Radio’s People Meter Death Wish

I don’t know what it is with the radio industry and the future, but I have never seen so many smart people hold onto the past for so many awful excuses.

That’s one of the many reasons why radio companies – in spite of their talented and dedicated employees – are working full time to remain a horse and buggy industry when the rest of the world has entered the digital age.

Take the Arbitron Portable People Meter (PPM) – please!

This technology should have been adopted ten years ago, but the geniuses who have run the major radio groups into the ground couldn’t let their own hatred of Arbitron get out of the way.

The result: radio audience ratings are still compiled from entries made on paper diaries.

I emphasize paper -- in a digital era.

Anyone in radio knows all the disadvantages of the diary system, but to hear them speak they would apparently rather embrace the enemy they know than the potential enemy they fear.

Radio is arguably under measured because of this antiquated listener reporting system. The People Meter is showing consistent signs of crediting stations with larger cume audiences. This is not without concerns – some of them admittedly major – but it appears the godfathers of radio are not even going to allow the prospect of bigger audiences drag them into the future.

Take Bob Neil, the otherwise able head of Cox Radio.

He's at it again – this time trashing the People Meter in the name of waiting for Media Research Council (MRC) accreditation. Cox in a trade ad it sponsored with ICBC Broadcast Holdings (Inner City) last week argued, “Arbitron’s PPM system in Houston is accredited, but Arbitron wants to make significant changes to the system in all other PPM markets. The MRC recently announced that Arbitron had failed (they underlined failed in their ad) to gain accreditation of their new system. Just as the FAA recently grounded out of compliance aircraft, this should (underlined again) have grounded the PPM rollout, until the new system 'passes inspection'."

Cox is not alone in airing radio’s dirty laundry before the nation’s advertising community.

Spanish Broadcasting
has gone public with its gripes. SBS hired the same firm that won in an effort to thwart Nielsen over its Local People Meter to develop what it calls an educational campaign to describe its concerns about PPM pre-currency rates.

Beasley’s CEO Bruce Beasley has been quoted as saying he did not want “broadcasters to go through what we’re going through now in Philadelphia”.

All of this – although it may be offered in the spirit of getting it right -- is a public affront to radio’s efforts to get into the 21st century.

Cox and other complaining companies have signed long-term contracts with Arbitron for PPM services. Talk about mixed messages.

If they are so principled, why not hold off on voluntarily committing finances and prestige to the People Meter rather than jump on board only to keep screaming bloody murder after the ink is dry?

Cox could have used it’s clout to stay back and fight on principle.

Instead, it signed on and now leads the public criticism (right or wrong) against the very company it is supporting -- with its long-term commitment of cash. Maybe they see it as supporting the PPM, but it sure doesn't sound like it. It sounds more like a misguided, public holy war that no one can win -- as advertisers, who want PPM, watch from the sidelines.

Threaten to pull out – but do it in private. Stop raising so many questions about audience ratings publicly at a time when advertisers have their own doubts about radio – period.

Cox and Beasley have had relationships with the consultant Randy Kabrich who appears to have never met a People Meter he likes. He’s vocal in public and behind the scenes. Two companies who have employed one of the most vocal critics of PPM.

CBS Radio President Dan Mason has it right. I don’t care that some will dismiss this because “you like Mason”. Yes, I do. I also like Neil and Beasley. And I have been tough on CBS for its unfortunate decision to fire so many talented people to cut costs.

Still, Mason is right when he says “MRC accreditation is not currency” arguing “When you look at all these facts, do you really want the radio industry to be behind the television and outdoor industry over an accreditation fight?”.


So the fools on the hill continue to run their radio group share prices down, make bad decisions about radio in the digital era and think a food fight over a principle they have previously been unwilling to stand up for is a good use of valuable time.

It’s a joke.

But in the end the joke is on a radio industry that lets the obstructionist attitude of Cox, Beasley, Spanish, Inner City and others get in the way of using their heads.

The People Meter – ten years too late – is a no-brainer now, but don’t expect the radio industry to lead the industry into the future when its public record is all about embracing the past.

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