Pattern Recognition and the People Meter.

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

Pattern recognition is quite likely a survival mechanism.  As human beings, we naturally look for cause/effect relationships in the things which surround us. “Ogg teased the mastodon. It snatched him up with its trunk and crushed him. I don’t want to die. Therefore, I’m never going to tease a mastodon. At least, not up close.”

Of course, sometimes we make mistakes.  Though we try to assign one, not every effect has an obvious cause. “Ogg ate the frazzlesnatch berries after dark, and got a tummyache. I don’t want a tummyache. Therefore, I’m never going to eat the frazzlesnatch berries after dark.” This particular effect (the tummyache) seems silly now that germ theory provides an easily testable alternate cause (germs).

We have a deeply rooted need to understand, which produces an equally powerful “want” to believe. We look so hard for reasons that we accept hazy evidence, questionable schemes, and even false reports. We want to believe we have the answers. We just can’t help it.

Back to germ theory.

Pasteur uncovers germs. Creates vaccine for rabies, and for anthrax. Invents a method to prevent milk from making people sick. Do people immediately abandon the “don’t eat frazzleberries after dark” theory? Don’t count on it.

As each of us gains experience with the world, the frazzleberry ideas, combined with the mastodon ideas, and other ideas, become intertwined into our belief systems. And sometimes, accepting the evidence of germs means, not only abandoning the frazzleberry theory, but also calling into question dozens, maybe hundreds of other observations and conclusions.

This is painful. First, because thinking is hard. Second, because admitting that we’re wrong is harder.

So, other doctors in the early 1860s snorted at “Nutty Louey’s” germ ideas, refused to wash their hands, and spread disease from patient to patient. And when finally confronted with overwhelming evidence? Cognitive dissonance kicks in.

And yes, this does have advertising applications.

Obliquely, we’re discussing belief systems.

But in reality, we’re talking about testable evidence.

We can easily test for germs. We can’t so easily test for the existence of UFOs, the Tri-Lateral Commission, or the exact date of the Rapture.

Every day we’re presented with change. And each of those days, we try to make sense of those changes.

Here’s one change. According to a report from the Arbitron ratings service, Rush Limbaugh’s ratings have dropped 33 percent since October. Sean Hannity’s are down 28 percent in that same period.

Premiere Radio, which distributes both shows, has said the ratings slippage doesn’t worry them, since Limbaugh and Hannity are still the two biggest talk shows in America. Don’t believe them. About the worry part, I mean. Do believe that even with the ratings reduction Limbaugh and Hannity are still numbers one and two.

Progressive leaning pundits suggest the new ratings numbers are public backlash against right-wing opposition to anything Obama. Conservative Pundits talk about short-term ratings bounces being temporary, and point out that Limbaugh is still Number One.

They are all mistaken.  You and I, Dear Reader, will discuss the real reason those ratings have changed.

Those listeners never existed.

Since its inception in the late 1960s, Arbitron has tabulated written diaries in which survey participants recorded the stations and programs they watched or listened to. Since its inception, the listening diary has been flawed. It was designed to record TV viewing in the days before remote controls.

Let me describe the process.  A person got up off the couch and actually walked to the TV to change the channel between ABC, CBS, and NBC. Leaving the open diary on top of the set was simple.

Step one: Actively consider program choices.
Step two: Pick one from the three available networks.
Step three: Write choice in viewing diary.

Rinse and repeat half an hour later.1

But, for as long as there have been winners and losers in the ratings battles, there have been questions about the validity of the diary methodology – ranging from Bolton Research‘s Study of Arbitron Ratings in the early 1980s to Arbitron’s own Non Participant studies.

I remember watching one of Ted Bolton’s presentations in which he played videotapes of diary keepers saying such things as “I usually listen to the rock station, but I felt guilty about supporting them so I listened to the Christian station all week.” Another interviewee said, “I filled out the diary for the whole week the day I got it, ‘cause I had already decided who I’d be listening to.”

We’ve long suspected that people are concerned about what we think of them. Even anonymous people. Now, with PPM data, we have evidence.

Portable People Meter

Portable People Meter

For the last couple of years, Arbitron has been phasing out the paper diary, replacing it with the Portable People Meter. Instead of asking people to describe their behavior, Arbitron is measuring their actual radio listening.

The first national PPM results were measured in September, 2010, and released in October. (Humm. October. Beginning of new methodology).

What is this new data telling us? Diary keepers over-report familiar stations, heritage stations, and those which have simply used the same call letters longer.

We used to believe the average listener listened to 3.2 stations per week. Now, the evidence is that they listen to double that number.

Based on diary keeping we used to believe people listened more (and more intently) in the morning. Now, we know listening is pretty much the same in each major daypart.

And formats? Not surprisingly, the stations which do best are the mass appeal stations. Quite surprisingly, light rock and adult contemporary stations have significantly more men listening than previously thought. (It’s harder to claim you’re a major sports radio fan when the meter catches you listening to Céline Dionne).

Other winning formats are oldies, news, and country.

The biggest losers under PPM measurement? Smooth jazz, some Spanish-language stations, and talk radio in general.  Limbaugh and Hannity listeners, specifically.

Now what?

Now, we adjust.

Electronic measurement has no bias. As Irwin Ephron has stated so well, “There is no “Truth” in audience measurement. There is only validity, bias, sample-size, economics and judgment.

Science ultimately affects opinion, and advertising dollars always flow to where the listeners are.

I don’t expect Harley dealerships to start advertising on the “lite” stations, but I predict you will soon notice more car dealers advertising on the soft rockers.  And Rush Limbaugh’s advertising rates will decrease as station owners, disappointed that the audience they believed listened to their radio stations is only two-thirds as big, begin a slow shift away from conservative talk.

What about you? Will your advertising choices be affected by the new PPM information? Perhaps they should be, if you’re going to successfully fish for customers.

Your Guide,
Chuck McKay

Marketing consultant Chuck McKay

Chuck McKay

Your Fishing for Customers guide, Chuck McKay, gets people to buy more of what you sell.

Questions about interpreting the new ratings data may be directed to ChuckMcKay@FishingforCustomers.com.  Or call Chuck at 304-208-7654.


1 Then there’s the whole issue of keeping an accurate diary when one listens in the car. Did we ever really believe a rush hour commuter kept a diary open, and pulled to the side of the road to write down each time she punched the station button?

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