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
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
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
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?
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
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
MF: So how does Arbitron collect the data?
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
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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