This time of year has always been special for me. When I woke up on Thursday morning my immediate thoughts were of “Ratings Day”. I’d almost forgotten!!!! This week is when the Fall radio Diary results are normally released across Canada. I say normally but not this year. I will explain later. Fall ratings can be the motherlode. Owners, programmers, announcers, sales reps, promotions, clients, agencies, bloggers, newspaper writers, and trolls ALL wait for the Fall. It’s a radio scorecard for the effort or lack thereof put into products and marketing and local service from the previous 6 months.
The system is imperfect. It’s complicated, antiquated and frankly dysfunctional. Many of my non radio friends over the years look like Homer Simpson blinking when I explain the process. More on this later. Thursday was important because this would have been the first Fall in decades that I had not woken up an hour or two early to exercise, eat, shower and drive to the office with a stomach full of butterflies. I craved the anxiety of that drive. It is an exhausting and anxious lead up to the most intense day of the year for radio and although the system has changed a great deal, the feeling of anticipation has not. It unfolds like this.
It’s 9:00am, the management group is sitting in my office, note pads and pens in hand. Everyone thinking the same thing? Surely station A will go up? I’m worried about station B, not enough marketing. Station C lost their heritage morning show, hope we can keep the audience. I hope those guys across the street go down, and of course, Who will win the staff predication pool? I log in to the Numeris web site, I watch the website crash, I refresh, and watch it crash again. “Oh no, REALLY”!!!! Too many users, all thinking the same thoughts we do, are trying to get in to see the same thing we are……ratings. Numeris never did resolve that heavy traffic issue. It was the only time of the year that crashed the site with the hundreds of access requests, it’s like buying Taylor Swift tickets on line. During this agonizing process, the DM’s start. “Have you seen anything yet”? “Nope…still waiting”. After 30-45-60 minutes, the website boots up and your request to see your radio stations ratings is fulfilled. Mouths are dry, hands are shaking. The 25-54 adult demo Central Market is always first up. I sort the results by latest survey and voila……there they are!!!!!! It’s like Clark Griswold seeing the magical family Christmas tree in the wilderness. You look for the top 3 and some stations see the glow and hear the Angels singing and harps playing…..as you go farther down the list, others got the kettle drum when Russ asked if Clark brought the saw.
It really is an insane few minutes in the lives of radio broadcasters. Then the texts and emails start to roll in and the phones ring, how’d we do? When the ratings were good, there is no feeling better. When bad, nothing is worse. The spin begins, “well, station A is up in 25-34 but got hammered in 35-44. That’s just BS, all our contest winners are 40 years old. WTF? But middays on station B looked good with women and weekends are strong in the evening. A nice bump with 18-24 on station C. We went from 2 share to a 32 share. Oh ya baby! The decreases are BS but the increases are gospel. Keep spinning. “You know what we say though, win or lose we drink the booze”!!!!! Of course there were always a 100 ways to process the results. And always lots of corporate and local propaganda gets sent around to local media and clients. We’re #1 12+ ….ya but nobody buys +12, it means nothing. (That’s counter spin) “55+ is senior citizens” ya but they have all the money. We grew 230%. The fastest growing station in the market etc. More spin than Peloton. Silence usually meant “a bad bounce this time”. “We didn’t get the ballots” I love spin and I’m good at it.
By Noon, we were ready to meet with the staff and grab a slice of pizza and Soda. (Used to be beer) to discuss the results, celebrate the wins, console on the losses, inspire the troops about our weaponry to meet the upcoming challenges and most importantly, thank EVERYONE for the great work and commitment these past few months. It truly is a team effort. I LOVED ratings day. The good, the bad and the kettle drum.
That was then. This is now.
There was no Fall diary rating day this year. It was postponed by Numeris because the amount of sample needed to process a credible and usable survey, just wasn’t there. In lay terms, not enough people wanted to participate in the survey. It’s another COVID casualty but it’s more than that. Yes, working at home changed everyone’s habits. Fewer early morning risers. No commute. No workday in the office and obviously less listening to the radio…..At home at work and in the car as the slogan goes. Tuning did not disappear, it was down but as usual radio’s resiliency shone through. Tuning did bounce back after the first few months of lockdown. I mentioned earlier that it’s no secret in the radio industry or with the provider Numeris, that the methodology used for radio ratings is challenging. It goes back to the 60’s when households received paper diaries in the mail to fill out. Participants would receive a small stipend, like a few dollars, but filling out a diary was a cool thing to do in the 60’s and even 70’s so enumerating households was much easier. And of course, there were many fewer choices for listeners to remember and write down.
In 2020, the SAME methodology is being used. I know right? The only difference now is the optional “on-line” diary. But even so, essentially the diary keeper still has to write down (or select from the drop down menu) the station name, frequency (dial position) and the quarter hours that they listened to on their particular stations. Oh man!!!!
We as an industry debated this to death between 1980 and this summer. And no one, anyone, anywhere has come up with a better solution. We tried 4 surveys a year. Imagine enumerating 4 times a year???? Even then the buying industry discounted summer and winter and really only wanted Fall. (See above). We tried monthly rolling averages to prevent bounce. Some stations in the industry would share and promote single months as currency (ie the real ratings) and that was untruthful. Broadcasters were also outraged at the bounces. “How can that be”? It’s Bull…” Well BBM back then would tell us that we should combine the months, some did not. I could go on and on with pratfalls of using paper diary rating methodology but suffice to say, it’s broken.
Obviously with the digital revolution and the “click” accountability culture, paper diaries have become the horsewhip. I told you it’s complicated so hold on, here’s yet another twist. It’s not this way everywhere in Canada and the US. Numeris uses Electronic measurement in Canada’s top 5 markets. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. What that’s you say DK? Well thanks for asking. It’s not a paper diary, but rather something called a portable people meter. Think of a pager back in the day. These meters are worn or carried by volunteers (purses, pockets, kitchens, desks etc.) If you agree to carry a meter you are on a panel. Participants can wear their meter and be on a panel for a year or longer depending on their activity. For example, if Numeris finds a meter that reflects reasonable and consistent tuning to stations it’s deemed credible and has a longer shelf life. But if a meter seems to be capturing unusual tuning and or an over abundance of tuning it gets investigated. Truth is ALL unusual diaries were investigated too. That’s not widely known. But let’s stick to meters. A case might be made that a 18-24 year female meter has been listening to a station that targets 60+. That’s doesn’t seem logical so it’s followed up on. Maybe that female works at a store that plays The Jewel for example. Well, The Jewel deserves that credit then. And if she listens to KISS and VIRGIN in times she’s not working, those stations get the tuning credit. Seems like a good process right? Meters have not been the answer either. There are not nearly enough of them. Did you know Toronto has only several hundred meters capturing the tuning of 4 million people. Doesn’t seem right. Important to note the meter markets are still being measured it’s only the diary markets that have been postponed.
When they introduced the PPM system, it immediately increased all stations total cume. But the hours tuned sank dramatically in many cases. Here’s why. Diaries over reported hours tuned. It relied on recall. Meters are actual captured listening. In other words a meter is real time minute by minute downloading of imbedded signals in radio stations. It’s doesn’t capture whether or not the meter carrier actually likes what they are hearing or that it was their decision to listen, it only captures the radio in range of their meter. So it actually improved “phantom cume”. With diaries, keepers are asked to recall what they listened to and write it down. That’s probably why the well positioned and programmed stations, and usually heritage (not always) quite often do well or better in diary markets. It’s the station people can think of top of mind. Pop quiz, what did you listen to last Wednesday driving home? In fact, what did you have for lunch last Wednesday? With all of us bombarded with messages and our attention span being what it is, you can see the impossible battle of obtaining credible data. It’s super complex and always has been. Meters, diaries, or phone surveys, the polling industry is in tough these days.
To Numeris’s credit, it’s a much better decision to not publish ratings at all then to publish ratings that don’t reflect the actual market tuning. Although this decision has been really frustrating for broadcasters. The plan is to keep trying to gather dairy keepers and to accumulate the data to be released in spring of 2021. It’s not a perfect plan but it’s a plan.
The motivation for this blog really started from the news these past few weeks of the massive cull in the media business. Some companies went deeper and generated more publicity than others but it’s been a sobering time for all broadcast companies. It was no surprise to anyone really with the drop of advertising revenue but still heartbreaking to see the industry start to dismantle. I could write pages of opinion and possible explanations for what’s happening. Or how we got here. It’s mostly about revenue and the drop in advertising. There was no fat to trim in the big or small companies. Honestly.
But in truth, advertiser supported media of all traditional platforms is, believe it or not, still a solid business. No, I’m not hammered. Radio is a simple business. Fixed costs are constant and easy to budget for and once you cover those, the rest is gravy. And it has been a delicious and rich gravy. The margins in media have been ridiculously amazing.
Fragmentation and global tech company competition “FANG”, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google has revolutionized the advertising world. Even so, think about earning 10-20, 30-40 or even 50 cents on your dollar every year. Would you invest in that fund? That has been radio. Not every station performs this well of course. And the major markets have driven profitability as a whole but overall, it’s been a privileged business to be in. The industry needs to continue to change and adapt. And it will.
The business plan for a radio station owned by a private company or independent owner is night and day from stations owned by publicly traded companies. They couldn’t be more different. One plan is much more nimble and entrepreneurial and the other prioritizes expenses versus revenue. The big companies have all the talent, expertise and resources to keep radio competitive, relevant, engaging and profitable in Canada. I have faith in the leadership in all those broadcasters. I just wish as they do, that there was a better way to stabilize the industry right now, than to decimate the work force. Radio station hallways used to be “the most magical places on earth” to borrow from Disney. Now they are mostly empty and lifeless. I’m so sad.
If someone asked me what I’d do if I was the boss of radio? The big companies should keep the top 10 markets and give back (sell) the rest of their stations on the open market. In other words, get out of small market radio and leave it to owner operators to regenerate it and keep it alive. Small markets need operators who live in the market and know everyone in the market and can make decisions based on their market knowledge. Where ratings do not matter. There’s plenty of EBITDA in the majors where that small market nuance doesn’t exist and without any of the hassle of running stations in Moose Jaw for example. It’s a thought. There are no easy fixes but the Government could help too. Not necessarily with subsidies but reviewing regulations, fees and royalties would surely be a sign of good faith.
Sign me off with, still one of Canada’s most passionate radio supporters.