Learning to measure a wholly different tune

Understanding the advances in radio technology and changing listener behaviour are crucial to creating an audience measurement system, says Michael O’Brien

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the potential introduction of new electronic measurement systems for radio audiences. Rajar is investing a significant amount of money in testing two potential systems. The first – a wristwatch – works by recording four seconds of audio each minute. This recording is then audio-matched at the end of each week with what was being broadcast by each station at the time to establish if the consumer was listening. The second system is a pager-like device, which listens for inaudible identifiers broadcast by each station. It holds a record of this information for download at a later date.

The new measurement systems face many challenges, one of which is that listeners are accessing radio through a growing number of devices, which will increase over the life-cycle of the next Rajar contract. Furthermore, control over where and when listeners tune-in is increasing.

We already know that about eight per cent of radio listeners at some time or another use headphones each week. With Radio Advertising Bureau research highlighting that listeners increasingly want radio to be incorporated into their mobile digital devices this is likely to increase. So, a challenge for electronic audience measurement – how do you capture the medium in this most personal of listening environments?

Over the next two years we can expect digital radios to be launched that allow simple time shifting. This may simply be a listener listening to the eight o’clock news at ten past eight, when they get in the car or pausing their radio during an interruption.

Internet radio already time-shifts radio output slightly because of the buffering of the audio. Two people listening to internet radio on different PCs will not hear exactly the same thing at the same time. While only about three per cent of adults listen to internet radio regularly, experience from the US suggests that, with the roll-out of broadband across the UK, this figure will increase.

So the question for electronic audience measurement technology: how do you cope with audiences being able to determine what they hear, and the fact that they will not all hear it at the same time?

Of the two systems being tested by Rajar at the moment, only one of them – the pager (from US-based Arbitron) – instinctively seems to cope with the challenges posed by changing technology and listening behaviour as outlined above.

Finally, it is interesting to point out that the new systems being tested by Rajar could measure TV audiences as well as radio. For the advertiser, single source audience data has clear benefits for cross-media planning. While the radio industry is taking a lead in assessing options for future audience measurement, we should keep in mind this potentially valuable future collaboration

Mike O’Brien is director of marketing operations at the Radio Advertising Bureau

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