Nielsen to Provide (Same?) Radio Ratings

Nielsen, by way of the announcement of a deal with Cumulus Media, entered the radio ratings fray. They seem to have girded their loins to take on Arbitron, the undisputed king of radio ratings services. My question is: What will they offer that is different from what Arbitron is providing? What is needed is actual use, not the reliance on memory, to make the case to advertisers

At first blush, other than different names for the same services…we can’t seem to get past the pencil.* OK, I’m guessing they are offering to do it cheaper. Price is clearly the driving force behind most broadcast media decisions. But, beyond that, according to the rather brief New York Times article, ‘Nielsen will produce ratings by collecting diaries from respondents.’ This is the same methodology that has been provided by Arbitron forever. The Times goes on to point out, ‘Arbitron’s effort to gradually replace diaries with an electronic form of measurement, personal people meters, has led some station owners to complain.’

So let’s recap…a radio company is going to reinvest in questionable recall, diary (read pencil and paper) methodology because the new electronic technology, which is in it’s very infancy, isn’t giving them the results they want (and, BTW, is also much more spendy than said diaries.).

To be fair the pitch from Nielsen talks about all sorts of cool stuff to make data collection more, as they say, robust. Their ‘addressed based sampling’ (ABS) is promising access to “the 34% of U.S. households that are not covered by current sampling methods”. Other nifty commitments include;

  • Large samples to reduce relative error and bounce.
  • A significant investment in oversampling and differentiated incentives to improve response rates and representativeness among hard-to-reach demographics.
  • An “e-diary” option for 2010 that will appeal, in particular, to younger demographics that are more comfortable participating online.
  • Robust, single-source qualitative measurement of lifestyle, consumer behavior, and purchase intent.
  • Nielsen’s web-based Radio Advisor software platform, which will include responsible limits on the granularity of analysis and relative errors that can be used in proposals and analyses.

Well that’s all cool and stuff but, it still relies on listener recall to write down what they are listening to….the same thing that Arbitron is currently providing. The diary method, as flawed as it is, use to be just fine. Advertisers were content with it. Now, they want more and radio must give it to them.
Meanwhile, new media outlets like interactive and social media continue to offer proof of real use of their medium. Even TV still has “the box” that transmits hard data.

Look, I’m no fanboy of Arbitron. I have had my share of issues over the past years. Everything from sample size, weighting, placement, slogans, etc. have given me reasons to dial up the home office in Maryland. But as the rise of ‘actual use’ data being provided by other media has continued, the need for a new method of data collection is clearly the most important issue facing radio.

In turn, I applaud the efforts made by Arbitron as they have worked to provide electronic measurement of radio listening through the development and deployment of the People Meter (PPM). Electronic measurement must be developed and supported. Like any broadcaster I would love to see that form of measurement be less costly, but I’d also like to see the price of college tuition for my kids go down…it ain’t gonna happen, at least right away.

So, I have to ask, why would a broadcaster be interested in heralding a relationship with a company that is providing what is essentially the status quo?

I am hopeful that this new foray into radio ratings by Nielsen will ultimately result in a (cell phone based?) technology for measuring radio, if not by Nielsen by somebody. It just has to be! Surely we’re not just prolonging an antiquated methodology. (Of course, I’m an optimist.) In the meantime, I’m hoping that Cumulus and Clear Channel are getting a smoking good deal on ‘old school’ ratings. Just remember, you get what you pay for.

*Update: It should be noted that the Nielsen diary does get past
the pencil in so much it is a “sticker diary”. So instead of using a
pen or pencil, survey participants use pre-printed stickers to enter
their listening habit. Since recall is the issue I don’t think stickers
are the answer…though my kids loved playing with stickers when they
were small.
(Thanks for the heads up Harv.)


  1. When the original RFP was announced, Lew Dickey said that Cumulus was doing this because the PPM was not getting to the smaller markets soon (if ever). Which makes the ultimate decision to go with a diary-based methodology even more odd.

    Personally, I think that this is a trojan horse and that Nielsen really plans to deploy their version of the PPM (the Go Meter) to the Cumulus markets as part of a larger roll-out for their national service. Here’s a link to their backgrounder on this:

    So – to sum up: the Nielsen announcement about diary measurement in small markets is a head-fake. They really plan to go with the portable meter.