How to Handle Management’s Ratings Freak Out

How to Handle Management’s Ratings Freak Out

by Tracy Johnson

Ratings freak out is understandable, but management needs to understand the real causes. In this guide to avoiding ratings freak out, I’ll share with you:

  • Ratings fluctuate, and there’s nothing we can do to change it yet.
  • Managers should never make strategic decisions based on ratings.
  • A strategic focus should (but often doesn’t) guide station reactions.
  • A free tool to help prevent ratings freak out

The ratings process is a nightmare. Amazingly, broadcasters allow ratings services to have so much power over them. It’s greatly affecting the health and well-being of the industry

It’s even more maddening when bad ratings happen to good stations (or talent). The next step is almost always the over-reaction of a panic-stricken manager. This, in turn, can inflict serious (and real) long-term damage on a station or personality.

Look, there’s nothing you can do about the often violent ebb and flow of ratings information. Until Nielsen, Numeris and the others make meaningful improvements to the sample size and recruitment process, ratings issues will continue. Ratings fluctuate, but your focus doesn’t have to.

Ratings Freak Out: Case Study

It was the Fall ratings period, which as you know, tends to be impacted by a little thing called Christmas. And there was a ratings freak out.

In this major market, a legendary morning show on a Hot AC station has been performing at the top of their game for the last 8 quarters. But suddenly, their ratings take a significant blow.

Of course, the Fall ratings period is important for advertiser buys and market share in the following year, so management is already tense. When the results come in, they over-react. They freak out. And they want answers.

There is no perceptual research to calm insanity. It was slashed from the budget long ago by the parent company. So the market manager decides that the morning talent is the problem. And everyone on the management team has an opinion.:

  • They talk too much. We need to put on more music.
  • No, the music cycle is the problem. Our music isn’t as popular as it was. We should play less music and let them talk more.
  • Their features are not as exciting as they once were (or so we think). The audience doesn’t respond to them anymore (but we don’t know that).
  • We need new features and maybe give away some money. Oh, that’s right. There’s no budget.
  • And we can’t find any good new features, so let’s take off what we have.
  • They’re not working as hard as they used to. The content is stale.

Let’s Fix Something Even If It May Not Be Broken

A sure way to break something is pounding it with a hammer. If it wasn’t broken before, it will be now.

So, after a series of meetings, the talent is confused, their confidence is shaken to the core. They have no idea what’s “real”, but they know that nobody is happy with them. They obsess about the ratings, even though the results were determined weeks ago and there’s nothing they can do about the past.

The show starts to re-think everything. The PD adjusts the clocks to get a competitive advantage against their arch-rival. This is even though there’s no evidence that the station has attracted any of our audience.

It appears our direct competitor has lost quarter-hours too. Still, chasing the competition around the format clock makes them feel better. It gives them the illusion that they’re doing something.

Oh, and they can announce to the staff that they’ve “fixed” the problems. They’re doing the ratings freak out, and everyone on the staff knows it. And nobody believes the “problems” are fixed.

Meanwhile, the show begins to doubt their ability. They are second-guessing everything they do. Now a tension comes through on the air in subtle ways. It’s not as loose or free-flowing as it was.

And the show begins to count down the days to see their next report card like a kid who’s worried about how his parents will respond to another C in math.

The difference is that the kid could study more and earn positive results. The morning show could work harder too but still has to hope the meters fall into the right hands. It’s like hoping they hold a winning lottery ticket.

You might also like:  The Components of Radio Ratings: Understanding the Math

You Freak Out: Talent Freaks Out

So finally, with nobody to turn to in-house, they call their talent coach (me), to discuss the situation.

After hearing of the decisions that have been implemented, I ask a couple of questions:

Question 1: What stations appeared to gain in your target demographics?
Answer: Country and Rock.

Hmm. That’s not a competitive threat to us. Oddly, those stations would have a significant gain with adult women. Yet, there it was.

Question 2: How did your direct competitor (Mainstream AC) look?
Answer: They were flat, realizing no growth, even though they were all Christmas music.

Also odd. Nielsen has tried to minimize the ratings lift for stations that flip to All-Christmas music by ending the fall ratings period earlier and earlier. Still, those stations tend to do quite well in the fall. But this station was flat, even though they’ve been known as the Christmas station for years. It seems that the competition being flat is being down.

Starting to see a pattern here?

Question 3: Do you know if there was a panel change during the fall ratings?
Answer: Oh yeah. The PD told us there was a significant change in the panel at the beginning of the book.

Okay, now it should be obvious. Even when a few panelists change, ratings are affected. That’s especially true if lost panelists are heavy users of your station. Those quarter-hours are hard to replace, especially if a new panelist prefers a different format. Rock and country, for instance.

Then we looked into the panel change and discovered that a panelist had celebrated a birthday. That moved them out of the station’s target demographic. As a result, this P1 contributed hundreds of quarter-hours each month but is no longer counted by our management team.

They’re still listening, still being measured. But management no longer tracks that meter carrier

Fix The Freak Out: Adjust Your Focus

The show isn’t perfect, and they have some work to do in several areas. There’s no doubt that they’d gotten a little sloppy and their breaks hadn’t been as sharp as they usually were.

In reality, the show had already made changes to tighten their presentation and we had been feeling pretty good about it.

Then the ratings results came in.

A disappointing ratings period can be a wake-up call that inspires a renewed focus.

But management delivered a wake-up call that was like a marching band dressed as creepy clowns bursting into the bedroom at 2 am, setting off fireworks, dowsing them with ice-cold water, stuffing their heads in a pillowcase and driving off with them in the trunk of a car. Now that’s a ratings freak out.

Now they question everything, including the recent changes that haven’t had time to take root.

4 Ways to Protect Against Ratings Freak Out

It’s human nature to respond emotionally, in good times and in bad, and a common response when ratings go against you is to freak out. Fine. Freak out. Just don’t let your team freak out. Bad books happen to good stations. And good radio shows.

When odd ratings results happen (monthly, it seems), realize that it’s temporary. And realize that you can’t program or manage a station by responding to the ratings surveys. There’s nothing you can do about panel changes, and as long as the ratings-makers refuse to meaningfully address the sample problem, it’s not going to change anytime soon.

So how can you stay calm in a most unsettling situation? Step back and compare your performance over a longer period. Take into account changes in the market and adjustments you’ve made on your station.

Document Changes 

Keep a detailed journal of significant changes you’ve made to the station. Make notes of when marketing campaigns are in effect. Track dates of contests and promotions. Did you change clocks? Your music mix? When did you make library adjustments based on a music test?

Note: Make a notation with details on exactly what you’ve done and when. Then, evaluate the results based on those adjustments. Be sure to track the actual dates of the ratings period, not the “month” the ratings company assigns. Many times the ratings period surveyed doesn’t reflect the actual month and can be misleading. For example, the “August” monthly could be reflecting July’s programming.

You might also like:  When Bad Ratings Happen to Good Stations

Track Competition

In the same journal, make notes on important changes your competition is making. Have they changed their music? Talent? Are they promoting more? Track more detail for your closest competitors, but make notes on every station in the market.

Keep this in mind as you compare results, too. A major station event can affect everyone in the market, not just a direct competitor. For example, if a rock station carries the local NFL team’s games, there’s an audience exchange that could trigger a chain reaction.

Track The Panel

Monitor panel turnover in the journal. Make a note of exactly when the panel changes and the affected demos. Also make notes on which stations are most likely to be impacted, both negatively and positively.

Take a Longer Outlook

Finally, evaluate ratings with a longer outlook, which is more accurate than just one or two ratings periods. In particular, look at year-to-year comparisons of the same months or quarters. It also helps to combine multiple months for a rolling average. This will absorb the extremes and give you a very different perspective.

Don’t Freak Out: Evaluate

To make this easier, we offer a free tool that does the math for you. Just enter the data, and the spreadsheet does the rest.

The tool tracks share, cume and AQH for each month or quarter. It calculates a 12-month rolling average and shows gains or losses. It will also reveal a longer-term trend. And, it will display the average of the past 12 months.

The second section provides an even longer view. After updating the ratings period, add the TOTAL category in the Rolling Averages section. Each number entered will calculate the previous 12-month period. Now you can see exactly how you’re trending over some time.

The first tab in the spreadsheet tool is for stations measured year-round. The second tab is for quarterly measurements.

By the way, it’s not a bad idea for stations in continuous-measurement markets to track quarterly as well. And the third tab is for stations that have two books per year. Tabs 2 and 3 track data further back to get a longer-term perspective.

If you want to get more granular, copy a tab. Track demographics and individual time slots as well as your overall performance.


Bad books happen to good stations, and good books happen to bad stations.

Either way, don’t add to the ratings freak out. Stay calm, evaluate, research and analyze exactly what’s going on. It makes life more manageable internally and will put you on the road to recovery much faster.

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Why Radio Ratings Sample Sizes Are So Low

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Radio Ratings: Higher Shares Are Driven By Daily Cume.

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Ratings Case Study: If You Made Decisions Based On This Information, You Would Be Fired…

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