Passive Measurement for Radio Awaits the Verdict

A recent FiveThirtyEight article on the Voltair/PPM saga is another landmark moment in the growing credibility problems Nielsen is enduring this year with its inherited PPM device.  Nielsen’s unwillingness to respond or vigorously deny the possible inflated numbers when stations use the Voltair meter only serve to fan the flames further, conspiracy or otherwise.

PPM-Minutes_listenedOn the one hand, it makes little difference.  If the Voltair audio technology does allow PPM devices to more effectively pick up more of the encoded signal that says a radio station is near, then stations should go get one.  If it’s available to all, then there is no unfair advantage to those who purchase the extra boost – akin to the survival of the fittest.  As Radio Consultant, Mark Ramsey argues, “Just keep in mind that all one is doing here is you are boosting exposure to an audio signal” – not listening or engagement or passion or interest or anything else.

On the other hand, the cautious approach by Nielsen here is the right one, even if it is frustrating in our fast-moving world that gravitates to immediacy and headlines, rather than process and review.  The stakes here are very high.  Being as thorough and rigorous as possible may save the industry from a needless exposure of a false-positive for the radio measurement industry.  The credibility of the ratings would be shot and advertisers could quickly decide that radio is no longer viable in the data-rich digital age.

After al, that’s what this is about – the credibility of the ratings – and whether or not they are flawed, and if so, by how much?  In the meantime, US Radio continues to wait.

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Can Long-Form Journalism Survive our Changing Morning Routine?

From the moment we roll out of bed in the morning until we walk out the front door to start our work-day, we consume an astonishing amount of news, music, information, and other media content.

It wasn’t always this way.  In the span of just a few years, we have replaced the comparative tranquility of easing out of bed with the clock radio and skimming the newspaper for the day’s headlines to today where we juggle numerous devices to scan what happened while we were asleep (email, social media, news headlines, and much more) and we start to plan for the day ahead (weather, traffic, etc.).  It’s an endless chase to stay informed by always being ‘plugged in’ as we fear missing out on any small thing.  And it’s now starting to reshape our expectations for our news needs in the mornings before we even properly start our day.

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Mornings before digital devices

The changing taste in how people want to hear and consume their morning news was one of the key findings from a recent study I led for a top-market US Public Radio station.  This NPR News station airs Morning Edition, the top rated morning show on radio, which nationally reaches more than 13 million listeners each week.  The three-part study consisted of an online survey to better understand their audience needs and expectations, a two-day morning-media diary which was used to track what devices and sources people used from the time they wake up to the time they start their work or school day, as well as a review of the local Nielsen Audio PPM broadcast ratings.

What was most striking about the study results was not just what was being said in the surveys and the media diaries, but who was asking for a change – public radio listeners, a group who depend on, crave for, and value long-form news journalism – which is the unique selling point of public radio.  When this audience voices a desire to hear something new that focuses on the headlines, on “what I need to know right now” in a much shorter, high-impact form, asking to hear “what I need to know today to better understand what I will face tomorrow”, along with the basics – the weather, traffic, the stock market, etc. – then you can arguably point to the beginnings of a massive shift in appetite for news consumption.

While the desire for the sound and feel of NPR/Public Radio remains strong, the audience is starting to point to a different model that is more in-tune with their activities at the start of the day.  It was telling in the morning diaries filled out by the study’s respondents that beyond NPR (as well as the New York Times to some degree), that there was very little long-form journalism consumed in the mornings, even by these loyal public radio listeners.  There simply isn’t time, given their behavior and the array of gadgets and sources to check.

This big shift in news appetite points to an irony for NPR and Public Radio.

NPR’s long record of success stems from its quest to provide in-depth, quality news, while following both the critical stories of the day and tracking complex issues over the long-term.  Public Radio built this success at the same time that much of the rest of the news media resorted to hollow sound-bites, providing little to inform and educate.  Now, listeners are indicating they want the short-form, but they want  it to retain that public radio feel.

To be fair, NPR is already embracing this challenge with its efforts with member stations to change the show clocks to its two premier shows. NPR’s desire to have different clocks in the morning and the afternoon is smart considering how differently people use media throughout the day.  But arguably, the clock changes alone won’t help bridge the gap to satisfy the audience’s changing needs and routines.  On both the national level and the local level, the content can be changed to better fit the digitally-influenced morning appetite for news.  Looking further into the data, there is also a second major finding that speaks to morning activities and the ever-increasing demand to hear fresh, new content, throughout the morning given radio’s capacity to be everywhere.

As almost any devoted Morning Edition listener will tell you, the show is two-hours long and is normally repeated at least once or more depending on where you listen in the US.  Hearing the same stories repeated (either from the network or at the local level) on the same morning was the top reason for tune-out and led those listeners to go elsewhere, away from their local public station.  This is not a result of listening for more than two hours at a time in the morning, although that does happen, but instead it’s more a function of our uniquely and ever-increasingly busy mornings – in other words, multiple occasions of listening across the morning.

For example, a person might wake up around 5am and hear the show as they get ready in the morning to make their way to the gym or do yoga.  Then they might hear the show in the kitchen as they get the kids and family ready to start the day.  They might hear it again in the car on the way to work or school, and they might listen again, likely via streaming, in the workplace.  This means a person might hear the show (and quite possibly the same story two or three times) in three or four different environments (bedroom/kitchen/car/workplace) and through different channels (radio, computer, or mobile device)  This provides a very unique challenge to programming in the mornings and it points to the likelihood that a sizable part of the audience will likely hear the same story over several occasions of listening.  Given the numerous occasions of listening that are possible, listeners might stay engaged longer if the content was fresh.

Once again, the media diaries highlighted the unique companionship that radio provides unlike any other media device – being preset in every morning activity – though seemingly that’s still a surprise to some.  But radio faces the same battle as every other media choice – that once you lose the attention of your audience, they will simply go elsewhere to find what they want.  It is hard to imagine a time when the value of NPR and Public Radio has been as high as it is now, given today’s news choices.  No one would fault an industry that holds onto its ideals in a business world that is being completely disrupted by itself and new competitors, but changes in how we use media are happening right now, in every demographic and during every part of the day.  Let’s hope that public radio can find a way to balance what makes it distinct and so valuable to so many and meet our changing needs and routines for consuming news.

What it means for media when people switch their devices every three minutes

People change the media device they are using on average 21 times per hour when they are at home.

This is a remarkable finding, though it becomes more believable the more you think about your own habits.  It also begs the question as to whether this number will go higher still as we become more savvy with screens and handling multiple sources of content and information.

This research finding was announced last week to relatively little fanfare.  It is part of a UK-based study that is looking into the future of British consumerism.  As MediaWeek explains, this was a qualitative study of 200 people, which asked people to report which devices they used during one hour of an evening.  The respondents used their mobile phones to record what devices they were using.

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I am intrigued to learn more about this study, but haven’t found much online so far.  Taking these findings at face-value (and I have no reason not to), it’s worth taking a moment to think through what this means for the media industry.

  • Keep in mind that “21” is only an average.  Some respondents, and hence some demographic groups, likely switched many more than 21 times, just as others switched far less.  This raises the bar even higher for all media content producers – that whatever content is being accessed, there is a never-ending need to be continuously entertained and that it must be deemed worthwhile for nearly every moment.  Otherwise, the consumer has a nearly endless source of other sources to check out, not to mention other devices to look at as well.
  • One of the most common questions I hear in radio research is what is the right length for a news piece, topic, or interview? Hopefully, this study (and others like it) will make this question moot and will eliminate the notion of any such thing as a right length for an audio story or a video.  The length is right for as long as the listener/viewer/reader is engaged, is learning something new, and wants to consume more.  For example, in US Public Radio research, quality has always superseded quantity.  Every research study has shown that the length of a piece is irrelevant.  If a piece has quality, then more times than not, the audience is hooked and engaged.  The best storytelling will pause any device switching.
  • Television, in my mind, benefits from being a natural media companion to social media and multiple devices, since typically, you have sit still to consume it.  TV is also leading the way with its experimentation, much of it successfully.  This study underlines why TV shows already promote tweeting during the most popular shows and encourage voting for the most popular entertainer.
  • For the web, it’s a case of the shoe being on the other foot.  Not so long ago, it was the web that was disrupting broadcast media with its customized content on a scale that back then was unprecedented.  Now the web is fighting the same battle and is no different to any other media choice available.  Sure, the web has many more choices but unless it entertains, informs, or shows me something I want to share, then I’m gone.
  • For advertising – the principal target for this study – will this study be the death knell for the 30-second ad?  Surely, we can’t be far from it now.  Marketing is going through a dramatic change right now with greater emphasis on shorter, more personalized ads appearing in many different ways, particularly geotargeting.  One certainty is that any media content that does not adapt to the new ways we now consume media, doesn’t survive in a world in which media occasions are getting shorter and shorter.

Seth Godin is right.  We are our own media companies now.  Even bloggers, such as me, have to say something unique, striking, thought-provoking to capture your valuable reading time.  If you have made it this far in this blog post, then, first, thank you, but also, secondly, recognize that you’ve likely read this in just under 3 minutes, which is about the average time before a person switches their device yet again.

This is not about earbuds

If you show a ratings chart that pulls people out of their comfort zone, then inevitably their reaction is to focus on what is missing and what was not counted.  After all, that would explain the demise in the ratings.

From afar, this has been the reaction I have seen to the RRC‘s recent report on broadcast radio listening trends for US public radio, as well as trends for all radio.

The chart below is a wake-up call for the entire radio industry because it shows that there has been a steady (but also alarmingly quick) decline in the percentage of persons aged 6+ who listen to any measured media, which in this case is effectively any measured FM/AM/HD station.

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The chart shows that radio usage has fallen by 13% on weekdays in the past three years across the 30 markets measured by Nielsen Audio’s PPM.

This naturally alarms anyone working in radio.  As a presenter of this type of “bad” news for many years in many settings, the reaction from readers and from those in the room is part-defensive and part-wanting to understand.

The defensiveness or denial stems from the worry that one’s own livelihood is on the line, that the data confirms their worst fear that though their own media behavior hasn’t changed, the mainstream has, and that change is permanent.

This is a very human reaction, but as Mark Ramsey points out “In order to rally and fight a problem, we must begin by recognizing its existence“.  Holding onto the standard claims about the near universal reach of radio conveniently sidesteps the critical issue of engagement with radio.

The “wanting to understand” entails listening to each of the theories proposed that explain the ratings demise.  Some have credit, which should be acknowledged to aid understanding, but many can be debunked where necessary, in order to help people focused on what is real or not and what is within their control.

Don’t get me wrong, the ratings chart above effectively does not include headset listening; the workaround provided is simply not used by the ‘average Joe’.  But if you see someone wearing a headset, are you willing to say that person is absolutely listening to a local FM/AM station?  Probably not.

Yes, streaming is growing exponentially and it is the future for audio.  But take a 1-minute look at the Triton Digital Rankers report and you’ll see that the “Pandora train” has already left the station, leaving other pure-plays and broadcast networks holding only steady, and far, far behind, at best.

True, podcasts are not counted in the ratings.  Sure, it alters listening behavior so that I can listen to a show when I want to, but I haven’t seen any data yet that justifies the claim that if it weren’t for podcasts, my numbers would be much, much higher.

What’s left is what’s within your control.  Not how media consumption is measured.  Not about what content is or not counted. Not whether there was an election this time last year.  It’s about making what you do – audio, video, words – the very best it can be and the most compelling for your audience. Again and again.

Ratings tell us where we’ve been and can project where we’re going.  They can also show whether what we currently do has a future.  By all means, absorb them, understand them, and go ahead and poke holes in them, but don’t sit still in your comfortable seat and blame it on the earbuds.

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