An Open Letter to Rep. ‘Ed’ Towns

Regarding the latest attack on Arbitron’s portable people meter ratings technology by Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns (D-N.Y.), he should read an article I wrote for Admap back in March 2004 in response to the misguided support of diaries by Paul Kennedy of RAJAR (the United Kingdom’s Radio Joint Audience Research organization). Sadly, it appears that the arguments regarding diaries versus audio meters have changed little over the past five years. To suggest that station audiences have “declined” is specious. Audiences reported via diaries and via PPM are simply different due to measurement approaches and technologies, but there should be little argument about which is better.

I appreciate the importance and complexity of achieving “sufficient” quality samples in order to mine audience currency data at a granular level for any station or daypart. Imbalances between the profile of a sample or panel and the universe being measured are regrettable but inevitably common and are reweighted accordingly. The myriad of technical details regarding radio audience currencies are assiduously overseen by the Media Rating Council (MRC) to the most excruciating levels. Surely, the MRC, which has long had the “authority” to adjudicate such matters by Congress and the Justice Department, is where these issues should be resolved.

Regarding the concerns over sample sizes, the math appears wonky. The use of 7,200 diaries over three months in a market only provides a weekly analysis basis of about 550 respondents using an antediluvian measurement methodology that lacks a “true” basis for analysis of the ebb and flow of a station’s audience. Contrast that with a potential PPM sample of 2,000 in a market every week from the same respondents via an audio meter that provides the basis for more accurate and meaningful analysis at the minute-by-minute level. You can “hear” the picture. Metrics from diaries constrain radio station managers, who ultimately need the most modern tracking tools to effectively manage their audiences, marketing and advertisers.

Advertisers are demanding more accountability based on commercial exposure for all media. In this environment, that the radio currency has remained based on average quarter hour and that the diary-based multiweek reach and frequency model has not been modified is puzzling. That discussion is for another day.

 
With the misinformation floating around, the real issue regarding PPM versus diaries needs to be restated. Erwin Ephron and I concluded in the initial PPM debate that the discussion should focus on “which is better,” not “which is right.” Clearly, the overall benefits of PPM versus the diary need to be reintroduced. Audiometers are simply good for radio, advertisers and agencies. From a research and business perspective, here are just a few ways the benefits of audiometers outweigh diaries across most critical dimensions.

— Electronic passive measurement is more rigorous and necessary than diary measurement, given the significant proportion of out-of-home listening, the increasing pace of technological changes in media delivery-reception systems and in consumers’ on-the-go, multitasking lifestyles.

— Electronic capture of radio is the best way to supply the granularity of information required to make real decisions about programming, planning, buying or selling.  Radio and TV should both be based on the same currency: average minute or average commercial pod minute.

— Ongoing panel measurement provided by PPMs generates more stable, reliable information than one-week surveys, whether from diaries or electronic measurement. Panel measurement provides “real” information on multiweek reach accumulation of target audiences.

— Passive electronic capture puts radio on a similar footing to television. This allows radio to be included in multimedia, multiweek reach and frequency analysis and moves the industry closer to the goal of media measurement-evaluating ROI for all media in the mix.

Rep. Towns, the PPM, despite all its faults — there is no bloody gold standard! — is a cornerstone for all radio stations to increase their share of total ad budgets. It will take forward thinking and leadership from public officials like you to support radio’s value as a medium via this new currency. To borrow from the headline of my 2004 article, “Radio Audience Diaries? This Parrot Is Deceased!” It is time to move on.

Tony Jarvis, formerly evp of global research at Clear Channel Outdoor, chief research officer for CBS Radio and svp of strategic insights at Mediacom, now runs his own consultancy.