Arbitron Juju

This post on rbr.com, entitled “The dark inky mystery that is PPM,” summarizes the problems seen in Arbitron’s “new, improved” Portable People Meter. This is the radio rating device relied upon by commercial radio stations to sell ads — and the new god worshiped by the bean counters at our public radio stations as well, who must beseech local captains of industry to buy their ads . . . er, underwriting spots.

As the post cautions: “[T]he upbeat stories seemed disproportionately positive given the limited improvements. This new generation of PPM addresses a few superficial and cosmetic issues — the sort of thing that gives the illusion of progress. Unfortunately, this roll-out continues Arbitron’s efforts to put a happy face on PPM while keeping broadcasters in the dark about far more critical issues, all more important than whether the meter should have a sculpted look.”

Even today, important technical aspect of PPM that directly impact your ratings are shrouded in dark inky mystery, hidden from view. Broadcasters are expected to accept virtually all aspects of PPM on faith, with nothing more than Arbitron’s assurances that everything works like they say it does. One year ago we highlighted a long list of PPM issues that Arbitron had been unwilling to address publically. Today, one year later, nothing has changed….

Arbitron talks a lot about PPM granularity. According to the company, we can make programming decisions based on minute to minute changes in listening detected by PPM. When we look at the minute by minute, we find something odd. Arbitron claims that most listeners don’t switch from one station to another. They listen briefly to a station, and (according to PPM), simply turn off the radio. The vast majority of listeners do not try even a second station let alone surf the dial. This is the so-called drive-by listening that seems to pervade PPM ratings.

According to Arbitron VP of Programming Services Gary Marince, the average PPM radio listening span is ten minutes, and the most frequent length is only two minutes! We have been studying radio listeners for more than thirty years. We know that real listeners do surf the dial. They switch from one station to a second, sometimes to a third to find something interesting. They don’t listen to a station for two minutes and then turn off the radio. If PPM says they do, then there is something wrong with PPM.

What is the true real-world ability of  PPM to accurately capture all listening. Arbitron has never released test results regarding capture reliability of the meter. Can Arbitron prove that panelists are really turning off the radio, or is there a problem with the meters?

There is much more here for the person wondering what was my PD thinking to do something like that to my public radio station. Don’t be buffaloed by talk by people like Hawk Mendenhall at KUT in Austin, with all his spew about “cumes” and “AQH.” It’s all bad juju used to justify turning our local stations into a Bob-FM for what used to be called “public” radio.

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3 Responses

  1. I don’t know that “everyone is critical of fundraising practices” is true, or that it is even salient to the discussion. I agree that for the most part fundraising is no fun for anyone involved, but it is part and parcel of the basic concept of public radio.The listeners support the station financially, and in turn the station is supposed to provide the content that the listeners have indicated that they want. The problem is that in recent years more & more public stations have started using Arbitron ratings and going after corporate sponsors who use “enhanced underwriting” as advertising instead of following the desires of their actual listeners. When the changes to the lineup & programming were announced here at KUT and at WGBH, just to name two, it wasn’t because of fundraising issues. It was because station management made the decision at some point to chase after the Arbitron ratings and that ever-elusive younger demographic. The result of that here at KUT was that the spring fundraiser had to be extended just to make the basic financial goal, something I don’t recall ever happening in all my years of listening. So what they can do to be successful is to go back to listening to their members. In these days of instant communications and social networking sites it shouldn’t be that difficult.

  2. You said it: public first. Perhaps that would be the first step — asking listeners what they’d support. But that is not the modus operandi at our local stations, which prefer to follow the dictates of a methodology (a junk science) designed for commercial stations. The business of public radio should, in fact, be the airing of music and other content not heard on a thousand other stations, as many of their mission statements aver, not presenting to the public what’s deemed most popular at the moment. That does not even begin to address the diverting of exorbitant amounts of money into a flawed HD radio system — which has no discernible revenue stream, interferes with adjacent channels, and serves only to drain local funds — about which much of this blog is addressed.

  3. If you are looking for courage, daring and public-first bravery in public radio practices, tell them how to get some secure funding so they don’t have to pay attention to capitalism in a capitalist society. Everyone is critical of fundraising practices of public broadcasting stations but no one spells out what their alternative is.
    Hey, no excuses. Just tell them what they can do that will be successful.

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