After talking at length with researcher Richard Harker (hear the interview here), watching this 25 minute video on the science of watermarking audio, reading blogs and articles and then comparing it all to my personal experiences with PPM data, I believe the issues with PPM are nearing DEFCON1 for our industry.
Some things all radio broadcasters should know about PPM
The PPM tones are encoded and masked by other audio. If there is no audio on your radio station, there is no PPM encoding. If you are a spoken word radio station every time the host stops talking, takes a breath or a dramatic pause – the PPM tone stops encoding.
The PPM tones encode at certain frequencies (1 to 3 kilohertz), much higher frequencies than a typical male radio announcer, meaning higher pitched voices and music actually be decoded more consistently.
There has been no test results, at least released to the radio industry, how loud the radio station must be playing or how close to the radio the PPM device needs to be in order for the masked tone to be recognized and decoded. Though it is noteworthy that background radio station formats, like smooth jazz, have suffered greatly in the PPM era.
Audio watermarking technology can be wobbly leaving gaps (some small, some giant) in decoding and unknown amounts of unreported listening.
PPM encoding on internet streams is even less reliable. Just like a .jpg or .mp3 is compressed to make smaller files, your internet stream is compressed too, which means there is even less audio to mask the tone behind.
Because of these factors, some radio stations may only be encoding 50% of the time or sometimes even less and receiving greatly reduced credit in listening compared to what is actually happening.
Radio should be mad as hell. This is costing people jobs, livelihoods, and impacting radio families across the country. Programmers, myself included, have made “strategic” adjustments to shows, personalities, and formatics based on inaccurate PPM data.
If I’m Premiere Radio or really any big radio company I’m lawyering up. With the hit talk radio has taken in recent years (see: Rush) could it be that the audience likes it fine, but PPM doesn’t?
Fight back. The Voltair seems to be a worthy investment for some stations. It essentially makes your watermarked audio easier for the PPM to recognize and decode.
Also, and this goes against my better judgement, if you’re News/Talk or Sports I would seriously consider adding a music bed or crowd noise at all times so the encoding never stops.
“The first couple days I’m wearing this thing and I’m turning into radio just trying to get these points and then finally I said, ‘Well, f— this.’” – Former PPM panelist
Listen to the comments in context here.
This is a taboo topic of conversation for terrestrial radio and it would disqualify a radio station’s ratings faster than you can push “scan” when the Kars-for-Kids commercial starts up. However, it was the Top Story on Radio Stuff’s podcast. (editor’s note: Arbitron emailed their responses to our questions, so we had a British bloke voice the answers on the podcast. It’s worth a listen for that alone.)
DISCLAIMER: As a programmer, I have praised Arbitron for measuring my genius programming with precision when ratings are high and cursed them when they dropped. (Certainly there must be a sampling error, no?)
Joe v. Arbitronado
So, I sent the audio from “Joe” to Arbitron’s Director of Programming Services Jon Miller and asked him what he thought. He says it sounds like things are working the way they should.
“Arbitron has safeguards in place to help ensure the integrity of our PPM ratings. In this case, the panelist’s comments are a demonstration of some of those safeguards, such as calling households if their compliance in carrying the meter falls off.”
Caller Joe complained to Leykis:
“I started getting all these phone calls. I’m thinking you know who the hell is this calling me? We’ll it’s Arbitron. So apparently this meter has something that can tell when you’re moving and when you’re sitting still. And so when I’m not moving, they’re calling me – pretty much harassing me about why am I not wearing the meter and they can’t get accurate ratings and I need to be wearing my meter. Well, after about two weeks of this, they called me and said, “You’re not wearing the meter!” and I finally said, ‘alright, fuck this. Send me a box and I’m sending all this shit back.’”
Miller wouldn’t go so far as to characterize the company’s behavior as harassment, but the calls are part of the quality control.
“Arbitron monitors compliance with its instructions, contacts households who aren’t complying and works with them to improve their carry habits whether through coaching or other incentives.”
The 2010 Broadcast Architecture study on PPM panelists talked to one woman who clipped her meter to a ceiling fan, Joe plopped it down in front of a radio, and I’ve heard that others have attached them to pets. So, Jon Miller, how do you know when a panelist is cheating.
“The PPM has a motion detector built into it allowing us to capture both the motion records and media exposure from that day. There are thresholds for how many hours of motion a day we require for our panelists to be counted in the days ratings, and the more they wear the meter the more incentives they receive.”
And then there’s sample size. It wasn’t brought up by the caller, but it is commonly heard uttered in anger and echoing through the hallways outside PDs offices.
“PPM’s sample sizes are designed to deliver the same level of statistical reliability as the Diary survey, but with less total sample. We accomplish that by surveying listeners for a much longer period of time (28 days in just one PPM survey month) compared to the one-week diary timeline. This level of detail, thousands and thousands of days of measurement across a single month, allows us to see so many granular things with PPM data that we just can’t with the Diary.”
“If Arbitron is the standard in terms of traditional AM and FM radio then it’s a flawed standard.” -Joe the caller
Joe’s point would be more valid if he wasn’t just complaining that he wanted to earn the money without doing the work.
“One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen over the 5+ years that PPM has been in use is how much and how fast listening habits are evolving and changing. Nothing stays static in PPM, and we’re finding that radio listening is dynamic. This continually motivates broadcasters to continue offering compelling content on stations with clear and strong brand images, so that they can cut through with listeners in an ever more crowded media world.” – Jon Miller, Arbitron VP of Programming Services
Clear. Strong. Brands. Cut Through.
And I would add this:
“PPM isn’t perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” – Larry Gifford
Upon Further Review
We can’t force our ideal listeners to participate – it’s a roll-of-the-dice and sometimes you roll snake eyes.
Arbitron is weeding out at least some of the cheaters. Good.
We can’t know “true” listening behavior without NSA quality spy equipment and the violation of our listener’s constitutional rights.
Stations and panelists are both trying to game the system. Makes me wonder who Arbitron is gaming.
The sample size is what it is, unless stations want to spend even more ridiculous amounts of money to be told your station is still – awesome, sucky, irrelevant, vital – depending on the time of the month.
The success or failure of your station is in the hands of Caller Joe. Good luck.
From New York to Los Angeles, in Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, and D.C. at big stations and small there is an alarming story unfolding in talk radio. Talk stations are tumbling in the ratings and no one knows why, though there are many theories.
It’s political fatigue.
It’s too repetitive.
It’s too depressing.
It’s too angry.
It’s too boring.
It’s not entertaining.
It’s all commercials.
The list of once great stations that have dropped out of the top ten reads like a radio station all-star line-up: KFI, WABC, WLS, WMAL, KABC, KIRO, WBAP. And it’s not a fluke (pardon the pun.) This is real. Arbitron is noticing it too.
“…for the first time since we began keeping our format records, it (news-talk) recorded two consecutive books below a 9 share, finishing at an 8.7 in July. Now summer is historically the lowest time of the year for News/Talk listening, and we will be keeping a close eye on the results as August and September approach, but it’s worth noting that the format’s summer shares have declined about 10% since 2011.”
– Tony Hereau, Arbitron Media Insights Manager
Down 10% in two years as a format in the 48 PPM markets?!
Editor’s note: I’m sure radio ownership groups understand and have lowered revenue projections accordingly.
“It was in 1994.”
Leykis was a guest on Episode 13 of the Radio Stuff podcast (listen). He recalled broadcasting from the NAB the year his show was launching into syndication and everyone kept talking about a panel featuring talk radio consultant Ed Shane. As Leykis recalls, this was Shane’s message:
“It’s important, for your talk radio station to be successful, that everyone have the same opinion as Rush.”
Leykis takes it a step further.
“So in other words, the secret to Rush Limbaugh’s success was not his years of experience or his time as a DJ or the fact that he had great timing or was a good comedian, that he made good use of sound, but no, no, no – the reason for his success was that he was a political conservative.”
From there after, every station Leykis approached to syndicate his show would ask what his politics were. It wasn’t always like that, “Previously, they only cared, ‘do I get ratings? Will I help the station make money? Will I make noise?’ Suddenly I was being asked, ‘Are you a conservative?’”
Leykis believes that was the moment talk radio went from being a mass appeal format to being a niche format. And the problems with talk radio today stem directly from a consultant misreading the tea leaves.
“Talk radio went from Rush Limbaugh’s bells, whistles, jingles and parody songs and everything to a line up of people reading bill numbers.” He went on, “It’s devoid of humor, entertainment value or mirth. These are not radio personalities.”
He wonders aloud if anyone in the radio business getting the message?
And he cautions up and coming talkers, “Don’t go to a radio station, because you’ll never be allowed to develop your talent. Develop a podcast, develop a streaming live show, develop your own product, and learn how to sell it and become an entrepreneur.”
OKAY, SO NOW WHAT?
Maybe it is political talk’s fault. I happen to believe it’s likely a perfect storm of new media, new listener expectations, new social and political attitudes, and a general fear in radio of taking risks and being wrong – in every department.
Here are a couple of steps I believe are necessary for talk radio to attract new listeners and remain relevant.
1. DEMAND SHOWMANSHIP
Talk radio needs more storytellers and fewer alarmists. Talent need to entertain, emote and put on a show, as much as they provide insight, deliver information and add context. Radio station leaders must support talent and encourage them to be amusing, insightful, emotional, apolitical, curious, experimental, and positive while giving them permission to fail. And fail hard sometimes — without fear of being fired.
2. FIND ANOTHER REVENUE STREAM
Radio stations need to stop abusing the listeners. The quality and quantity of radio’s commercials is appalling. I mean holy smokes gang have you tried to listen to an hour of radio recently? Effective immediately commercials that don’t meet your standards or match your brand should be rejected. Be the first guy in the room to say, “Hold up! That spot sucks. It’s not going on our air.” Be bold.
And – this will be even less popular – reduce spot loads. It’s time. Thanks to DVR, podcasts, Netflix, on-demand audio, and satellite radio spot loads seem to be worse than ever. Until recently people were accustomed to sitting through commercials or flipping back and forth between stations, because it was the penance you had to pay to watch your favorite TV show or listen to a kooky talk show host. Now radio is the last place on earth (with the exception of movie theaters) where consumers are forced to sit there while commercials are crammed down their throat.
No fast forward.
No more patience.
No more listening.
Just look at the growth of online radio, on-demand audio and NPR. So what’s that mean? Radio needs to figure out a dual revenue stream. The future of financing big radio is commercials and__________. You fill in the blank.
Editor’s note: If you say commercials and banner ads, I will scream.
Talk radio isn’t going to die, but it is definitely going through a mid-life crisis. The next 18-months the entire format will be redefined, programmers will be less focused on gaming PPM and more focused on listeners, commercials will sadly still suck, and Rush Limbaugh will be replaced by someone else as the face of the format.