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An Insider's Take on Talk Radio
Conversation with Michael Harrison of Talker's Magazine
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 by Marsha Friedman

Marsha FriedmanRadio represents a critical means of communicating ideas and opinions, and no matter the next technological breakthrough in communications, we will still tune in because we never know what those voices in the air will say next.

And that’s why I am so incredibly excited to present to you an interview I did with one of the most significant voices in the radio industry, Michael Harrison, the founder and publisher of the talk-radio industry’s #1 publication, Talkers Magazine.

MF: Some prospects/clients request that we only book them on Arbitron-rated stations and we often have to explain why that isn’t always in their best interest.  Would you agree? 

Michael HarrisonMH: What we have here is an example of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It certainly isn’t in their best interest if it significantly limits the number of stations on which they can be booked or precludes them from appearing on a show or with a host whose specialty is the guest’s subject and whose audience, though small, is loyal and hangs on to every word. 

Look, I can understand guests wanting to be on big stations and logically, to a certain extent, size does matter. However, there is a huge difference between selling Coke or car insurance (like GEICO) to the masses and selling a book, a philosophy or a specialized small business product to targeted segments of the population. Arbitron’s basic mission is to give advertising agencies, concerned with making large spot buys for big clients, a thumbnail overview of very general statistics such as the age and gender of mass audiences.

The ratings for each station, as determined by Arbitron, provide information that fuels a system of convenience described as cost-per-point. It guides them in determining how much it will cost per hundred or thousands of sets of ears to get their message and brand out there to millions of people. 

MF: So to clarify, what you’re saying is that the information Arbitron collects is more quantitative in nature?

MH: It is almost entirely quantitative. That is not to knock it. It serves a vital purpose economically within the Madison Avenue big time commercial segment of the business. It serves the advertisers and their agencies that don’t have the time or interest to really study the radio stations and their connectivity to the emotional, intellectual and psychological nature of their audiences. 

The point simply is this method does not reveal very much qualitative information. For example, Coca Cola doesn’t care if the people who buy their product are Republicans or Democrats, or interested in sports, celebrity gossip, gardening, cooking or astrophysics. These qualities of their target customer base do not directly impact their business.

MF: So if you are not a megabrand or company, size is not as important as the quality of the audience?

MH: By ruling out being booked on small stations, offbeat programs and relatively unknown hosts, the Arbitron-only crowd you described is missing the benefits of this form of marketing, which is often even more important to their success than sheer unqualified audience numbers. Nowadays you need to promote large and small, especially when in today’s electrically-charged digital environment, even a "small" host could go viral with information the world is eager to know. 

The ratings don’t tell you if that host you never heard of in an unrated market has a Facebook page or a loyal army of Twitter fans capable of rivaling the reach of many medium-market radio stars, or if he talks and writes (blogs) fervently about the guests he speaks with on the radio. The ratings also don’t have much to say about whether the show is on the Internet and what kind of online audience it has amassed. Thus, to shackle the promotion of guests selling specific ideas to already motivated individuals, with the same system that GEICO uses to promote awareness of its gecko, is to miss out on where the true action is in marketing specialty products (such as books, opinions and other forms of eclectic direct-response merchandise) in today’s multimedia world. 

MF: Can you give us a snapshot explanation as to how the Arbitron system works and how accurate the listenership numbers are?

MH: Keep in mind when discussing radio ratings that actual radio listening is a mysterious process. So the word “accurate” is a highly subjective premise. I am personally not a fan of radio ratings and never have been beyond accepting them professionally and industrially as a necessary evil. That being said, none of this is meant to be a slam against Arbitron per se. They do what they do very well.  It’s just that even when done well, radio ratings are a sloppy business. 

Most of the U.S. population has access to radios and more than 90 percent listen to some of the thousands and thousands of radio stations and shows out there, at least five minutes every week. At least that is what the latest research says, for whatever it’s worth. However, there is no way to measure mathematically precise numbers of an unwired medium the way, say, books or movie box office sales are tallied, or the way we can now determine the precise metrics of Internet usage. And, that’s what’s dangerous about overreliance on Arbitron or taking its numbers at face value. They do not necessarily reflect results. 

MF: So how does Arbitron collect the data?

Michael HarrisonMH: One of the main issues the radio industry is dealing with at the moment is Arbitron’s transition from what is called the “diary” method of audience measurement to a new system called the Portable People Meter or "PPM." This transition has been slow and not without problems and criticism. 

The diary represents the paper and pencil world of the 20th century, a world of simpler media and significantly long-term memory and attention spans. The PPM represents the 21st century world of instantaneous digital communications and the need for hard, fast facts. It is now an A.D.D. world. 

The diary method measures listeners’ recall, meaning you go about your business listening to radio and then, when you have a chance you fill out what you listened to—from memory—in a workbook called a "diary."  Games are played the way games are scored. Football teams are designed to score touchdowns and field goals because that’s the way the game is scored.  Baseball teams are designed to bring runners across home plate. In the diary method, there is a significant disconnect between actual listening and the act of thinking about listening. 

The diary basically asks listeners to vote for stations, shows and personalities.  This method requires that stations program to create brand awareness, community involvement and listener loyalty to get the full benefits of its system. Although loosely accurate at estimating the relative popularity and brand awareness of radio, the diary method is an extremely inaccurate methodology of measuring actual minute-to-minute listenership.

The PPM, on the other hand, is a small mechanical device that is directly plugged into and measures, in hard numbers, the actual listening habit of the person wearing it. In playing the PPM game, stations are focusing on a much shorter listener attention span. At this point in the transition, I believe the PPM is in use in the top 50 markets. The diary method is still being used elsewhere.  You can see this is causing a bit of turmoil in radio programming circles. If you'll pardon the sports analogy, are we supposed to be scoring runs or are we now playing for touchdowns?

MF: So, when it comes to knowing how much of an audience you're reaching, do the Arbitron ratings really matter?

MH: Only in as much as they provide a general overview of a stations bulk listenership and obviously it doesn't hurt to reach as many people as possible.  So don't get me wrong. I am not saying this is useless information.  What I’m saying is it doesn’t provide the complete picture in terms of promoting the kind of product and ideas your clients and potential clients are looking to expose.  Unfortunately, most laymen don’t have a clue as to how to make sense of Arbitron numbers. They have so many different dimensions to them that even professionals in the field get confused. That’s why I said a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  

MF: How many stations even bother with the Arbitron ratings system anymore? Are stations using Arbitron more or less now than in the past?

MH: Frankly, off the top of my head, I am not sure. I suspect it has remained fairly constant over the years, perhaps dropping off during recessions such as we have just experienced. Many stations don’t actually "subscribe" to Arbitron, which means they don’t pay for it. Technically that means they can’t cite their numbers to clients when doing sales pitches. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an Arbitron rating attached to the station and it doesn’t mean the agencies won’t use it in determining buys. The key is not whether stations “bother” with or are using Arbitron; it is whether or not the advertising agencies are using Arbitron.  And most of the agencies still find it useful.

MF: How would you recommend people judge a show’s value to determine whether the time they invest as a guest is well spent?

MH: Good question. No simple answer. The obvious answer is, if you receive a bump in response or sales as a result of going on the show, it was time well spent. But there is more to it.  If a host does a particularly good job and has a loyal audience, you never know who is listening and what the longer term ramifications of that exposure will be. 

An appearance on a show that provides no immediate results might in fact trigger a bunch of reactions that comes back at you down the line. Plus the host of that show might have friends in the business and start a buzz about you. Or the host of a small station today could be the Sean Hannity of tomorrow. The nurturing of contacts is vital to doing business in the 21st century. As far as I am concerned, there are no small stations, hosts or customers. And, with the Internet buzzing beneath all of our feet, you never know when an appearance on any show, anywhere, at any time will strike pay dirt!

Marsha Friedman, CEO of EMSI, is a 20-year veteran of the public relations industry, who provides PR strategy and publicity services to corporations, entertainers, authors and professional firms.
She is also the author of the book, Celebritize Yourself.

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