Radio begins shift to electronic ratings


Published: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Radio advertisers who for years complained about the low-tech way of tracking listeners are getting what they asked for and more: Electronic ratings are delivering more accurate counts, but are also upending basic assumptions about the industry.

Though the new technology shows more people are tuning in, it also found listening habits to be far different than expected. "Morning drive" isn't as important as it seemed. And some formats are faring better than others, contributing to several stations switching to higher-rated genres like rock.

In Philadelphia and Houston, where Arbitron Inc.'s new audience-measurement gadgets have already replaced paper diaries, the results are causing confusion over how ads are bought and sold. Some radio companies are raising questions about the soundness of the new ratings following shortfalls in the amount of collected data.

Broadcasters, who pay for the rating service, say they want to see improvements in the sampling methods before the new system is deployed in New York later this year. It's due to arrive in other major markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago early next year.

"We've got to keep Arbitron's feet to the fire to make sure this transition is as smooth as possible," says Dan Halyburton, market manager for three stations in New York owned by Emmis Communications Corp. Arbitron says those issues are being sorted out.

The stakes are high. Radio is still a $20 billion business that depends almost entirely on advertising, and that pie isn't growing. The radio business is now being challenged by iPods, online radio and satellite radio, and the Internet also provides advertisers with a far more specific accounting of who's seeing which ads where, something advertisers value highly and want to see replicated in other media.

The old pencil-and-paper diary method of measuring radio audiences has been in place since the 1960s and is now widely seen as outdated, partly since it relies on listeners' recollections of what they heard during a particular week rather than what they were actually exposed to.

Arbitron, which also runs the diary ratings, has been working on electronic measurement since 1992. Under the new system, Arbitron enlists a panel in each city to carry around a pager-like device called a Portable People Meter that picks up audio codes embedded in radio broadcasts but can't be heard by humans.

At the end of the day, the listener returns the pager to a dock that recharges the battery and downloads the information, which is sent to Arbitron electronically. Arbitron then crunches the data from the panel into ratings for each station.

But getting enough usable data from the sample pools has been a sticking point. For the past several months the usable sample sizes in both Houston and Philadelphia have fallen below Arbitron's targets, and the company is having particular difficulty getting young adults to comply with the requirements of wearing the pager all day.

Radio companies have butted heads with Arbitron in the past, and many don't like the fact that the company essentially has a monopoly on the ratings business. What's more, the new ratings cost about 65 percent more than the old ones, giving broadcasters even more reason to insist that the targets on the sample sizes are met.

For advertisers, the new ratings are a mixed blessing. On the one hand they've been demanding to see more accurate audience data, but now many assumptions about radio listening are being challenged.

Chris Caldwell, a media buyer at the Houston-based agency Briggs & Caldwell, says that the "morning drive" time slot isn't as highly rated under the electronic system as it was before, and weekend listening is much stronger than most people believed.

"Our radio budget hasn't changed, but the way we disperse that radio budget has," Caldwell said.

Early results from Philadelphia and Houston are already shaking up the way radio ads are bought and sold, and have revealed several things about radio listenership that even caught industry veterans off guard.

The biggest difference is that far more people listen to the radio than had previously been understood. Blaise Howard, general manager at WBEB-FM in Philadelphia, said he was "taken aback" to discover that nearly every station in that city roughly doubled the size of their total listenership under the new ratings system.

That statistic should be music to the ears of broadcasters - but there's more: The system also shows that people tend to switch channels a lot more than was known, and that the total time listening per person is down, resulting in lower ratings at many stations.

Most advertising is sold based on a station's ratings during a given day, and in many cases those figures are lower. That leaves many broadcasters having to defend their current prices to advertisers.

"Business is not that good," Howard says, but he also says things are looking up as ad sales people and advertisers adjust to the new ratings and as upgrades to the system come through.

Among other things, the new ratings also showed that men tend to spend more time listening to radio than women; working people more than those who don't work; people listen to more radio stations than they had reported in the past; and mainstream formats such as rock, country and soft rock fared better than they had under the diary method.

Those preferences have already contributed to several programming changes in Philadelphia and New York, each of which had two stations flip to rock or oldies formats in the past few months. Formats aimed at blacks and Hispanics didn't fare as well.

Radio stations used to get ratings reports just four times a year, but the electronic ratings arrive every month, giving programmers far more data on who's listening to what. Arbitron's sales and marketing chief Pierre Bouvard says PPM ratings will make radio "far more responsive to what listeners want."

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