Radio will rue Talk’s tantrum

Other than the fact that both are known as flamboyant mavericks within their spheres, Terry Smith, chief executive of stockbroker Collins Stewart Tullett, and Kelvin MacKenzie, chief executive of the company which owns digital radio station TalkSport, might seem to have little in common. Both, however, are poised for some hugely risky legal action: one in an attempt to sue the socks off the Financial Times for defamation; the other to achieve redress against what he believes to be the iniquities of the current radio measurement system.

Understandably, MacKenzie is a frustrated man. The trials of an alternative, computer-driven wristwatch audience measurement system have shown beyond reasonable doubt that there are significant flaws in the diary system favoured by Rajar. Notably, it is biased against speech stations in general and his own TalkSport in particular. The measure of the difficulty can be seen in two sets of contrasting figures. According to the latest Rajar results, TalkSport achieved a decent but hardly awe-inspiring 2.2 million listeners and a weekly reach of four per cent; whereas, according to independent GfK research using the alternative wristwatch technology, the figures are 7 million listeners and 16 per cent reach. Results which, taken at face value, would give TalkSport leading status as a national commercial radio station and thereby entitle it to a much larger chunk of the £600m of radio advertisers’ money than it can presently aspire to.

So, is not MacKenzie justified in railing against ‘vested interests’ within the radio establishment denying his company its just desserts? Yes and no. As MacKenzie himself well knows, there are broader issues at stake here than the fortunes of one radio station, however ‘wronged’ it may be. Rajar, like its television counterpart BARB, is placed in an increasingly impossible position as the broadcast multi-channel revolution proceeds. How can an already creaking methodology – by no means foolproof, even in its heyday – deal fairly with the increasing complexity facing it? Clearly, new technology will have to supersede the diary system at some point. But when? And what? And, crucially, who is going to pay for it? Certainly not many of the smaller operations which are likely to benefit most. As for the what, the new technology is far from proven: tests conducted for Rajar on both the Radiocontrol wristwatch and the rival Arbitron pager appear to show the new technology is too flaky to be used at this stage.

Unfortunately for Rajar, its unwillingness to disclose the results of these tests (it cannot, it says: they are proprietary information) creates the suspicion, readily exploited by MacKenzie, that there is some sort of cover-up going on. Doubly unfortunate in fact, since media buyers and the advertisers’ trade body ISBA remain broad supporters of the status quo and are naturally sceptical of the GfK research which, however independently carried out, puts its client on top.

It’s possible MacKenzie will achieve more for TalkSport during his day in court than he has done through negotiation, by forcing Rajar’s results into the open. It’s equally likely his action will damage the commercial radio sector as a whole by undermining advertisers’ confidence in any system of measurement. God help the industry; God help the judge who has to make a ruling.

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