Radio -- People Meter Strategies

Radio program directors will readily admit that Arbitron's diary recall system for audience ratings was imperfect if not inferior.

We always knew that respondents were not carrying diaries around all day to accurately record their radio listening.

We all knew to pull every trick we could to get diary keepers to write down more listening than they actually did.

In fact, we programmers were very comfortable with that fallible system because to paraphrase former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, “you go to war with the People Meter you have---not the ratings system you might want or wish to have at a later time”.

The Founding Fathers of Consolidation didn't exactly move at lightning speed to adopt the People Meter technology even when they were making a profit.

Why spoil a good thing.

Like the hypocrites they were, some CEOs publicly resisted or trashed the new technology while then turning around and signing long term contracts for the very thing they criticized.

Not a smart move with advertisers.

What they eventually adopted was seriously out of date even before the first People Meter markets went live.

Now you can almost see trouble on the horizon.

Some major radio groups may file for bankruptcy and everything they do -- including honor contracts for audience research will be up for grabs.

And there is a question as to whether Repeater Radio, the brand of non-local, syndicated or voice tracked programming really needs to be measured. Does anyone actually think bad ratings for Ryan Seacrest would get him kicked off a Clear Channel station where he's saving them the expense of employing local talent?

There is also the fact that PPM results cannot be considered actual listening and that’s why Arbitron doesn’t use the term. If I have a radio with "Magic Carpet Ride" playing and my daughter is wearing a People Meter, when she gets within the appropriate distance to record that listening on KOOL-FM, you can’t call a 20 something in this case a KOOL listener.

But the radio industry is picking up "cume" (my word, not theirs) and they think it has to do with something they are putting on the air.

In reality, radio is getting credit for being on in a lot of places people visit.

Don't confuse this with listening. You can't call People Meter wearers radio listeners.

So, the game has now changed -- yet, it's alarming how some (not all) programmers are still employing diary tactics to influence recall when all they really need to do is find a way to be on everywhere.

And that may explain a lot of the new breed of unremarkable, mass market formats that are finding their way on the air in People Meter cities.

The goal is not to be good.

Not to convince listeners to think they were listening more than they were.

It is simply to be on in case a meter is in the vicinity.

You can almost see it happening before the industry's eyes in real time.

Small markets, cancel ratings -- not needed.

Medium markets -- muddle through and wait for the People Meter to arrive.

Major markets -- air safe formats that attract lots of potential people so that more meters can record "hearing" the stations. This is deadly to radio because there will be increasingly less variety on the dial -- if that's possible.

I'd move in a different direction.

Make your stations "the favorite" station the old fashioned way -- entertain the hell out of your audience. That way People Meters worn by fans will be on and in earshot and you'll earn the credit you deserve for actual listening.

Of course I am simplifying everything for the sake of this discussion. Programming to the People Meter is so complex. Everyone thinks they are an expert on this topic so, what the hell -- why not ...

1. Have a compelling live and local morning show from 5-10 am. While there is no need to identify the station thanks to the People Meter, I’d make damn sure the names of my personalities got said a lot so listeners can become addicted fans. And, those of you who know me know that I would sign my talent to a five-year contract with an option to renew.

2. The call letters no longer matter for ratings purposes. Constant repetition of call letters is a proven irritant and especially annoying to younger listeners. Now, it's not necessary to brow beat listeners every three minutes or less with call letters, frequencies or positioning statements. Now you have the freedom to entertain.

3. Rethink traffic and weather together. In Phoenix, I wouldn’t do it unless it was monsoon season. Still, each element needs to be reexamined. It's not automatic anymore to be all things to all people because even though radio has not moved on, listeners have found other sources for that which they need. Believe it or not, listeners get time from their watch, weather from The Today Show before leaving home and news – well, not from a radio station.

4. Add news – lots of it. It's a reason for getting fans to keep listening.

5. Never run stop sets longer than one or two units. Listeners are distracted. They actually like a lot of stop and start. There is still room for music sweeps but not at the expense of another irritant -- impossible to listen to six or eight minute stop sets.

6. Reject commercials that cause tune out. Encourage live-reads. If you buy the premise that People Meter fans must not be driven away then stand up to bad commercials and get them off the air (I'm sure that's not going to happen when everyone is losing money, but still...). My experience with young people indicates they like live reads -- sincere ones -- not the ill-prepared live reads some people do.

7. Only mention the call letters once for legal purposes and the frequency never. (Am I fired yet, Mr. Hogan?) Look, ask anyone what station they listen to and if they like it, they are going to either tell you the personality they like or the frequency of the station. They’re not dumb. In either case, this is not necessary information for recording "listening" time. No need to hammer out calls and frequencies in the PPM era especially considering how much listeners tell us they hate radio that sounds that repetitious.

8. Run expanding and contracting playlists for different dayparts.

9. Each daypart should sound different even though listening may be picked up continuously for crediting purposes. In other words, Sunday nights are different from Friday nights. All night is not the same as 6pm. PM drive is not morning drive. Radio people know this, of course but their bosses want stations to have a sameness because it makes Repeater Radio easier to deliver.

10. The quarter hour crossovers now mean nothing. Actually, it meant next to nothing for decades but we programmers convinced ourselves that they did. That’s why we made sure music covered the quarter hour spots on our hot clock. We really knew it was bogus but couldn’t let go. The most important thing in diary ratings is recall – and the best way to get a respondent to fill out a diary the day before they send it back to Arbitron is to make your station their favorite station so they inaccurately report more listening than they actually did. So, with PPM quarter hour crossovers are still not worth doing.

To quote Cookie Monster, “one of these People Meters is not like the other thing”.

Yet, radio continues to program to the diary recall system in PPM markets.

We just can’t seem to let go of the diary that it turns out -- we actually liked.

So now, the new benchmark is – get the highest ratings by – you guessed it, making your station the one PPM wearers like best and listen to the most – then, you won’t have to rely on drive-by exposure to your sound to get credit.

I am going to brainstorm new, solid PPM strategies at the Media Solutions Lab I am putting on in Scottsdale in January.

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