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Radio is in Danger of Becoming Safer Instead of Better. Here’s Why.

Here’s a little inside baseball look at why the radio stations in your town sound the way they do.

Late last year, a longtime affiliate of my The Ongoing History of New Music program decided to stop running the show, something that I obviously found disappointing and more than a little distressing. The program director’s reasoning for canceling the show? Poor ratings.

Okay, I get that. A PD’s job is to keep as many people listening to his/her station for as long as possible as often as possible. No ratings, no revenue–and no more job for the PD. Fine.

But what annoyed me was the data this fellow used to determine that the ratings were, in fact, poor. They may not be telling the whole story of who is listening to his radio station and for how long.

In his market, as with all the largest markets in Canada, the prevailing ratings system for over-the-air radio is called PPM, which is short for Portable People Metres. These are small pager-like devices a select group of people called a panel are supposed to carry with them all the time. These devices pick up inaudible tones broadcast within the main signal of a radio station. By sensing what radio stations panelists are exposed to over the course of a day, a week or a month, listening habits can no only be extrapolated for an entire city but can be sliced and diced into specific demographic groups.

These are the numbers by which advertising rates are set. If you have a lot of listeners from a particular demo–let’s say adults aged 18-34–your station can make a lot of money from advertising things that age group likes: beer, concerts, fast food and so on. And because PPM records passive listening–it automatically logs all the radio signals to which a panelist is exposed without any other intervention or action–the resulting numbers are hyped as accurate.

Well, maybe not.

It took about 13 seconds for people to figure out how to game the PPM system when it was introduced about a decade ago. Because metres need to keep moving to keep recording (that way you can’t just put a metre in front of a radio and leave it there all day to soak up the listening minutes when no one was actually listening) some wiseasses figured out they could attach a metre to a dog or (my favourite) a ceiling fan. There also were some other technical issues involving the signal encoding that could be exploited in some interesting high-tech ways that I won’t bore you with here. (But if you want to go down that rat hole, just Google “Voltair.”)

But there are other problems, especially with that important 18-34 demo. How do you make it cool for someone that age to carry around a page-type thing all day? What do you do when someone chooses to listen on headphones? Yes, there are special PPM dongles for headphone listening, but how many people actually use them? And most importantly, how big is the panel of listeners?

This is a big problem. In a city the size of Toronto, the listening habits of over three million people are determined by what’s reported by just a few thousand PPM panelists. And that’s all age groups who are listening to a variety of radio stations over 24/7 periods.

When you drill down to specific age groups–let’s say men 18-34 or the even more mercurial men 18-24–you start working with a sample size that is, as Larry David might say, pretty, pretty, pretty small.

Let’s go back to the data used by the guy who canceled Ongoing History. The program was running on the weekend–Sundays, I think, in competition with the best TV of the week–on an alt-rock station in a large Canadian city. In an effort to make sure he was getting as many listeners to his station as he could–and again, I’m completely on board with that in principle–he looked at the performance of his radio station, including Ongoing, on a minute-by-minute basis, something that PPM allows you to do. There are even software programs that allow PDs to go back through their broadcast days, noting the exact minutes when ratings dip and when they surge. By going back over the program logs, you can see what caused people to tune out–panelists, anyway–and what held their attention.

Overnight data comes in within 24 hours, so by Tuesday, he’d have a minute-by-minute report of how that past weekend’s Ongoing History show performed ratings-wise. Based on that data, he determined that ratings for the show started to suck, so it was time to pull the plug. Can’t argue with that, right?

Well, hang on. Let’s go back to the methodology for gathering that ratings data. If, for example, he was looking at adults 18-34 listenership during the show, how many listeners might actually have had a PPM metre? Ten? Six? Four? Two? 

As someone who has analyzed PPM data in this way, I can tell you the number can be tiny. That means if just one PPM holder decides he/she doesn’t like the topic or the song–or if that person gets called away to do something else–the extrapolated numbers go off a cliff. Hence ratings suckage. Decisions for an entire city are made on the basis of the habits of a small, small group of people–and sometimes that group is miniscule.

In other words, it’s possible that my show was canceled not because too few people were listening but because too few people with metres were listening. There’s no way of telling, but it’s possible that the show had thousands of listeners each week, but with no way of capturing that ratings data, no one would know.

(There’s another tangent on which we could depart here: What kind of person agrees to be a PPM panelist?)

And another thing: my one-hour show constituted exactly 1/168 of a listening week. Even if the program had a 50 share for that one hour (that would be YUGE), it wouldn’t have that much of effect on the station’s overall ratings.

Remember how I said how PPM technology allows PDs can look at minute-by-minute listening? Let’s take a look at a typical radio station between 1 and 2 pm on a Wednesday, specifically at, say, male listeners between the ages of 25-54.

Out of all the men of that age group in that city listening during that hour, let’s assume four have PPM metres and that all of them are driving in their cars. When the DJ starts talking, two of those men switch stations in search of music. One eventually returns 10 minutes later, but the other is off somewhere else, having reached his destination and has left the car.  Around 1:30, some commercials start playing and two of the three men with metres tune out, leaving just one person’s listening to speak for the rest of the city until someone else with a metre tunes in. Which may or may not happen until…whenever.

You see the problem, right?

But back to the PD. His/her job is to keep listeners–especially listeners with PPM metres–from tuning out. The mantra is sacrosanct: Never give a listener an excuse to stop listening. Ever.

Again, good in theory. But the result is that radio has been getting safer and safer, staying away from anything that might turn off even one of those priceless PPM people. As a result, fewer chances are being taken with music, talk and programming in general. In an effort to appease those who have PPM metres, many PDs, prodded by their general managers and sales managers, are wont to make their radio station sound safer rather than better and more interesting. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

But I’m going to keep doing Ongoing History shows the way I’ve always done them. I put my heart and soul into making interesting and compelling radio, something that seems to be working. I mean, this is a show that’s been running since 1993, right? And it doesn’t follow the traditional radio rules. The host talks too much, plays a lot of unfamiliar music and never mentions the call letters of the radio station. What makes the show work are the stories and the context in which the music is presented.

I believe if you give people a good reason to listen to DJ talk and to unfamiliar music, they will. It’s the human element that distinguishes radio from context-free Spotify playlist created by some echo chamber-creating algorithm. People crave great storytelling, information that surprises and delights and the ability to be taken new places–places that they’ve never been and maybe never knew existed.

I refuse just to play the hits and stick with well-known artists (something this PD wanted me to do) and stick to non-challenging topics. It’s not always safe, but it does have the potential to make radio better.

Sometimes the official ratings don’t tell the whole story. Jacobs Media has a few more thoughts on the subject.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37821 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

5 thoughts on “Radio is in Danger of Becoming Safer Instead of Better. Here’s Why.

  • This makes me think of the original Star Trek series which was cancelled after three seasons even due to poor Neilsen ratings. Of course they later found out that even though the total number of viewers of the show was lower than shows it was competing with something like 95% of the viewers were from the demographic advertisers most wanted to target. Had they had this information at the time the show likely never would have been cancelled.

  • I want to be challenged as a listener!

  • It’s not just a matter of “that PD doesn’t want you,” but really, you don’t want that PD either! Think of it this way: if you run a business and you have a troublesome customer, sometimes, it’s best to just cut ties with the unruly customer. In this case, you’re the business owner and that PD is your customer buying your product. Goodbye. Find a better radio station!

  • Safe is boring and does not make you stand out from the competition. Being bold and different may not get you the kind of major market share advertisers desire but I bet it gets you a loyal group of listeners. DJ Talk does not necessarily make me tune out. For me what is important is the feeling that I know the announcer like a friend because their personality and interests come through amidst the must-read announcements and song and group identification. A program like “Ongoing History….” is different from normal shows. I go there to find out behind the scenes facts and discover things I didn’t know. To recall events that were either significant or turned out to be that over time. Two+ decades later must mean you are doing something right.

  • Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsRandom Music News for Friday, March 3, 2017 - A Journal of Musical Things

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