Should You Program Your Radio Show Based on PPM Methodology?

Should You Program Your Radio Show Based on PPM Methodology?

by Tracy Johnson

I had an interesting email dialogue with an air personality in a major U.S. market about PPM methodology. Specifically, the question is whether it’s possible to connect with the audience in a radio ratings world judged by PPM (Portable People Meter).

At first, it seemed like an odd topic with an obvious answer. PPM has been around for quite some time, and is generally accepted that metered ratings measurement is considerably more accurate, despite the many flaws that border on ridiculous.

Then it occurred to me that a new generation of programmers and personalities have been implementing PPM methodology tactics without thinking about the brand implications.

Combined with ongoing budget cuts and layoffs, this programming approach has contributed to a decline in great personality radio.

If the process of capturing ratings information from a handful of the unique type of person that participates with a ratings service somehow causes personalities to connect less with listeners, personality radio has a bleak future. Radio will not win by trying to out-music or out-information digital options.

Personality radio is the key to radio’s future.

The Dilemma

In our discussion, the air personality claims programmers are “killing” the flavor of morning shows because of metered measurement. As a result, we’re left with a robotic style of presentation in short segments.

And none of the engagement is deep enough to truly connect with the audience.

He describes most morning shows in his market as having turned into a “Twitter” style presentation, lacking warmth and friendliness. He blames programmers playing The Ratings Game by (over) reacting to PPM methodology.

In one sense, this hot take is on target.

Well-meaning programmers suppress personality by over-analyzing numbers on a spreadsheet. They apply the science of radio. But without applying art, entertainment is often polished off the air.

They critique, scrutinize and criticize to the point that personalities feel stifled. Then they’re told to “be fun”.

Watch this hilarious parody of the relationship between a PD and DJ.

Obviously this is an exaggeration. Kind of. A little. But the net result of coaching personalities to avoid making mistakes has a similar effect.

When stations are programmed for what a programmer perceives as a best practice for PPM, personality is pinned in a corner.

There’s a better way!

4 Programming Principles For PPM Methodology

First, stop assuming ratings reports are accurate.

Sure, meters are an improvement. But the fundamental problem has not been solved. Recruiting a representative sample remains a nightmare that causes ridiculous ratings fluctuations.

In reality, PPM methodology isn’t all bad. Sample and the recruitment problem are at the core of the problem. And that’s always been an issue.

Programming a station based on PPM could be a one way ticket to irrelevance, particularly when PD’s place more emphasis on the tactics of manipulating meters over making decisions based on solid strategic thinking.

With that in mind, here are four PPM concepts and my reaction:

Talk Is Bad/Music Is Good…Not

Programmers over-reacted to evidence from PPM methodology. The popular opinion was that removing personality was a good idea.

They reasoned that meter analysis proves “talk causes tune out”.

This was more a function (or dysfunction) of meters failing to measure the spoken word. But that’s been solved (hasn’t it? Or has it?). Regardless it’s  a topic for another day.

The “talk is bad” theory assumes all talk to be equally negative. And that’s just fake news.

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Meaningless, pointless talk is dangerous. It was a tune out in the diary world and it’s a tune out in a metered world.

But relevant, useful, targeted, emotionally-connected personality creates reasons to listen. Add the ability to tell compelling stories and it’s an unbeatable combination. That will drive more quarter-hours, not less.

Coleman Research says:

We have learned that every interruption (of music flow) has some detrimental impact on ratings. The instinctive reaction of many programmers was to wipe the station clean – 30 second promos became 10 seconds. IDs were five seconds. Jocks talked less.

What’s important to understand is that interruptions, while detrimental in the moment, can be additive to the brand. So, make sure every interruption has brand value. If it builds the brand, it’s worth it.

Personality can add strategic value to radio brands. It’s far more powerful than music alone.

High Profile Personalities Are Over-Not

Ratings on many stations with well-known, high-profile personalities are rated lower in PPM than when diaries were in place. There are many reasons. The biggest cause is that diary methodology rewards familiarity. Success in ratings based on recall methodology (diaries) is a result of high Top of Mind Awareness (TOMA).

In a diary market, personalities are rewarded with listening credit that doesn’t actually take place. It’s a tremendous advantage to be a highly regarded celebrity. Listeners say they listen more than they actually do.

But even in metered markets, these “votes” are important in that they provide awareness, significance and marketing equity. When brand values are lessened, stations are a commodity with few reasons to aid recall. And if a listener has no reason to remember a brand, there is little reason to expect them to come back.

This is counter to how many programmers think of programming to meters. They think TOMA is irrelevant in PPM. Not so.

If you’re planning to buy a car, you likely prefer a familiar, known, trusted dealer over one you’ve never heard of. Those dealers get a visit. Those who aren’t top of mind don’t.

It’s the same with radio listeners. Top of mind awareness is still one of the most important qualities for a radio brand. High profile personalities drive repeat tune in.


When meaningful interaction with the audience is removed to play the ratings manipulation game, stations lose a unique point of difference between their brand and competing technology. And that’s happening at many, if not most stations today.

Phone calls are edited so tightly there’s little humanity. Personalities don’t welcome the listener or use their names. That may save a precious second or two, but it’s a barrier to connecting with the audience. Some stations that have taken it so far they actually edit pauses or breaths from conversations. The result is a loss in communication.

Stripping the station of character leaves radio as a music platform without personalization. Oh, and it plays commercials. How is that supposed compete with Apple Music or Spotify?

A fundamental principle of marketing and positioning is that it’s impossible to compete with a brand by becoming more like them. Yet as radio loses attention to streaming providers, we do just that by stripping interactivity from the air.

Radio stations will lose the music battle. Don’t lose the personality war trying to fight a battle that can’t be won.

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Advertising & Clients

The radio industry depends on traditional advertising budgets based on ratings. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars shift to digital media.

In this new world order, advertisers don’t care about cume or time spent listening. And they certainly aren’t interested in petty squabbles between radio stations competing for their ad dollars.

Yet account executives still come in with ratings data trying to convince an advertiser that money should be spent on Station A, not Station B.

Advertisers are more sophisticated than in the past. They judge radio’s ability to influence and create response. Welcome to the new world of accountability. It’s here to stay, and it’s pushing aside models based on raw numbers.

High profile, relevant personalities with the ability to command attention and lead a community of fans are valuable. They can drive response and cause advertising campaigns to succeed.

A collection of listeners without an emotional connection to the brand may put ads in front of users, but they provide a fraction of the influence radio personalities do.


This is not to claim that ratings are unimportant. Of course they are.

But radio has allowed ratings services to have far too much influence in how we engage and interact with our audience.

As Coleman concludes:

Programmers should never go in with a PPM mindset. Go in with the mindset of developing a brand by exploiting an available market position. Your goal should be to develop a strong brand and make the station entertaining and focused.

Once you know who you are, what your brand message is and how you want to communicate that to the audience, start thinking PPM.

Radio’s 90% reach is only valuable if the audience responds. Our industry’s strength has always been promotion: the ability to aggregate, engage and mobilize a collection of listeners with common interests.

If we lose that, we lose everything.

And that’s what I told my friend about dealing with PPM.

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