Thursday, April 19, 2018

Broadcast radio's cume audience boogaloo

by Don Keith

As traditional over-the-air broadcast radio strives to prove its relevance, I see they continue to cling to any bit of good news there is to stave off people like me who think the medium has chopped its own way to irrelevance.  "Good news" whether it is true or not.

Don't get me wrong.  I love broadcast radio.  Free, over-the-air radio.  I think it is by far the most intimate medium, the one that can be most successful at getting into the heads of listeners, of entertaining, challenging, inspiring, and selling stuff to people who listen.  Especially people who are busy doing something else, like driving a car or working.  People stuck in a traffic jam.  People who are most likely to be approaching an advertiser's establishment.  People who simply want to be able to hit a button and turn up the volume to experience something created by another actual human being.


But thanks to the monster companies that own most stations in America and their myopic attitude that they can somehow cut their way to prosperity, radio is going down the drain in one big hurry.  AM is dead as a hammer.  FM, with its boring streaming-music formats, its band cluttered with low-power non-commercial stations and thousands of supposedly-AM-saving translators, and its impersonal, soulless "personalities," will almost certainly follow.

But radio will continue to grab hold of any seemingly positive news.  Here's some.  It is an article in The Washington Times that quotes a study from the good folks at Nielsen about how old-fashioned, left-for-dead broadcast radio still reaches more people than any other medium.  (Nielsen, the TV ratings giant, bought Arbitron, the company that previously led the way in radio audience estimates--what most of us call ratings.  And in the spirit of full disclosure, I once worked for the Arbitron Company.)  In a day of Facebook, Netflix, Pandora, Instagram, Amazon, XM/Sirius Satellite and so many other choices, this is truly startling but encouraging news for us fans of the medium.

Right?

Dig deeper, my friend.  Remember, as Mark Twain so eloquently quoted British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli:  "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."


The Washington Times quotes the study from Nielsen (which, I admit, I have not actually seen) as saying, "Each week, more Americans tune to AM/FM radio than any other platform. What’s more, according to Nielsen’s second-quarter 2017 Comparable Metrics Report, 93 percent of U.S. adults 18 and older listen to radio every week — more than those watching television or using a smartphone, TV connected device, tablet or PC.” 

In all, Nielsen breathlessly reports, over-the-air radio reaches 243 million people each month compared to television's paltry 229 million.  The article does not mention if that TV number includes all variations of video programming.  I doubt it since not even the powerful Nielsen folks have yet managed to measure all such viewing.  Nor could it possibly have included, for example, Netflix, who now boasts over 100 million people paying about $10 a month to enjoy their programming.  Netflix does not publish any numbers for how many people are watching at any given time.

(I will also avoid making a big deal of the fact that this fine study is based on data that is now on the verge of being ONE FULL YEAR OLD.  Do you think there have been any changes in media since the second quarter of 2017?  Then you have not been paying attention to this blog!)

It does appear, though, that the rosy AM/FM story is based on what is called "cume audience."  Anyone who takes part in Nielsen's measurement exercise--either having everyone in a household keep a diary of listening for one week or carrying a small meter device that theoretically senses the stations that the participant is capable of hearing--who listens for at least five minutes during a week gets counted as a "cume listener."

Therefore, five minutes in a week gets considered in this study to be someone who "listens to AM/FM" broadcast radio.  This study also appears to add up a month's worth of such reported listening to arrive at the hefty 243-million figure that so impressively beats out that dying medium, TV.  


Sorry.  We should be impressed that 243 million people--or as the study crows, 93% of all people in the U.S. over the age of 17--catch some radio in a given month.  But again, only five minutes of listening by someone on Nielsen's ratings panel is required to be counted as one of those 243 million souls.

Let me say that again:  anyone who participated in the Nielsen listening survey during that month who reported listening to as little as five minutes of any program on any station gets counted as a listener to AM/RM radio.

I wouldn't care but for one thing.  If the people with the keys to all those radio stations really think such a statistical boogaloo means anything, then they might continue to believe that what they are doing with all those AMs and FMs is actually working.  That they still hold sway over 93% of the people who count.  

And further believe that advertisers are actually getting their money's worth when running ads that have to be heard in wherever that magical five minutes of listening happens to occur within the more than 41,000 minutes that make up a typical month.

Yes, Nielsen tells a good story with statistics.  Or damned lies.  

You be the judge.
   

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