Book It


No matter how much we want to pretend it doesn’t  matter, nothing shakes the world of a programmer like Arbitron.  The four scariest words in the programmer’s dictionary?  “The numbers are in.

The instant you gaze upon those numbers becomes the ultimate moment of truth.  It’s like the first kiss with a new love.  You think about it for days.  You imagine exactly how it will be.  You anticipate the feeling.  You hope for the best, yet make contingency plans for something ordinary.  When the great event arrives, it’s never what you hoped it would be.

Nothing else brings about such cataclysmic results.  Smart bombs in the Gulf War did less damage.  When those numbers hit your desk, all the air is instantly sucked out of the room.  Heat ripples through the hallways like brush fires across the dry Florida panhandle.

If you haven’t programmed, you can’t imagine it.

When you turn those first few pages, it’s impossible to breathe.  Your eyes can’t focus.  Your fingers tingle.  Your brief career flashes across your mind.

If the numbers go up, you can’t experience complete satisfaction.  It’s hardly ever enough. And even on those rare times when the numbers are higher than you imagined, your joy is short lived.  After a brief period of celebration, panic bites the back of your throat like the last shot of tequila.  How will you be able to maintain?

In a business full of bright innovative minds, with corporate spreadsheets and sparkling five-year growth plans, it’s amazing how many knee-jerk reactions are caused by a “bad” book.  Meetings are suddenly called, plans changed and promotions cancelled as massive “adjustments” are immediately considered.

It’s a shame.  It’s unnecessary.  It’s stupid.

Programming alterations should never be contemplated because of a bad book.  Any formatic adjustments must be made after considerable thought and planning with many factors weighed.  Why don’t the supposedly intelligent people in radio realize this simple point?

Every radio programmer and most GMs will admit that Arbitron results aren’t accurate.  Hell, even the majority of advertising buyers will agree.  To have an industry rely on inaccurate methodology to dictate the spending and earning of billions of dollars is a premise on which no Hollywood company would make a movie.  But this Editorial isn’t about Arbitron’s methodology.  Many and better people than I have jousted against that windmill and come up short.  It is what it is.  And until radio companies demand better, we’re destined to live under its dark cloud.  We can’t effect a change in Arbitron, but we can change how we react.

Pat Norman was the best General Manager in radio history.  I had the good fortune to work with him at KFRC in San Francisco.  Pat knew and understood Arbitron.  What he knew best was that we couldn’t control the methodology or ultimate results.  We could only control our reactions.

We had our “Arbitron” meetings the week before we got the results.  I sat down with Pat and the sales manager and we went over all aspects of the radio station.  We looked at programming, promotions and sales and carefully analyzed what we believed were our strengths and weaknesses.  We outlined a three-month plan and created contingencies.

After meeting with the GM and sales manager, I met with the talent.  We went through the same process.  As in the earlier meeting, we talked about the Arbitron ratings, but we didn’t base our decisions on those results.  We made plans before we had the numbers.

For five years, KFRC was the number one music station in San Francisco.  Maybe this was because I was a creative genius and the best programmer that ever lived.  Maybe it was because of our outstanding air talent.  It certainly wasn’t because of a superior signal.  KFRC was on AM.

I’m convinced it was because Pat Norman insisted we perform our duties outside the uncontrollable Arbitron numbers.  We executed our ideas in accordance with our plans.  We trusted our programming and promotional judgments.  And guess what?  Our Arbitron numbers were always healthy.  Over the long haul, Arbitron will reward superior programming and promotion presentation.  If you are confident in your programming judgement, why would you make changes based on a system that isn’t programming friendly?  PDs must program through Arbitron’s methodology to their audience…not make changes because of Arbitron’s results.

At KFRC, we refused to use Arbitron as our ultimate yardstick.  We never gave a jock a raise because of a good book and never fired anyone because of a bad one.  We made rate adjustments regularly, with no regard to Arbitron’s delivery dates.  The only time we ever raised our rates because of the ratings was one time when the numbers went down!  We did it just to make a point.

If GMs and PDs make formatic and promotion adjustments before the book comes out, it puts the station in an environment management can control.  And making plans based on sound programming judgement will ultimately provide better Arbitron numbers than any knee-jerk reaction.

Besides, if you’re guilty of this phenomenon, we aren’t surprised.  You didn’t need to make a jerk out of yourself.  We knew it all along.

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