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How many people are really listening?

Hello, readers of my poor neglected blog. Apologies for not having posted for some time, but the usual deadlines have kept me away. Let’s jump right back in, though, with a look at a new way of measuring radio’s audience that is affecting all formats, including classical.

People outside the radio industry might not be aware of it, but a change is afoot in how radio stations gauge their listenership. Arbitron, the company that gathers ratings data for radio, is moving away from the paper diaries that listeners have long filled out by hand and embracing Portable People Meters — gadgets that can tune into and automatically register a radio station’s signal. This means PPMs should supposedly be more accurate, since they don’t rely on a listener’s possibly delayed or even incorrect recollection of what radio stations they listened to throughout a given day.

The move to PPMs has caused a lot of fluctuation in audience measurements, calling into question what radio stations really know about their audiences. And, as an article in yesterday’s New York Times reports, classical stations in particular have taken a beating. Classical’s share in 12 markets that introduced the PPMs last year fell by 10.7 percent.

I’d like to see more detail about a breakdown by format to help put this into context, but the Times doesn’t offer a full review. This article in Current, the trade newspaper about public broadcasting, does delve into the effects of PPM measurement on public radio stations in particular, however. One analysis presented at this year’s Public Radio Program Directors conference found that dual-format stations — the stations that air both news and music, often classical — have suffered the largest audience declines among public stations, but that all-news stations saw a drop as well. Will PPM measurement prompt even more station to abandon the dual format, adding to a trend that showed no sign of abating this year?

For more reactions, see this letter to Current in which one program director in public radio expressed a positive attitude about the shift to PPMs. Greg Sandow also commented on the Times article on his blog.

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2 Responses to How many people are really listening?

  1. Marty Ronish December 16, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

    Thanks for posting this, Mike. Some personal comments about classical music and the PPMs: Bryan Lowe, Program Director at KING-FM in Seattle, showed me the PPM at the station and explained that because classical music has louds and softs more than other formats do, sometimes the broadcast frequencies fall below the threshhold being measured by the PPM. That means when the music gets soft, all the PPMS in that market will register ZERO listeners. That could certainly skew the statistics.

    Not only that, but the PPM picks up all the frequencies it hears, so if you’re shopping at a store that is playing the radio, your meter will say you’re listening to that station. It doesn’t mean you chose that station.

    Still, the PPM is a lot more accurate than what people report in diaries. I’m sure the methodology will improve over time.

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