If the above photo looks familiar, that's because you've seen it before. It headed up a post written this past April about Nieslen's headphone listening measurement conundrum.
Nielsen's Tuesday webinar signaled the beginning of the end of that chapter in radio ratings, something we've been talking and blogging about in this space for years. Like the “cell phone only” phenomenon addressed in our very first Techsurvey in 2005, lost headphone listening in PPM markets is a problem that's been around since those boxes of meters began arriving on people's porches.
Nielsen (and Arbitron before it) is very methodical about all things methodological. So they did their homework, and pretty much learned what we saw once again in Techsurvey 2020 (yes, we brought the headphone question back) a few months ago. A relatively small percentage of headphone listening to broadcast radio IS happening, it differs by demographic group, it has grown and will continue to grow as “hearables” become even more popular.
Nielsen's remedy is not a technical fix. It's a data adjustment. And it will show up in the October PPM reports, ahead of their originally promised 2021 goal. In a year where radio broadcasters have had to play some pretty lousy cards, the ratings “enhancement” – even if small – will be welcome news.
If you're curious about what types of stations are likeliest to get a “lift,” read the post below. I'm confident the results we saw in Techsurvey 2020 will generally be reflected in Nielsen's research, and subsequent “enhancements” to individual station ratings.
This was never about how can we make “radio look better” in the ratings. During this pandemic, we've seen PUMM levels in PPM markets seriously slide in April, while slowly recovering in the ensuing months. That's what happens during a global pandemic when stay-at-home issues are ordered, and car traffic greatly diminishes.
It IS about how Nielsen can ensure the ratings are as accurate and reflective of real radio listening as possible. As consumers tune in radio on more and more gadgets that aren't radios, it's critical each station has a fair shot at having its total listening measured. This headphone issue is a complicated process, and it's taken seemingly forever to get this done. But it is happening and it's welcome news in an otherwise horrible year.
Nielsen deserves credit for finally admitting their PPM “dongle” was largely ineffective (or obsolete altogether on many smartphones without a headphone jack) for measuring this usage, but it took years for this initiative to come together.
And while this will be a welcome sight in the coming monthly reports, it is Nielsen's responsibility to adjust to changing times, new listening methods and gadgets, and other changes in the audio consumption experience. Far from being static, technology and innovation will not stand still. Even during COVID-19, we are seeing new traits, behaviors, and habits emerging. The onus is on radio's primary ratings company to recognize them and proactively make the right adjustments.
Moving forward, Nielsen will continue to survey headphone listening because it will likely change over time. And that's an important step in ensuring the ratings broadcasters pay for are as close to reality as they can possibly be.
In the meantime, make sure you're encoding your streams, and focus your efforts on their audio quality and the experience they provide. There is nothing worse than hearing repetitive Smokey the Bear PSAs, clunky breaks, and annoying buffering while wearing Air Pods, ear buds, or high quality headphones.
Assuming your streaming product is a good one, you might want to think about your own on-air campaign to market your stream, reminding your audience base they can tune you in on their smartphones, tablets, and smart speakers.
And may you get a nice “lift' in the October PPMs. – FJ
Many radio broadcasters are taking a hard look at Nielsen PPM ratings in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. How does (nearly) a national stay-at-home order impact routine radio listening? Now that so many consumers are at home, while the unemployment rate skyrockets, what effect is that having on broadcast radio listening? How will less in-car and at-work listening impact routine consumption of broadcast radio?
That's been the topic of conversation here at Jacobs Media these past couple weeks as well. Our flash coronavirus surveys – presented to stakeholders and in separate webinars for the RAB, PRPD (for public radio), and CMB (Christian music radio) drew record crowds. We're all trying to learn as much as possible about how this pandemic is rocking our worlds. (You can now watch our webinar from last week, in partnership with RAB here.)
As every corner of the radio industry tries to get its collective head around the changing ratings, it's easy to forget a topic that received special attention from Nielsen in 2019:
Headphone listening – and how it's being measured and credited in PPM markets.
The market has changed quite a bit since those days of those bulky Koss Pro4AAs – or “cans” as DJs called them – that everyone wore. In the past several years, technology has ushered in slick new products for the ear – “hearables” – as they're now called. According to MediaPost, Jupiter Research indicates the number of these devices will grow to 970 million by 2024.
And this year in Techsurvey 2020, we asked about “hearables” – wireless devices like AirPods and the many other varieties we see with increasing visibility each year at CES. Keep in mind, our Techsurveys are mostly populated by core commercial radio listeners.
So, here's what we learned. It turns out four in ten of our respondents already own “hearables” of one kind of another, the demographic patterns are fascinating and relevant to understanding new ways in which audio is being consumed.
Younger people, in particular, have a much greater propensity to embrace “hearables” as a cool, personal, and quality way to enjoy their favorite audio. And Latinos, Asian Americans, and African Americans are considerably more apt to fall into this camp as well. When you translate that into radio format consumption, it's not hard to define the ratings shortfall – especially in PPM markets.
That's because for as long as there have been meters, there's been a strong suspicion headphone listening has been severely undercounted due to the inaudible nature of this consumption. Remember that for the meter to credit listening, it has to “hear” an encoded radio signal. That doesn't happen while a user is wearing any type of headphones or earbuds.
In fairness to Arbitron and Nielsen, a dongle supplied to their panelists was designed as a workaround. But many industry observers have long agreed that few Nielsen respondents take the trouble to use this rather clunky accessory, created back in the days when headphones were uniformly connected by a cord, rather than by Bluetooth technology so common today.
So, after considerable grousing from broadcasters, Nielsen committed to getting to the bottom of this issue last year, commissioning studies of meter panelists representing multi-format listening, as well as demographic representation in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity. The mission was to identify the audience subgroups and their go-to formats where headphones are more (or less) commonly used to listen to broadcast radio.
From there, Nielsen's plan was to use this data to create listening models that can be applied to existing PPM ratings. And the hope has been that virtually every station in the biggest markets would see a boost in their ratings as a result of tacking on heretofore missing headphone listening.
It's easy to forget about something this minuscule while radio is fighting its way through a global pandemic. But ratings matter, COVID-19 or not. What's the status of this headphone study, and when can radio operators expect to see results?
An informed Nielsen source tells me both planned waves of their research have been completed. This data will first be shared with the Advisory Council and COLRAM, and then modeling will be done to determine how it will be applied to the ratings. The goal for deployment is 2021, and as I'm sure most broadcasters would agree, it cannot come soon enough.
That said, radio broadcasters shouldn't expect a windfall of stratospheric ratings increases. While headphone listening will likely be substantial when Nielsen releases this data, it is not a large part of overall radio listening.
In fact, it is likely to indicate that most audio consumption with headphones is occurring on the digital side of the street (via laptops and smartphones). Much fewer listen to terrestrial radio broadcasts via headphones, ear buds, or AirPods.
Still, higher ratings – even a tenth of a point or two – will be welcomed by radio broadcasters, under pressure from all sides.
To get a head start about what this Nielsen headphone data is likely to reveal, we included a headphone listening question in Techsurvey 2020. It turns out the last time we included this question was back in 2017, so we actually have a benchmark for comparison.
This year, we learned that more than one-fifth of all respondents listen to terrestrial radio via headphones or earbuds half the time – or more often. And compared to four years ago, headphone listening to broadcast radio stations is trending up.
And predictably, headphone listening to radio closely mirrors the same demographic patterns we saw with “hearables” ownership. It portends better numbers for radio stations that target these subgroups – Alternative, CHR, Hip-Hop, and formats that focus on young listening, African Americans in particular. Will Nielsen's study of its own respondents show the same demographic patterns? I wouldn't bet against it.
Why is ‘hearables” ownership happening at a rapid rate of speed, and when did the wireless headphone trend take flight? You might trace it back to the release of the Beats line of headphones in 2008. Dreamed up by two (in)credible music icons – Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine – Beats headphones became more than just listening devices. They quickly became fashion statements.
That trend continues a decade later with lightweight AirPods, and other new listening technologies today from companies as credible as Bose and Sennheiser. Not a company to pass up cool gadgetry, it's no coincidence Apple bought Beats in 2014 for the then eye-opening price tag of $3 billion.
This is a trend to watch, especially now that its impact on broadcast radio – while not through the roof – will likely be both measurable and additive to existing ratings. A ratings steroid? Not likely. But many stations – especially those with audiences mostly south of age 40 and those with high ethnic compositions – could end up with better numbers.
Any audio consumption activity – whether it's on mobile phones, smart speakers, or wireless headphones – is important for Nielsen to measure, and for radio operators to understand. In broadcast radio, that sentiment has intensified in just the past few weeks as more consumers are at home, often listening to their favorite radio station's streams on devices as diverse as mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and smart speakers.
We've seen the renaissance of audio taking shape these past several years. Most of the data confirm the notion the listening “pie” has expanded, thanks to new content and new distribution choices. The confluence of audio streaming, playlist services, podcasts, and “hearables” technology are fueling this movement.
It is likely to gain strength, especially as consumers spend more time on couches rather than in cars.
Hearing is believing.
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