Big Brother’s watching what you hear. (R&R, 01/14/08)

By Paul Heine
In the 1970s, Dwight Douglas fantasized about a whimsical research tool that would show instant audience reaction to his every programming move: a massive map of the local market covered with thousands of miniature lights, each representing a listener. When one lit up, it meant someone was tuned to his station. Sitting in his office, he imagined the lights flickering on and off in direct response to station programming, helping him determine which songs, personalities, bits, commercials and contests were hits or misses.

Now VP of marketing at RCS-Media Monitors, Douglas may soon see his dream come true. Working with Arbitron, Media Monitors is testing a revolutionary new Web-based product with the working name of Audience Response. By combining real-time airplay data from Media Monitors with corresponding minute-by-minute audience information from Arbitron’s Portable People Meter (PPM), programmers can view an electronic graph of their audience flow. Clicking on listening spikes or dips in the graph triggers playback of the audio that aired at that precise time, offering insights into how specific programming elements affect actual audience behavior—sort of like the illuminated audience map Douglas imagined 30 years ago.

Though it beats waiting for months-old ratings based on listener recall, futuristic research tools like Audience Response offer as much potential for misuse as they do for enlightened programming. To make reasoned decisions, broadcasters would need to aggregate audience reactions to specific programming elements over time and consider other factors that influence tune-in and tune-out. “Lifestyle and daily routine play huge roles in radio listening,” says John Stevens, president/COO of radio for Paragon Media Strategies, which claims to be the first company to overlay PPM results with Media Monitors data. “Tune-out may not have been the result of a bad song.” Throwing water on the notion that it will replace such conventional research techniques as callout and auditorium tests, Mercury Research president Mark Ramsey cautions that the PPM measures behavior, not preference. “Behavior means I turn the radio on or off because of who’s in the car with me or because I’m getting out of the car,” he says. “It muddies the waters of preference and is therefore an imperfect substitute for it. You can either play songs listeners like or play songs that happen to fall when they’re not getting out of their cars.”

Douglas says the faux pas in any new research product is the tendency to be microscopic. “You have to pull the camera back and look at all the times a song was played and how it was presented,” he says. For example, initial test results show consumers listen longer to a brand-new song when the jock properly presells it.

Coleman Insights VP Warren Kurtzman fears that minute-by-minute audience data could blind programmers from seeing the bigger picture. “There are things your radio station can do that, in the short term, will cause your audience to go down, but may be outstanding for you in building your brand,” he says. “And there are things that may generate a tremendous amount of listening in PPM but may be detrimental to your brand or your competitive position.”

Ramsey worries that a pinpoint approach to programming “will effectively push us into minute-by-minute analysis of our stations, which will invariably trim out everything that makes listeners come back—besides music. And that makes us incredibly vulnerable in a million-station Internet audio universe.”

Still, such advanced tools as Audience Response could help radio catch up with other industries in understanding how consumers use their products. “Wal-Mart can quickly analyze what’s selling and what’s not, and break it out regionally and by store and adjust its marketing accordingly,” Douglas says. Radio could soon have access to similar audience intelligence.
And so could advertisers. Kurtzman says commercial-level ratings, beginning to gain acceptance in the TV industry, could be five to seven years away for radio. “As advertisers continue to demand more accountability, we’re going to have to increase the precision of the measurement system even further,” he says. “Eventually, we’re going to get to the point where buyers want to know exactly who they’re reaching when they run advertising.”

Read much more from “Audience Surveillance” in the Jan. 11 issue of R&R. It’s part of the special “Future Of Radio” issue, which provides a peek into where radio is heading in the areas of talent development, research, finding the hits, technology, advertising and more. Get your copy now by calling 800-562-2706 or 818-487-4582 between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pacific Time, or e-mail:

One Response to “Big Brother’s watching what you hear. (R&R, 01/14/08)”

  1. Anything will be better than Arbitron! The station that my brother works at in San Diego’s ratings went up BIG TIME after they signed up for their Marketing Services.

    Spend the bucks and you too will see the results you’re looking for.

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