The radio ratings process is broken. Ridiculous things continue to happen in all market sizes and it appears broadcasters are doing little about it. And so, The Ratings Game continues.

Every market has stories about crazy swings traced to a household or two. And management continues to freak out over monthly moves as programmers adjust the station based on unreliable data.

Imagine 70,000 people packed into a stadium. A group of about 150 fans is gathered in one section. They’re of various ages, genders, and races. Several languages are spoken, live in different areas, and belong to different socio-economic classes.

Would it make sense to ask these 150 people a series of questions and draw conclusions to represent the entire stadium? What useful information could be learned about eating habits or car preferences? Or what magazines they read, what social media they use, and whether they’re iPhone or Android users. The data would be useless. Nobody would consider it a representative sample.

Yet that’s what the broadcast industry allows the rating companies to get away with.

Except the data is actually worse.

The Radio Ratings Process is Ridiculous-and Broken

The rating company recruits a sample by direct mail, door-to-door visits, or telephone.

How many people do you know that would pick up the phone when an unknown number calls? Or answer the door for a stranger that wants something from them? Or open junk mail?

In a PPM market, respondents must carry a device for a year (or more) to record their listening behavior. Seriously, who’s going to do that? Real people? Of course, they won’t. So in an effort to increase the sample, the respondent is asked to get each member of their household to participate. Consultant, researcher, and programming guru Dennis Constantine says:

Any good researcher will tell you that you should never have two people in a study that know each other. That’s why we don’t just invite a group of friends or family members together to a perceptual study or music test. Yet, radio ratings invite the whole family – sometimes up to 8 members of a family. And then, they play games with the participants to get them to listen more. The more you listen, the more money you make. Results are that one diary or one family can make or break a radio station.

Clearly, it is anything but a representative sample.

The Impact of A Single Meter

Maybe that’s why the placement of a single meter caused a 38% increase for a station on a market’s ratings. It happened to one of my client stations (in our favor).

This is shocking but is more common than it should be. Here are the facts in this case:

  • It’s a major market, in the top 20 in the USA with 32 rated radio stations in the metro.
  • In one month, the station’s online stream grew from 0.0 to 4.2 among 18-34 women.
  • The online stream was the 10th highest-ranked station in the market
  • The over-the-air signal was tied for #1 with an 11.1 share.
  • Add the shares and the station has a 15.3. That’s an incredible gain of 38%

We traced the respondents and found the online growth came from one meter. That respondent alone raised the station’s ratings by 38%. Four shares from one meter? This should never happen, no matter how narrow the demographic is.

The Sample

Imagine deciding the direction of a radio station based on data. You commission a perceptual research project to measure the health of the brand, current opportunities, and available positions in the market. The only thing that’s certain is that the station must win with 18-34 women.

The report comes back with the following sample:

W 18-24:    58 respondents

W 25-34:    89 respondents

Total W 18-34:  147 respondents

This doesn’t take into account ethnicity, primary language spoken and listening preferences. Just raw numbers.

Go ahead. Make the decision that will affect the station’s future. and perhaps your career.

If the target is 18-24-year-old women (typical for a CHR), 58 responses aren’t even enough for a valid sample to make weekly music decisions even if they were screened by music or station preference.

And this sample from Nielsen includes rock fans, country fans, jazz fans, Christian music listeners, etc.

I don’t know of a single research company that would present this sample to a broadcaster. Yet this is the actual in-tab sample for this market of over 2 million. 58 women aged 18-24 carry meters that determine the ratings for all stations in the market.


This research is the basis for millions of dollars in advertising. And broadcasters are paying a lot of money for this data on which we base ad rates.

I have no solution to Nielsen’s sample crisis. But I have a warning: This must stop before advertisers wake up and realize what their ad rates have been based on.  

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Because it is. The radio ratings process is broken.

As long as we allow the system to remain in place, and fund the companies producing results, it’s the game we play.

At least until advertisers figure out what’s going on here and stop placing media buys based on it.


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