An article in today's Denver Post reports on the first week of Arbitron ratings based on people meters. If future results follow this week's trend, it will turn the local radio ad business on its ear as the ratings are significantly different from those collected by the traditional diary method.
The theory is that the meters are more accurate because they don't require manual entry from memory by the participant. However, there are technical challenges to capturing the data that make some question its accuracy. And if the participant ever fails to wear or carry the device, it can be less accurate than a diary.
Interestingly, in Denver and other markets, the meters show improved ratings for Spanish-language stations when it has been suspected they under-report ethnic stations. So is the reporting problem only for black audience stations?
The devices also report that people listen for shorter periods of time than previously thought, however the device turns off if a single station is played for more than an hour. Go figure!
All of this is not good news for the radio business. Despite its challenges, print media have a proven, audited method of counting circulation. Yes, they like to claim readership, which is their own made-up estimate of "pass-along," but circulation is a fair method to compare those media and their ad rates. Even online media have more reliable ways to count viewers than broadcast; but whether various forms of online advertising are promotionally effective is unproven.
What radio has done well historically, and needs to do more than ever, is sell on its qualitative benefits -- that it is an effective ad medium because its listenership is segmentable, involved, and hears and responds to advertisers' messages.