  20. The electronic elephant in the room: Most people today – especially those in the coveted 18 to 24 market – listen to music using anything and everything BUT broadcast radio. They use personal MP3 players, webcasts, streaming internet radio, etc. The only good one of those measuring tools would do is provide advertisers with a list of which radio stations people pass on the street randomly – on the bus, in a taxi, or in a dentist’s office. A better comparison would be that of raw numbers of listeners pre-internet and raw listeners now. I teach high school in a large city. My students say the percentage of people their age who listen to the radio on a regular basis is in the single digits.

  21. the memo is discovered by his crusading English teacher

    What’s the paper Harry stuffs down his pants just before his dad busts in and Harry says he was “just looking for some stamps”? I thought that was the memo, but the years are taking a toll…

  22. Oops, you are so totally right. The teacher finds the entire list of students expelled in the first few days of school. This is what happens when Ii get distracted by talk of cock-rings.

    “He’s the sort of phony in politics that wears a wig.”

  23. “There are 2000 kids in that school, son, surely some of them have gotta be cool.”

    I had “Steal the Air” and “Talk Hard” written in Sharpie all over my textbooks. I was so angst-y.

  24. Honestly, if you’re going to watch a Christian Slater movie, it would be Kuffs. Right? Am I right here? Maybe The Legend of Billie Jean? Gleaming the Cube?

    Ugh, I just disgusted myself.

  25. I wonder if the more detailed and “accurate” information is more useful to advertisers.

    It is and back when Stern was still on “free” radio he was talking about this when the books were just starting to get cooked.

    Advertisers were already using “fudge factors” to deflate the ratings of certain stations.

    They knew where their ads generated sales and stayed there, in spite of the “ethnic” or that bastardized term “urban” stations showing huge jumps in listeners.

  26. Greying Angelino hipsters, we still have KCRW on 89.9, from 9 to noon.

  27. The electronic elephant in the room: Most people today – especially those in the coveted 18 to 24 market – listen to music using anything and everything BUT broadcast radio.

    Sadly, I’m no longer in that demographic. The only reason I even listen to FM radio in my car is because my CD player is broken.

  28. “It is and back when Stern was still on “free” radio he was talking about this when the books were just starting to get cooked.”

    I was questioning whether an objective count of ‘stations heard’ is more valuable than a subjective count of ‘stations listened to.’ The difference is that I would report stations that I paid attention to, whereas a device would count stations that are within earshot.

  29. Honestly, if you’re going to watch a Christian Slater movie

    To be fair, he was entirely competent as Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh.

  30. I’ve heard that the pending Sirius/XM bankruptcy may be used to dump their more expensive contracts–like Stern’s. He will not be happy if that happens, I’m sure.

    What about The Name of the Rose?

  31. Wifey’s going to be pissed when Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 drops another spot.

    Any movie title beginning with the word ‘Sisterhood’ should be dropped from the queue in haste.

  32. What about The Name of the Rose?

    Ugh, I just felt a pain in my side. Another movie I thought I had forgotten until it was mentioned on h&r…

  33. “Only in analog radio, where the spectrum is owned by the government, is supply still scarce. “…
    To paraphrase an old real-estate cliche…’Buy land. God stopped making it a long time ago.’
    Buy spectrum. God stopped making it a long time ago.
    The analog spectrum is not rationed by the government. There is only so much. The government just gets involved is screwing up a fair market for a limited resouce.

  34. Paul,

    You are like us; you forgive nothing!

  35. “inaudible identification codes of stations ”

    What purpose, other than Big Brother, does this code serve?

  36. The difference is that I would report stations that I paid attention to, whereas a device would count stations that are within earshot.

    To bad the device can’t tell the difference between stations I can ignore and those where I wish I could rip the speaker off the wall.

    The analog spectrum is not rationed by the government. There is only so much. The government just gets involved is screwing up a fair market for a limited resource.

    Isn’t it rationed in the sense that were it not for outdated government rules a lot more stations could efficiently share it?

  37. Was it a One-Eyed, One-Horned, Flying Portable People Meter?

  38. Radio has done this to themselves. Music, as a magnet for listeners, is fading into oblivion. Talk radio is the only valid format moving forward, as long as it is unique and responsive to the audience. Clear Channel’s paradigm is short-sighted and in five years will not be claimed by anyone who wants to continue his or her career.

  39. Big Fat Juicy Booty Bend it over lemme Do my Duty

  40. Talk radio is the only valid format moving forward.

    It’s also the format hurt the most by PPM because so much PPM counting is done by passive listening (as Tim alluded to in the article). You never hear talk radio at the gas staion, in the grocery store, at the doctor’s office, etc. You may hear news radio, but that ain’t the same thing.

  41. Who really cares about radio anymore? It’s pretty much going the way of the dinosaur.

    Radio would be gone all ready if everyone did not have one in their car.

    I find it funny that large businesses are always years behind in their thought process.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.