Most of the time, breaking up is hard to do. But not this time.
In just two short years, the paper radio listening diary will become a thing of the past, replaced by the all-new mobile diary. It's a change that's been a long time coming.
Arbitron developed the paper diary in 1965, and it's been around ever since. In the 1990s, radio broadcasters grew more frustrated with Arbitron and the diary method, citing low response rates, and a litany of other complaints about the methodology.
And in 2007, the Portable People Meter began its rollout. Today, the meter is the currency in 48 markets. But despite the promise of passive gathering of listening data recorded by the meters, PPM has proved to be even more frustrating to as many radio broadcasters as the diary.
Over the years, I've heard many lament the advent of the PPM system. Some broadcasters actually wish they could go back to the good old diary days.
But there is very little to like about the diary, whether you've moved onto metered measurement or you're stuck in a market where respondents record their radio listening using paper and a pen or pencil, often well after the fact.
Arbitron researched their research, and hopefully, Nielsen has, too. They know relatively few respondents fill out their diaries in real time. Many are completed at the end of a day – by memory. Others are finished up at the end of the week. And in some cases, a responsible person in the house fills in the diaries for all people who reside there.
And then there's young people. Experience tells us they're even less likely to be amenable to the idea of recording radio listening using a pen and a paper diary. And of course, this ridiculously archaic form of measurement distances Gen Z even further away from the radio medium.
No matter how you cut it, Arbitron and Nielsen's paper diaries are a crude, insufficient way of measuring radio listening. Recording one's audio choices by recall isn't an accurate way of determining all the dynamics of listening – when it occurred, how punching around the dial in the car is noted, and the location of the listening itself. And you'd have to assume in modern times, when many of us are doing several things at once – multitasking – the diary methodology is even more suspect.
I'll bet many of you in radio have experienced this – multiple times. You're at a party, and the person you're talking to finds out you work in radio. Eventually, someone asks about the ratings and how they work. And you explain – paper diaries, pen or pencil, recalled listening, one-week survey period, a buck or two for your time.
And assuming you're talking with a relatively sane, rational person, you can count on them saying something like this once they hear how the diary rating system functions:
“You actually GET PAID based on those ratings?!” Or words to that effect. And they're not wrong. It's absurd.
And first Arbitron, and then Nielsen have known this for years. Decades, in fact.
At various points in time, I worked with Arbitron, discussing various options to the diary, especially those that used mobile phones. Even when PPM came into being, smart observers wondered why cell phones weren't being utilized to record encoded audio within earshot of the respondent.
Why carry around a separate device IN ADDITION TO THE ONE YOU WOULDN'T BE CAUGHT DEAD WITHOUT EVERY TIME YOU LEAVE THE HOUSE?
And last week, Nielsen finally stepped up to notify us the system is about to change starting in 2025. As Inside Radio reported, Nielsen ditched paper diaries for TV measurement in 2017, utilizing set-top boxes.
Obviously for radio, a fixed box at home isn't going to work. Instead, the proposed solution is what they call a “mobile diary” where respondents can record their listening using mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops. Goodbye pencil and paper.
Is it perfect? Of course not. But to that point, every research study is imperfect in some way, whether it's a ratings survey, Techsurvey, the Infinite Dial, or political polls.
But the question is, how flawed?
Bruce Hoynoski (pictured), Nielsen's Measurement Science Business Leader, Global Audience Measurement, is upbeat. He says the mobile diary has been tested, producing a “very positive impact on KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).”
He also notes that filling out radio listening using the mobile diary is “an easier way to do that (and) much more agreeable with the younger adults to take that on.”
Why it has taken this long for a seemingly simple methodological upgrade to go into effect is anybody's guess. It is ironic that in the same year when Nielsen announces this “breakthrough,” ChatGPT and its many offshoots are making AI accessible to anybody, cloning voices, video images, and other truly remarkable innovations.
The fact radio has had to wait more than a half century for an improved form of measurement isn't just lamentable – it's unforgivable.
My bet is that over the decades, most programmers have been more than willing to have their content graded by a ratings system that is a reflection of their talent. Sadly, that hasn't always been the case, hurting careers, profits, and perhaps the overall trajectory of radio as an entertainment and information medium.
But in the quest for better ratings, the paper diary is just a miniscule part of where audio measurement falls woefully short.
The Holy Grail, of course, is to measure everything. That's been Nielsen's mission in television with their much-talked-about Nielsen One solution, tracking broadcast television, video streaming, and all the things we watch.
Is it possible a similar product could be developed for radio – one that would include broadcast, streaming, satellite, and podcasts?
That was a topic at an NAB session last month in Las Vegas. As reported in Inside Radio, Buzz Knight moderated a session featuring Catherine Herkovic, Nielsen's EVP & Managing Director, Local TV/Audio.
In a session called “Up Close with Nielsen Audio's New Leadership,” Herkovic says the company has “a very well laid-out plan for what Nielsen One for content in audio might look like.”
It's early days for a Nielsen version of “One” for radio/audio, and Herkovic pledges to have more industry conversations to better define what it could be.
While none of us wants to rush Nielsen, it might be helpful if this new solution was able to make its way into the marketplace before we get a handle on climate change, school shootings, the homelessness problem, and plaque psoriasis. Or while those of you reading this blog are still working in the radio business.
So congrats, Nielsen. You've done it. Before we know it, the paper diary will be gone.
But as many of us are no doubt asking:
What took so long?
- Job One: Recruiting Gen Z To Seek Careers In The Radio Broadcasting Industry - June 8, 2023
- Enter Sandbox - June 7, 2023
- Need A Good Radio Story? Call The Wizard Of Westwood One - June 6, 2023
Greg Penglis says
Gee, that’s too bad, Fred Jacobs, because we at the “Action Radio Citizen Legislature” are just getting started. We have a completely new genre of interactive, internet radio that is already worldwide, and is teaching folks in many countries how to write the laws that they consent to be governed by.
Sure would be great if y’all could help us break through the incredible censorship we are under from “Big Tech,” preventing our peaceful broadcasting and citizen legislating revolution from being shared with the millions who would not only listen, but participate.
If radio is to succeed it has to become participatory. We are already showing the way. But it won’t help if you don’t help us at this critical time please. Thank you!
Creator, Host and CEO of the Action Radio Citizen Legislature
Greg Penglis says
Oops, this is what we call a massive Mea Culpa. In my haste to respond before my show, I thought the article was about the death of radio, and not the death of the paper journal. My apologies. I’ll be more careful next time.
Although I do believe interactive radio is the future, and my information is correct. I should not have skimmed and jumped to conclusions. Won’t happen again. Sorry, Fred.
I tried to remove my comment, but I can’t find an edit button.
Phil LoCascio says
Finally! Congratulations to Nielsen for recognizing this outdated collection method and moving quic—-wait, 2025?!?
Holland Cooke says
“Portable People Meter”
Fred Jacobs says
A common mistake (for me). Good catch.
K.M. Richards says
As you reported, Fred:
“Even when PPM came into being, smart observers wondered why cell phones weren’t being utilized to record encoded audio within earshot of the respondent.”
That is what REALLY needs to happen. The non-paper diary is only one step in fixing the ratings process.
Couldn’t agree with “KM” more. Imagine a cell phone with an FM chip and the technology that can measure what you’re listening to in real time just like they do with podcasts, or “content” apps.
I’m no expert but that is probably why over-the-air TV will go away because you can measure audience activity much better with streaming.
Fred Jacobs says
They’ve looked at that. I remember two concerns – battery life and privacy concerns (“If you can ‘hear’ what stations I’m listening to, can’t you hear who I’m talking to?”)
Thank you for clarifying.
K.M. Richards says
I think that if we can have a PPM which only listens for encoding, we can engineer a smartphone app that only listens for that.
Although it seems to me that it wouldn’t be hard to attribute listening to a stream or (if they ever turn that chip on) a tuned-in FM station, either.
Dave Mason says
While in a major market, I would concoct a weekly ratings report based on the weekly “PPM” count. When our station had an average of 14 meters, we were #1. Market population? About 12 million. There were probably 3000+ meters in the market during any survey period – still a small sample compared to the overall population. During one month a major sporting event took an out-of-market signal to #1-only to drop back to obscurity following the conclusion. These are just 2 stories among many in the story of ratings. I didn’t even include the diary reviews that showed entries the poorly paid reviewers couldn’t even read, arbitrarily awarding quarter hours to the wrong station, sometimes stations in other markets. But unless a competing service evolves from a viable research company (hint, hint), there will be more nightmare stories, whether they be diary, PPM, cell-phone or smoke signals. We’re still fighting that fight though, Fred. Keep it up.