Gaming the People Meter

It strikes me as somewhat ironic that the radio industry fought Arbitron’s portable People Meter unmercifully for many years dragging out its implementation.

After all, PPM delivers more radio listeners even if they really aren't listening.

That is, PPM delivers more radio listeners to some formats which is why many radio groups are racing to dump what's left of format variety for same-old-same-old formats that could play well with an increasingly defective ratings methodology.

And now, guess what -- radio groups really like PPM.

Imagine – close your eyes for a second – I walk into your office and pitch you a ratings service that doesn’t reside on an existing mobile phone or device, but on a bulky add-on that must be schlepped wherever you go. Then, I tell you it is so inaccurate (I’m crossing my fingers at this point – maybe even toes) that it picks up encoded signals even if the person carrying the meter device isn’t listening to the radio stations they like.

Would you pay money for that in this day and age?

Well, broadcasters are and they are being taken hostage by aliens who are gaining power over their radio stations.

Here's a real life example of a PPM carrier who was wooed with lots of money to wear a bulky People Meter while she admits that the only time it recorded her real listening was when she was in her car -- read it and weep here.

CBS was first to figure out it needed to do mass-appeal hit formats with just music and no real talk. A commercial-free day each week and no personalities at first. Later, a more music morning show.

Then others followed. Even Lew Dickey eventually figured it out and started blowing up Cumulus formats (as opposed to shutting them down like he did in Louisville recently). And I am sure you have noticed that hardly a day goes by that another station is dumping an established format for "PPM Hits".

Now we have the new term “going PPM”.

You have crazy PPM thinking like jamming commercials at the end of each quarter hour or stuffing them at the end of the :15 and :45 quarter hours. That strategy never worked during the diary days when spots were saved for the middle of the quarter hour and it’s insane to believe this kind of radio reflects something audiences want to listen to.

There are Arbitron consultants now as back then who make a living coming up with such wisdom.

It's time to ask the spiritual question, what would Steve Jobs do?

Maybe study the audience rather than the technology. Oh, what am I saying?

The geniuses that bring us PPM and the cult that is growing around it actually believe listeners listen to radio stations in a more equal fashion. I’ll tell you, if you can find any young people listening to a radio, they listen on-demand. If they want to hear a song, they listen. If not, they leave. What’s new about that?

Are we now saying dumping commercials at the end of one or two quarter hours will no longer work because listeners don’t like it (they don’t) or because programmers are trying to game their ratings technology?

Look, all this gaming is fine. There is nothing wrong with getting an edge on a competitor. But what is dangerous here is believing that it really works.

You’ll see less variety and we’re seeing it now as some formats become extinct – I’m thinking Smooth Jazz here, but there are many others.

The very oldies formats everyone was dumping in the diary days of not long ago are being embraced now that Dan Mason proved WCBS-FM in New York didn’t know Jack but it knew oldies (excuse me, classic hits).

Of course, in the PPM frenzy lots of folks fail to understand that WCBS-FM is an actual great radio station. It uses some of the tricks of PPM but the station has personalities who listeners like. Plays good music. Greatest hits.

Can we argue that WCBS-FM would never have been number one in the market as it was once (briefly) and always near the top – without PPM? I can. See, the old WCBS-FM, the oldies version programmed by Joe McCoy, was also a great radio station. When CBS management decided to drop it for Jack ("We play what we want" -- how un-Gen Y is that?) it made the decision based on the flawed diary ratings system. Did oldies/classic hits suddenly start working when PPM replace the diary or were we all wet to believe WCBS-FM was slipping?

We’re doing radio ass-backwards if you don’t mind me using a little Italian.

PPM shouldn’t drive radio formats.

Listeners should drive radio formats.



1. Short-attention spans require stimulation so play music, a spot, music, a spot, etc.

2. Never do a long music sweep if you’re taking into account attention spans. I know it's heresy to some but it is true. Interruptions work today. The more the better. Please, please -- I beg you -- re-read #2.

3. Personalities riding the music like jockeys—hey let’s call them disc jockeys – are the best way to bring the many format elements together.

4. Want ratings – add variety. Audiences are different today. When radio lived and died by short playlists it was because the radio was the only place audiences could hear free music and we got to control the number of things they heard. Now, listeners steal music, preview it, look to peers, iTunes, YouTube and find more variety than radio can offer. Radio needs to address this issue.

So, enjoy the short-term perceived benefits of gaming radio to the already outdated technology of the People Meter.

The station that listens to their listeners gets the listeners.

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