Sparky Taft in white tuxedo
Sparky Taft

For many years, broadcasters and knowledgeable advertising agencies have been skeptical about the accuracy of “diary” reports by Arbitron. Historically, these have been many cases in just about every market, including Seattle, of inconsistencies and fluctuations in the reporting of radio listening. The reason most everyone believed, was the diary methodology.

With the diary, people were chosen by computer in each market, based on a cross-section of age, sex, location and other factors. On paper, the sample was perfect. But, in reality, it was flawed.

To compile a report (commonly referred to as and ARB). Arbitron relied 100% on the participants filling out the diary and retiring it to them. Many did not do this and sometimes the diaries were heavily skewed to certain geographic areas (e.g., Tacoma).

Also, Arbitron often didn’t get enough diaries back for specific age groups, or received too many for one or more age groups. When this happened, Arbitron did what it called “weighting.” This involved taking the flawed sample and “weighting” it up or down to arrive at the planned large oil for each age cell. In short, the took the flaw and multiplied it, usually creating some unrealistic radio-audience estimates.

Another diary flaw was the idea that participants would fill out the diary on a daily basis for a one-week period. It was widely believed that many waited until their participation period was done and then try to remember when they listened and to what stations. Obviously, most people can’t accurately remember over a one-week period, so it was much simpler to report that they listened to one station for long periods of time.

Radio programmers and knowledgeable radio people believed that most radio listeners do listen to one station a great deal, but they often change stations. The diary method really did not document that.

Another flaw in the diary was that the participant sample changed every week, thus every week different people were asked to record their listening. There was no way the diaries could record changes in listening habits, especially if a station changed its format. With the change, did the audience go up or down?

Enter the PPMs (Personal People Meters), a cell-phone-sized electronic device that participants are asked to carry with them at all times. It records every station the participant actually is exposed to, rather than what a participant said he/she was listening to with the diary.

I say “exposed to” because, for example, if a person carrying a PPM is in a store that has  a radio station playing over its sound system, the device will record that station. The PPM, in fact, will record any station sound as long as it’s audible, which is one big flaw with that methodology.

Nevertheless, there are several obvious advantages to the PPM. First, it accurately records which station each participant actually listens to. Second, no memory is required; the device automatically records all data and transmits it once a day to the control center. Finally, the PPM can instantly record changes in listening habits, if a participant changes stations or begin listening to a new station.

The biggest question with the PPM reports is the sample size. The last diary report in Seattle had 3,702 participants. The PPM reports are based on a sample about one-third that size. Arbitron believes the PPM sample, although smaller, projects a more accurate picture of radio listening. Experts believe it will take a year or more to track the PPM reports to determine whether they truly give a more accurate reading of radio listening than the diary method.

So, how have the PPMs change the reporting of Seattle radio listening? Drastically! Some of the radio stations previously shown with large audiences have dropped substantially, and others have jumped dramatically.

The PPM report for April-June ’09 documents that total radio listening is much greater than reported previously with the diary method. For example, in the Winter ’09 Arbitron diary report, only two stations showed a total cumulative audience of 400,000 or more. In the new PPM report, 17 stations went reported with 400,000+ – a huge jump! Eight stations showed 600,000 or more listeners and two had more the 800,000.

Putting the total radio listenership in the new PPM report into perspective, The Seattle Times has a daily circulation of 209,396 according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Seven radio stations have more daily listeners than the total Times circulation.

There also were winners and losers. The biggest winners were KJR-FM, KRWM-FM, KJAQ-FM, KPLZ-FM and KOMO-AM/PM. Stations like KCMS-FM, KZOK-FM and KISW-FM were fairly consistent from the diary to the PPM report.

The big surprise losers were KIRO-FM, KTTH-FM and KVI-AM. In the Winter diary, KIRO-AM (then “news/talk”) was ranked 3rd in the market with Adults 25-54, but in the new PPM report, KIRO-FM fell to 20th. In the Winger diary, KTTH-AM ranked a respectable 9th, but fell to 21st in the PPMs. And KVI-AM fell from 20th to 26th.

Once of the biggest changes in total radio listening between the diary and the PPM reports is the substantial difference shown in when people are listening to the radio. For many years, it was widely believed–and documented by the diary reports–that morning drive was by far the most-listened-to part of the day, with mid-days ranking second and afternoon drive third in total listening. No more!

In the PPM report, afternoon drive is the most-listened-to part of the day, with mid-days a close second. This is a whopping change in radio listenership patterns and shatters the myth that most people listen to the radio in the morning. The largest listenership hours 12+ are 3pm, 2pm, 4pm, 7am, noon, 5pm and 8am, in that order. Listening on weekends also has increased substantially in the new PPM report.

Are the PPMs more accurate? Most knowledgeable broadcasters and statisticians believe so. The new PPM methodology isn’t perfect. There are flaws in the report and I’m sure Arbitron will make many adjustments in the months and years to come.

Stations that have fallen are aggressively challenging or have filed suit against the new PPM reports. But like it or not, they’re here to stay and the only industry-recognized source of radio-listening estimates.

Sparky Taft in green shirt, yellow visor
Sparky Taft

Pub Note: We’re devoting this space this issue to a commentary by Sparky Taft, the long-time principal of Dynamic Results Media and former GM of eight radio stations and the owner of his own station (425-353-3265 or ).

Over the past few years, radio has changed—a lot! And not for the betterment of advertisers. It’s sad, but that’s the reality in today’s corporate broadcast environment.

Until a few years ago, there were more than 25 different radio station ownerships in the Seattle market. In those “good ol’ days” we used to have lunch and make a deal on a napkin. Beyond agreeing to rates and schedules, we often planned special promotions to assure that the clients got good results from the advertising. No more.

Now, only six broadcast companies (plus Christa Christian Radio) own all of the Seattle radio stations. And all of these companies are big corporations. Only Fisher Communications is locally owned and they, too, are a big company.

How has this changed radio advertising? All of these companies are really run by “bean counters” (aka bookkeepers) and program directors. Their shareholders want a huge return on their investment and thus the pressure is on the general managers and sales managers to produce large-dollar revenues.

A radio station’s audience can be dropping like a rock, but the investors want more money than the station produced in the past. It’s a “numbers” business… sell commercials for more money whether it’s realistic or not. This creates a lot of pressure—particularly on sales managers—to sell, Sell, SELL!!!

The program directors play a significants role by dictating “on air” policies, including how many commercials the station will run and how they’re run. Most music-format stations “cluster” their commercials—as many as six or seven in a row.

Program directors generally look at commercials as a nuisance, but know they’re necessary. Until a few years ago, most stations ran only two or three commercials in a row and the played another record. Now most music stations have only tow or three commercial breaks each hour, with “clusters.” This clustering greatly dilutes the effectiveness and audience impact of each individual ad.

The there are the “all music” formats, again dictated by the program directors, who have the philosophy that the all-music format will compete with iPods. For many commercial radio listeners, that’s true. But for the advertising client, it’s horrible. Most listeners to the all-music format are listening to the station for only one reason: MUSIC!

When a commercial cluster comes on, these listeners are street smart (or commercial smart!). They tune to another station until they know the commercials are over. So, there are “listeners” to the all-music station, but they’re not listening to the advertisers’ commercials. And the Arbitron ratings don’t reflect this tune-out audience.

The rates on all leading stations keep going higher and higher, whether justified or not, making it more and more difficult for many advertisers to use radio properly. Radio is a “frequency” medium; it takes many commercials to impact a station’s audience. If an advertising client can’t afford to run a lot of commercials on any selected station, they should save their money—write a check to charity—because they at least can write that off. Sadly, more and more stations are getting so pricey that many clients (particularly retailers) are looking for alternative media to reach their potential customers.

In spite of all these changes, I’m still a big believer in radio advertising. A couple years ago, one of my clients commented that he believed commercial radio was doomed with the emergence of satellite radio. I told hime then—and I say now—nothing could be further from the truth. Radio may have become very corporate and more difficult to deal with, but it remains an important part of Northwest life.

Sparky Taft in gray shirt, yellow visor
Sparky Taft

In recent years, the radio industry in Seattle and throughout the U.S. has changed dramatically.

Who would have guessed a few years ago that five broadcast companies would control most all of commercial radio stations in Seattle. Ten years ago, if someone had suggested that possibility, we’d have though he drank his lunch. It was inconceivable.

The radio entrepreneurs of years past, like Pat O’Day, have moved on to other businesses. I remember well when “deals” were made on a napkin and a handshake was a contract.

No more. Today’s broadcasting is a world of paperwork—for the client, the salespeople and the sales managers. Some sales reps say they have no time for selling because too much time is spent doing paperwork and reports. Then they get called on the carpet if they don’t hit their budget or sales goals. It’s definitely a corporate world.

Today, the radio groups are controlled by “bean counters” and program directors (PDs). The bean counters help the GM cut costs and sometimes screen credit to such an extreme that you have to prove you don’t need credit to get it.

The PDs at some stations dictate to the sales department what will—or more often what will not—get on the air. The sales rep is helpless and, in many cases, the sales manager doesn’t even have any influence in these decisions.

It’s particularly interesting that some PDs have changed their station formats up to three different times, yet their corporate bosses still give them the powers of a dictator in terms of what is or isn’t broadcast on their station.

Many media buyers perceive buying radio as “a numbers game.” I disagree. I’ve never met a “gross rating point” or “cost per point.” I have met a lot of people—and it still takes “people” buying the products or services to help clients get results from their ads.

Anyone buying “numbers” certainly isn’t accountable to his/her clients for results. After all, they can justify their buy “by the numbers.” That may be OK in the high-tech realm of Madison Avenue, but in the real world, numbers don’t count, people do, particularly with retail clients who live or die by the advertising results. If an advertiser doesn’t reach enough target audience people, the numbers are meaningless.

I saw and excellent example of “people over numbers” after 9/11. The world and business virtually came to a stop. People stopped buying goods, other than their daily needs. They stopped traveling. If they didn’t absolutely need something, it would wait.

In the meantime, business people suffered badly. Most businesses’ sales dropped sharply. Some even failed. This is where “people” became more important than “numbers.”

I asked the radio salespeople to help the people in business; together we came up with ideas and promotions to help the advertising clients get some results, often with the goal to just survive as a business. The people of Seattle radio came through, where a corporate bean counter would have said “absolutely not.”

Our world today is cautious, but more back to normal. People are beginning to spend money again, and we can target our audience on radio to specific people and lifestyles. For example, some radio stations’ audiences are a market for domestic automobiles, while others’ reach large numbers of import-vehicle buyers.

Arbitron numbers do NOT tell the target audience story accurately. A computer does NOT “think,” it just spits out numbers. Numbers do NOT buy anything. If you rely on your computer to do the job of media buying and getting your clients the best results, the radio stations could cut costs by eliminating the people in their sales departments–and the results would be disastrous.

Seattle may be the nation’s 12th largest media market, but we’re still a small town. That’s why developing close relationships with radio sales reps and management still works.

Sparky Taft (dynamicresultsadvertising.com) is president of Dynamic Results, Inc. a long-time Northwest broadcast advertising agency. He also has been general manager of eight radio stations and has owned his own station.