Mass Media Research: An Introduction - 9th Edition
It Seems Like . . .
Roger Wimmer, Ph.D.
Imagine that you’re a fly on the wall in the office of a PD who is talking with the radio station’s research company representative. What, if anything, is wrong with the following comments the PD makes to the researcher?
We’re in a tough situation here. We have stations attacking our young
end and the old end. We’re getting squeezed in the middle with no where
to go. We need to get a research project done to find out what’s going
on. We also need a music test. The problem is—the book starts in
three weeks. Can you get the study done in three weeks?
What is wrong with the PD’s comments? Let’s take a look at each statement.
1. We’re in a tough situation here. We have stations attacking our young end and the old end. We’re getting squeezed in the middle with nowhere to go.
The PD obviously knows that something is happening in the market. Competitors are attacking from all sides. Did the PD just realize this, or has it been evident for a while? Attacks from other stations don’t happen overnight. The evidence shows up in competitor’s advertising, playlist, promos, and a variety of elements on the air (comments by the jocks, sweepers, liners, etc.) More than likely, the PD started to notice changes long before the discussion with the researcher. Why did this problem become evident three weeks before the start of the book?
2. We need to get a research project done to find out what’s going on. We also need a music test.
The PD knows the value of information. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong here.
3. The problem—the book starts in three weeks. Can you get the research done in three weeks?
It is clear that the attacks by the other stations have become a priority for the PD. Once again, why wasn’t this problem isolated earlier? Why did the PD wait until three weeks before the book to begin to address the problem? Finally, and most importantly, why is it necessary to get the information before the book starts? Why weren't the research studies conducted as soon as the problem was discovered? This generates the most important question: What relationship is there between getting new research information and the start of a new Arbitron ratings period?
These comments highlight a major problem with management. The problem is running a radio station (or any business for that matter, since this same type of comment is common in all businesses) from the perspective of “It seems like . . .” For example, one of the most common “It seems like” statements goes something like this:
“We’re in a tough battle here. Arbitron starts next Thursday and it seems like we need to make playlist changes (or talent changes, or advertising changes, or any other change) no later than next Wednesday.” What? Just think about that comment for a moment. “We need to make changes no later than next Wednesday.” “We need to get the new playlist in no later than next Wednesday.” “We need to get the morning show right before next Wednesday.” And so on.
What is so important about the start of the next Arbitron? Why should changes be made to coincide with the start of the next book? What does a statement such as, “We need to make changes no later than next Wednesday” say about the PD or anyone else in the radio station who makes decisions about the radio station?
The statement says these things about the PD and other decision-makers at the radio station. It says, “I (we) know . . .”
1. When listeners in the market will decide to try a new radio station.
2. When our current listeners will decide to listen to us more often.
3. When our listeners will decide to make us their P1 station.
4. Listeners are aware of when an Arbitron ratings period starts.
5. Listeners understand the importance of Arbitron ratings to the people who run radio stations.
6. Listeners change habits only at the start of (or during) a ratings period.
7. Listeners do not change habits when Arbitron is not conducting ratings.
8. To get good ratings, the station must sound “right” when the book starts.
It seems like getting the station “right” before the book starts makes sense. Doesn’t it? It seems like a radio station that has its act together at the start of a new Arbitron will have a better chance for success than a station that doesn’t have everything “right.” It seems like, it seems like. Instead of relying on “it seems like,” let’s get an idea of what the listeners think, say, and do about all of these questions.
In the past few months, I addressed these questions with 25 focus groups I have conducted with radio station listeners. The sample includes 232 respondents between the ages of 18 and 54 who listen to a variety of radio formats. Essentially, I asked them questions that relate to the eight points just mentioned. What did the listeners say?
1. When do listeners decide to try a new radio station?
None of the listeners could predict when they would try a new radio station. None could predict what information would encourage them to try a new radio station. Among those who tried a new radio station in the past year, there is absolutely no consistent pattern relating to when they first tried the station. Changes were made every day of the week at any time of the day. Conclusion: no pattern exists in reference to when people decide to try a new radio station.
When do listeners decide to listen to a radio station more often?
None of the listeners could predict when they would listen to a radio station more often. None could predict what information or station activity would encourage them to listen to a station more often. There is absolutely no consistent pattern relating to when listeners will decide to listen to a radio station more often. Increased listening changes were made every day of the week at any time of day. Conclusion: no pattern exists in reference to when people decide to try listen more to a radio station.
When do listeners decide to make a radio station their favorite (P1)?
Although all of the respondents were able to explain why they selected a radio station as their favorite, there is no pattern relating to how long it took to make the decision. The range is from one day to about five months. There is absolutely no consistent pattern relating to when they chose a favorite station. The choice is made every day of the week at any time of day. Conclusion: no pattern exists in reference to when people decide to make a radio station their favorite (P1).
Are listeners aware of when an Arbitron ratings period starts?
First, only about 60% of the 232 respondents knew anything about Arbitron ratings. The remaining 40% range from a total lack of knowledge about audience ratings, to a minimal understanding that is summarized by a comment such as, “I know they must have some way to find out about their listeners.” Among the 232 respondents, only one was aware when the Arbitron ratings started in his market. The man knew because he read it in the newspaper. Conclusion: listeners know very little, if anything, about Arbitron.
5. Listeners understand the importance of Arbitron ratings to the people who run radio stations.
While some of the respondents are aware of Arbitron ratings, none of them know the significance of the ratings in reference to a radio station, the station’s employees, or the station’s advertising rates. Their knowledge of the significance of the Arbitron ratings to a PD’s (or other employee’s) career is about equal to understand the significance of using a 9 volt battery in a garage door opener. Conclusion: listeners do not attribute any “power” to Arbitron.
6. Listeners change listening habits only when an Arbitron ratings period starts or during the ratings period.
The listeners’ comments show that there is no relationship between their decision to listen to a station for the first time or listen to a radio station more often and the time of day, week, month, or year. Why would the start of the Arbitron ratings have any more significance to their listening habits than would sunrise, sunset, getting stuck in a traffic jam, or a new moon? The answer is: “None.” Conclusion: making changes at a radio station to coincide with the start of Arbitron ratings is irrelevant to listening habits of the audience.
7. Listeners do not make changes in their listening habits when Arbitron is not conducting ratings. See the answer for #6.
8. To get good ratings, a radio station should sound “right” when the book starts. See the answer for #6.
There is nothing wrong with trying to make a radio station the best it can be. That’s the goal of the radio station’s management. What is wrong is the false assumption that there is a relationship between a person’s radio listening habits and the start of the Arbitron ratings. That relationship does not exist. Consider this: Assume for a moment that a radio station is not “right” during the time when ratings are not being conducted. Listeners may tune to the station during this non-ratings time and hear things they don’t like, and off they go to another radio station. Why would this person all of a sudden change his or her listening habits because “the book” starts? The listeners say they don’t. The listeners say that they change their listening habits any time, any day, and any month during the year. So why would they make listening decisions only when a new Arbitron period starts? Predicting listener behavior is something that even a mind reader wouldn’t touch. Why should anyone else?
Maybe someday we might hear something like this on a radio station:
Hi, I’m Bob, the PD at the station. I just wanted to make a little confession to all of our listeners. Quite frankly, during the past several weeks we have been goofing around here at the radio station. We figured it didn’t matter since the market wasn’t in a ratings period. But now we’re ready to go because it’s ratings time. So, during the next few weeks, we’re going to play only the songs you like, and we will even tell you the artists and titles of the songs we play. We will also cut back on the number of commercials we play since we made budget. And we’re going to tell our jocks to talk only about things that you really care about. So give us a try starting this Thursday because the good stuff is only going to last for four weeks. Then it’s back to goofing around.
Radio managers need to be smart and give their listeners what they want. Give them the “good stuff” all the time because “all the time” is when they are making their decisions about which radio station to listen to and which radio station is their favorite. Radio managers shouldn't fall into the trap of “We need to makes the changes before the next book starts.” That makes no sense from what we know about listener behavior.
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