Long ago and far away, an idea was born. Radio, with no knowledge of what the future would bring, fed and nurtured this concept. Little did we know that we were creating a monster. The monster grew to dinosauric proportions until it controlled and threatened our professional lives. Jurassic Park? Nope.
The fact that radio spends untold millions of dollars each year to continue a methodology that became obsolete years ago boggles the mind. But we do. Asking people to keep a diary to record their radio listening habits is ridiculous. Daring to suggest that the information recorded is even close to accurate is insane. Paying a company to provide this “research” is ridiculously insane.
With the possible exception of meteorologists who seldom get the forecasts right (but do provide some comic relief), is there another example of such a massive waste of money on information that is patently inaccurate? Other than R&R’s Parallel System, none comes to mind. Arbitron will argue that their methodology is the best available.
Television, which is much more diary-friendly (it’s easier to fill in the blanks when you’re sitting down watching a long program), distrusts this type of research and is expanding their “people meter” data as quickly as possible. The Neilson ratings, which have been constantly criticized for the small sample, at least can guarantee that the people surveyed are actually watching what they sample…or at the very least that the TV is indeed turned on.
But Arbitron’s radio methodology? It’s a crapshoot at best. And you can get much better odds in Las Vegas. The methodology is inept. The sample, however, makes the methodology look positively pristine. How many of your friends have ever been asked to participate in an Arbitron survey? Have you met someone who has been a part of one? Distance yourself from your vocation for a second and think about whether or not you would participate if asked.
Arbitron could better screen their participants by asking one question. Do you have a life? If the answer is no, then they would make the perfect diary recipient.
Let’s just pretend the following “example” is accurate:
Foregoing the difficult screening process Arbitron uses to select participants (“You’ll do it? Oh, thank God.”), let’s say that Mom has agreed to play along. She’s also volunteered for her family. Besides her, there’s Dad, a 20-year-old son who’s home from college, a 17-year-old daughter who is a senior in high school, another daughter who just turned 13 and the grandfather, who is 65.
On Thursday, Mom reminds everyone to fill out their diary. Dad mumbles something about having to make a living and tosses his in the general direction of the trash. Mom, of course, picks it up. She’s pocketed the six dollars already and feels obligated. The son tells anyone who will listen that it is another form of “Big Brother” and an attempt by a sinister government organization to censor his mind. The 17-year-old things it’s cool and can’t wait to tell her friends. The 13-year-old will fill hers out meticulously because it’s the first time in her life anyone has asked her opinion about anything. Grandpa sits down in front of the radio after the family leaves and carefully outlines his listening habits, making many comments in the space provided. The fact that he normally never listens to the radio doesn’t matter. He has nothing else to do and this is like working again. He’s missed that part of his life since his retirement.
Friday comes. Mom and Dad leave for a weekend trip. The diaries remain at home. The son is already out of the mix. The high school senior has dates Friday and Saturday nights and will spend the daytime hours water skiing at the lake. The youngest and the oldest continue to record their listening habits.
The following Thursday, Mom is reminded to return the diaries. She panics. She has forgotten the promise she made the week before. But she already spent the money. And then what happens?
If she works, she probably asks her co-workers what radio station is playing in the office. She then writes in her diary that she listened to that station during her working hours. She asks Dad if he filled his out. He curses and turns on the ballgame. The son is out casing a nearby 7-11 store and his oldest sister is with him. Mom either copies what she’s written in their diaries or (more likely) gives the diaries to the youngest daughter or Grandpa and has them copy their listening habits. Then she mails them back with a clear conscience.
Exaggerated? Only a little.
The radio industry (and by association, the record industry) is being held hostage by Arbitron’s methodology. And we compound the mistake by paying them for it.
The fish are in the trees.
If every radio station put the money it spends on Arbitron in a trust account and gave the NAB a mandate to come up with a better system, it could be done simpler, more accurately and cheaper. With that money, we could cross-reference a telephone, diary and personal interview system. Or we could develop an electronic monitoring system. BDS does it for airplay. If that’s an invasion of privacy, we could get the cooperation from households that would allow their homes and cars to be digitized to detect radio listening. Or we could research other avenues that would be even more accurate.
So why don’t we?