When Bad Ratings Happen to Good Stations

When Bad Ratings Happen to Good Stations

by Tracy Johnson

It happens once a quarter, or every six months, depending on the market you’re in. And it’s one of the most stressful of days for programmers and radio personalities. What do you do if the ratings gods go against you and you have the dreaded bad ratings?

In a radio world of fast decisions, adjusted budget strategies and future moves plotted, it seems there’s a lot riding on every report.  Most PDs I know are generally optimistic and hopeful, eagerly anticipating positive results.

They’ve crafted the station to attack competitive weaknesses in the market and are playing fewer commercials than the format leader.

Then the “report card” comes in. And it’s disappointing. How do you respond?

What happens when a bad book strikes? How do you handle it? Do you scramble for explanations, justification and rationalizations? How do you address the team?

Each situation is different, of course, but I’ve had my share of both good and bad ratings periods in my career.

Here are some things I’ve learned in dealing with it:

How To Respond to Bad Ratings

First, don’t respond to bad ratings. There’s no way to know for sure what’s happening just from a top-line glance at the results.

A single ratings period from any of the services are never a good gauge of what is actually going on. There are so many factors that can’t be accounted for, or explained.

You need to step back, analyze and take a deeper dive into the situation.

Bad ratings happen. Here’s how to keep it in perspective:

It’s In The Past

Realize that ratings are a reflection of what has already taken place, and often not a particularly accurate one.

Did you conduct a strategic research project to guide your format decisions that put you on the current path? If so, and the research is still valid, maintain your commitment and focus. It usually takes much longer than we would like for the audience to respond to programming adjustments that have been made. If you’ve made the right moves, are on the right course, don’t change it because of one bad ratings period.

That’s frustrating, but don’t allow it to get you off the plan. Listeners hate change, and they’re much faster to abandon a station that’s changed. So avoid the ratings freak out and realize that it’s past.

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There’s nothing you can do to affect what has already happened, but you can impact the next one. Move forward.

Analyze The Results

You cannot control external forces. The ratings services are severely flawed, and wild fluctuations occur all the time. One meter or diary can make a huge difference, and other than complaining to your rep, there’s nothing you can really do about it.

You can only affect your actions. And there’s plenty you can do.

It could be as simple as the music cycle working against you. Or, if you’re a news station, that big story that attracted audience you count on may not have happened. That can have a profound effect.

Also analyze what your competitors have done, and objectively critique what worked and why. And I mean objectively. Many times, we tend to think we’re always right and our competition doesn’t know what they’re doing. But maybe they do.

Figure out if they’ve done anything that could cause positive results to impact The Ratings Game, and if it came at your expense.

No matter what you discover, avoid the temptation to react to other station. Do pay attention to how those stations have affected your audience, but don’t chase them.Show Confidence

Don’t allow your staff to obsess on ratings.

Share the information, point out positives and negatives, but instead, focus on doing great radio and impacting the audience’s life every day. Sometimes you get kissed, sometimes you get screwed. In the long run, it works itself out.

Great stations have a way of being rewarded with more good books than bad. Stations that focus on last quarter’s ratings always struggle.

Analyze and Learn

A bad book, or series of bad books, could point to a legitimate problem. But ratings aren’t research.

You can’t program your station or adjust your show based on this data. Use perceptual research, focus groups and other forms of analysis to understand how and why audiences behave as they are.

Drawing conclusions based on bad ratings results will lead to worse results. You will start into the death spiral toward oblivion.

If you have had more than one bad ratings period and have a budget for research, use it. It can correct problems before they become big issues or give you peace of mind and help you fine-tune your current strategy.

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If you don’t have a budget, it’s still easy to gather information that can help. Focus groups are inexpensive, and in some cases even free. It’s also cost-effective and fast to survey your current audience to get a feel for their satisfaction with your programming and brand characteristics.

You should be conducting a ratings tune up once per quarter, or every six months at minimum. Review your most recent tune-up and see if you missed anything. This is also a good time to set up your next project.

Focus Your Team

Most importantly, be a leader for your staff.

Your team looks to you for leadership. Hold your head up, and don’t try to hide bad ratings. Don’t sugarcoat it. But do explain it and use this as an opportunity to reinforce the station’s plan and how they will be involved moving forward.

Explain it with confidence, patience and optimism moving forward. Don’t make excuses or complain. That’s weak. Also use it as a reminder that it’s more important to focus performance every day on excellence. If you have the right strategy and a commitment to the process, the ratings results will take care of themselves.

A side note: Overcoming the negative impact of a bad ratings report is much easier if you don’t over-celebrate the good ratings period. You can’t give credibility to ratings when they’re good and discount them when they’re not.

Take the focus off the ratings and place it on turning listeners into fans.


Bad books happen. Good books happen, too. Be prepared to manage through the ups and the downs while focusing clearly on how to make a difference in the life of your target audience.

Photo credit: Freepik.com

Author: Tracy Johnson

Tracy Johnson specializes in radio talent coaching, radio consulting for programming and promotions and developing digital strategies for brands.

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