RADIO: People Meter Gets The Last Laugh

The radio industry which has fought everything from AM stereo and high definition radio (back when it was really new technology) right up to the Arbitron People Meter ratings system is proving once again why radio has lost it.

The Portable People Meter (PPM), an imperfect but necessary update to the paper diary system in this digital age, is turning out to be -- well, not so bad after all.

PPM is live and working in Philadelphia, the original test market. And while there have been problems such as a station being left out of the totals, the People Meter is reporting lots more radio listening than the diary has ever produced. Perennial market leader WBEB (B-101) has suddenly gone from over 700,000 cume under the old system to over two million with the People Meter.

No format change. No extra promotion budget. Just entering the present and adopting a ratings system that is actually friendly to radio audience estimates.

True, quarter hour listening is down, but really -- any programmer on his or her second drink and speaking candidly -- would tell you that the diary system over-reported quarter hour listening. It was too easy for a diarykeeper to just write in their favorite station(s) from memory before returning the diary to Arbitron. Still, PPM fairly reports a station's heavy listeners.

I'm going to hear from detractors who missed my earlier description of PPM as "imperfect" and they'll counter with all the other things that are wrong with PPM. And, I'll likely agree. But hell, this is about getting into the 21st century -- the digital century and I'm sure we haven't seen the end of this debate nor the end of Arbitron's very patient crusade to get radio to take its bitter medicine and change.

Next to methodology concerns, Arbitron has been attacked for charging a premium for the new PPM service and broadcasters have been up in arms. That's strange. When ratings go up, it's customary for radio stations to reassess and adjust their rates for the same product. The radio industry gets hung up on issues like these while they put themselves in jeopardy of becoming even more irrelevant.

Beyond any individual station's improved cume audience, there are other compelling advantages to the People Meter that radio people love to fight, postpone and discourage -- namely, that it reports dramatically higher listening for radio. That's a good thing especially since the radio industry will be going it alone without the next generation -- the generation that's online, on the phone, texting or listening to their iPods.

The other day when Cox, the outstanding radio company run by Bob Neil, finally capitulated to the PPM and signed a five year contract you could almost forgive him for placing caveats all over the signing. He and his people have legitimate concerns about PPM, but as I always like to say, it's time to cooperate with the inevitable.

Radio is a big house. There's room for lots of differences. This is right and just.

And analyst Jim Boyle has aptly used the term "game over" for the further resistance to PPM. Let's just say it's "game over" for radio if it doesn't accelerate the move to digital ratings.

I never doubted that PPM would be adopted. I've been a proponent from my Inside Radio days.

Interestingly, Clear Channel is still dilly-dallying around withholding its support -- another reason why that company has earned its reputation for shirking the leadership expected of radio's biggest consolidator. But Clear Channel, too, whether public or private will have to eat crow. I guess they're taking the extra time to figure out how they would like it served.

The lesson: adopt new technology, don't fight it.

Cooperate with the inevitable -- don't spit in the wind.

Lead don't avoid.

Imagine if the radio industry could have done these things in real time -- not ten years late. It wouldn't be scratching its collective head and wondering why Internet usage is up (according to a media-screen survey Americans spend half their free time online).

It's not too late.

Let's just not make it another ten years on the next critical issue.

Improving the content.