Radio’s Hang Up With Ratings

Sometimes it seems the radio industry just doesn’t want to be held accountable to anyone.

You know the dust up being caused by Federal Marshall Bob Neil riding into town after a long time on the trail with his band of vigilantes to fight the Arbitron People Meter. Vigilantes are self-appointed do-gooders who, in the opinion of some of us, are doing more harm than good.

It's not just Neil or the People Meter. We might as well say out loud what a lot of programmers and managers already know -- the only ratings we like are the ones that show us doing well.

Hey, I'm not knocking it. I'm just sayin'. The program director in me is arguing, "so what's wrong with that?"

If stations didn’t like what used to be called the ARBs back in the day, they always had the option of buying Hooper Ratings (a now-defunct phone based call out system) or Pulse (another long gone alternative).

You don't like one, you "gets" a second opinion.

Then you take that out on the street and try to sell it. That’s how the radio industry grew up and the CEOs running Americas radio groups today all know this and no doubt know all the ins and outs of selling good numbers and selling around bad ones.

I get it. I did it. I understand it – then.

Not now.

Radio companies long ago bailed out on supporting the second or third ratings services so they in effect got stuck with one – Arbitron. And, not that they asked, but the advertisers and agencies preferred the reliability of Arbitron ratings flawed as the diary system of recording listening may be.

In the history of radio, groups have tried and failed to support Birch, Burke and a number of other ratings companies. Cumulus is now trying it again by bidding out a ratings service it would like to see (and presumably support) in its smaller markets.

The radio industry has bought itself a heap of trouble.

The FCC is investigating the People Meter.

Nice job. Just what this industry does not need. The FCC will try and fail to regulate ratings. The matter will be litigated in federal court – which I promise you, it will be. If you want to slow down a dying industry even more, open this can of worms.

The FCC does not have any jurisdiction over audience research. What a witch hunt. This is the same FCC that is wrestling with the idea of mandating that satellite radios also have HD capability. Don't these commissioners have anything else to do? Maybe we don't need them. After all, the FCC was created to help keep stations on their frequencies. Later, to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity. Now, who knows?

Hispanic broadcasters are also hot to get their piece of flesh in the battle to get the ratings service that best reports Hispanic listening. I can understand that. I can’t understand knocking the the one hope for growth in radio.

That’s right – I said growth and radio in the same sentence.

The People Meter is a fix for under reported radio listening at a time when radio stations are not likely to attract new listeners on their own merits. CBS Radio President Dan Mason and Emmis Broadcasting CEO Jeff Smulyan are among the few who have openly espoused the importance of the People Meter.

The rest of the CEOs are speaking with forked tongue. On one hand knocking it while signing long-term contracts with Arbitron for when PPM comes to their markets.

Freud would be proud, I think. I admit I’ve taken the radio industry to the psychiatrist’s couch on this one, but there really are reasons why the continuously self-destructive radio industry can’t stop itself from inflicting more harm.

The ad agencies want PPM.

The more enlightened radio executives want PPM.

But a radio industry that has changed the rules every time it didn't like the outcome thinks it can get away with it one more time.

Clear Channel’s John Hogan and Cumulus’ Lew Dickey are not serving the best interests of the troubled industry they’ve helped create by trying to support ratings on the cheap.

Radio needs credibility in reporting its audience now more than ever. And even if the Cumulus-Clear Channel initiative winds up in the hands of Nielsen -- what was gained at this point in radio's future.

There are signs of hope.

Even Bob Neil has been relatively subdued lately in his criticism of PPM. That would be a good thing because Neil is a stellar operator in so many other ways. Radio needs him leading on this issue not carping. I define leading as kicking Arbitron’s ass behind closed doors but publicly letting potential radio advertisers know the People Meter can be trusted from day one.

And there are still some old school program directors out there who don’t want to give up the inferior diary ratings system because they have become expert at manipulating it. Who? Not me.

Radio has a list of problems a mile long and worse yet – no hope of getting the massive next generation to listen to radio.

How about a truce?

Bob Neil you’re right. Lew Dickey – great job. John Hogan – wonderful idea.

Now let’s move on for the good of the industry and get behind something – something that can actually deliver more listeners when your programming and inability to attract the next audience cannot.

In other words, embrace the technology because it may help keep the radio industry off life support for a while longer.

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