June 2001
Rating what??

Rating Radio!

What should we rate?

In looking at broadcast ratings, the general approach has been to concentrate on the quantitative and tinge it with a little qualitative, mainly in forms of the "audience demographic."
In other words, never mind the product as such! Just ask how many people are listening and how much spending power they have (or influence in the case of a state broadcaster where this is the equivalence, broadly speaking, of spending power to an advertiser).

The question we'd like to pose is whether the brief should be wider and, if so, is there any chance of making it so.

Certainly the measuring of numbers alone can arguably be made much more sophisticated using modern technology such as the metering devices developed by Arbitron with its portable people meter (RNW June 5) and its rival from the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (RNW May 29).

Both these devices can increase the accuracy of monitoring which "audio signal" is being listened to and potentially offer significant savings in terms of processing the "raw data" into useful forms.
They don't seem to offer much in the terms of enhancing the qualitative, although the Swiss version will have a voice recording option that could be of use here.

Current "Quality" monitoring.

Ironically, the old "diary" system has many advantages in terms of "qualitative" monitoring.
It is tried and trusted and well researched and, to quote Arbitron, "While the growing public resistance to surveys makes it difficult to ask too many questions during a phone inter-view, the qualitative questions in the diary can be answered by participants at any time during the survey week and are completed by nearly all diary keepers."
"In addition to qualitative information, the diary gives participants the opportunity to include comments about their radio listening, which provides stations with invaluable information on listener perceptions."
The value placed on this information is, however, a somewhat moot point. If a station is rated highly, it is probably given little weight except in as far as it confirms that station's preconceptions of itself.
If, on the other hand, the station has fared badly in ratings terms, it may get more study although this is probably mainly as a rough guide as where to pursue further research. And far too often research favours the familiar too much and for far too long; innovation always has barriers to break down and audiences take time to build.

What for the future?

In future, we rather suspect the diary system will wither away in favour of the more automated and more easily processed information from meters.

Such systems will certainly give a more accurate snapshot of what is actually listened to and with suitable add-ons could still yield almost as much qualitative information as a diary system. Indeed there's no reason why, for specific needs, the latter should not remain available as an add-on.

We have no doubt that the pressure from the finance side will favour "numbers" which are perceived to be more accurate and much experience would lead us to conclude that programme departments will have a difficult task in getting finance for anything more than the aforesaid numbers.

The problem for us is that we see over reliance on "numbers", like over reliance on "focus groups" as often likely to hinder creative moves forward even if it enables "better targeting." But, as we do seem to be in a world where technology is enabling people to choose more what they get, we expect that such techniques will tend to increase current trends towards concentration in a small number of safe areas.

Only in dreams can we see much effort being devoted to obtaining qualitative information if the quantitative is mostly what is wanted in a harsh commercial world and can be made cheaper to produce and more accurate in its measurement.

The diary is dying: Long live the meter. But to paraphrase a comment made to Henry Ford by the autoworkers union, the meters won't buy many advertised products! The humans still come into the equation and ultimately they're the most important part, whatever the convenience of the number crunchers.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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