Name That Tune

In Tom Taylor’s blog on, he posted recently on the flyin’ Purple People Meter of Arbitron, saying:

There are “myths” about PPM, and Jon Coleman is the de-bunker.
The Coleman Insights principal prowled the stage in Baltimore to share some hard-earned lessons. Myth #1 – “Our numbers will be much more stable and reliable with PPM than they were with the diary.” They actually are more stable, in many cases – but there are still more wobbles, drops and unexplained surges than many folks expected. Myth #2 – “We’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work, immediately.” Well – sometimes. Coleman says “sample issues make this difficult, because the meter count in any individual minute is not very high.” And sometimes, the panel just changes. Case in point – Coleman client “Power 106” KPWR in L.A., where a Coleman-recommended set of tweaks in late 2008 seemingly produced a gratifying pop in AQH audience. Jon says programmer Jimmy Steal was offering “high fives on the phone.” But a bit later, it seemed the gains might’ve come from turnover on the PPM panel, and had little to do with the tweaks. Myth #3 – “Brands don’t matter.” That leads Coleman to a set of his beloved x/y axis graphs, about “the brand” versus the “in-the-moment decision.” Let’s skip to Myth #5 – “Since PPM measures actual behavior instead of recall, we don’t’ need to market as much.” Coleman says 75% of listening comes from “intentional listening” – and to generate that, you should “be well-known, own a position, and build a brand.”

Leave aside the question of whether public radio stations should be sifting the tea leaves of Arbitron to determine what music they should play — the flavor du jour seems to be Triple A. Isn’t that somewhere in their mission statement? Play what everybody wants to hear? That’s what they’d have you believe. (The same Tom Taylor newsletter says that Clear Channel represents 19 percent of Arbitron’s business.)

And let’s not consider that the Media Rating Council just withdrew accreditation for all but three of the 43 markets boasting the PPMs (here). Not even Arbitron itself claims that the data are particularly accurate. Its website carries this disclaimer: “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.” Other than the fact that the ad flacks for the major conglomerates would sell their soul to be smiled on by Arbitron; that translates directly into ad dollars. For “public” stations, that means underwriting dollars — which, of course, are ads worded very carefully.

No, it’s all about gaming the numbers, figuring what makes the numbers sing your tune, as noted here in a Radio World article. In it, author Randy Stine notes that the beefs remain the same, even with the higher-tech PPM:

Early PPM beefs of programmers ranged from small sample panels to under-representation in samples of minority populations. Arbitron has said sample sizes are on track to increase approximately 10 percent in 2011; and the company has made changes to its recruitment methodology to address concerns expressed by groups including the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.

Some programmers also have complained about PPM “wobbles,” seemingly random rating swings, according to Harker Research. It found that “flipping a coin is directionally more predictive than looking at monthly PPM trends.”

Randy writes later in the article that Arbitron is just beginning to address the lack of minorities in the samples — in three cities (Miami, Dallas, and the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx). It’ll get around to your city . . . eventually. But meanwhile, radio programmers have had to learn to tweak their schedules to dance to Arbitron’s tune:

[A]s PPM reveals that people listen to more stations per week than previously thought, it also shows that people spend less time with each station, which is why two other statistics, time spent listening and average quarter hour, tend to be lower using PPM. As a result, programmers now work to get their listeners to come back for more visits, rather than emphasize longer visits for each occasion….

“In a world that has speeded up from sound bites and tweets, attention spans are short and PPM picks up on that. Programmers and talent are confronted with the challenge to get to the point as quickly as possible,” said Alex Demers, president of Demers Programming Media Consultants….

“The most successful music stations continue to be those who distinguish themselves by bonding with listeners with what is between the songs,” said Holland Cooke, president of Holland Cooke Media. “And (talk) stations and hosts who quickly recognize what is relevant, quickly set the topics and avoid windy monologues, will do well with PPM.”

So if your “public” station is sounding a little “snappy” lately — with perhaps a soupçon of “smarmy” tossed in — just remember they’re in a dance contest now. And they’re competing against the big boys, the commercial model they so wish to emulate, the same bunch that saw a 19 percent decrease in ad revenues last year. And they’re all dancing as hard as they can.


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