Hi-tech listening meters fail to deliver a panacea

Rajar’s test results covering the much-hyped pager and watch audience measurement systems show they can’t yet compete with the diary method

Unfortunately research is an imprecise science so it cannot be relied on to tell the whole truth. At its best, research can guide users to the most likely truth. The art in designing the best research is to eliminate as many confounding factors as possible, so that you are confident you are as close to measures of actual behaviour as possible.

Industry research has the added complication of ensuring that all parties involved are in agreement on the way forward. While this is not always an easy process, other countries envy the Joint Industry Committee structure that UK industries use to manage this process. One such JIC is Rajar, and the joint authorship of this piece demonstrates the range of those who are involved in assessing the potential for electronic measurement of radio audiences.

Like all other media, radio is constantly evolving. The growth of new broadcast platforms that will require separate measurement and the increasing number of stations have been the catalyst for Rajar’s systematic and rigorous test programme of the two available electronic audiometer technologies – the Arbitron pager and the Radiocontrol watch. With the next Rajar contract due to run until almost the end of the decade, electronic measurement has to be tested against the need to measure listening behaviour across all platforms.

Nearly £600m-worth of advertising is based on Rajar’s audience data as well as the justification for a significant proportion of the BBC licence fee. So it is imperative that Rajar maintains its position as the provider of a reliable and high quality service. The unanimous conclusion of the test programme is that there is no credible and viable electronic solution at the moment.

The extensive tests show that the two systems deliver no consistency of results. There are considerable differences when comparing findings from the electronic systems with those generated from the diary as well as comparing results between the two electronic systems. If someone were to use both technologies side by side to monitor their radio listening of a range of stations, the two systems would deliver different results.

This challenges the widely held belief that electronic measurement is perfect and that diary-based recall is inferior. Rajar believes that the use of one or both of the electronic technologies will not be an improvement on the current diary system but will bring inaccuracies of their own to the measurement of radio. As a result, Rajar cannot yet convince those involved that a reliable, high standard electronic data collection method exists.

Rajar is committed to investigating any initiative that promises to improve the quality of radio audience measurement. We will do this with vigour and enthusiasm, but not with precipitate haste. The experience of BARB in 2002 is a fresh memory for all of us.

This comment was submitted jointly by Radio Advertising Bureau managing director Justin Sampson, ISBA director of media and advertising Bob Wootton and IPA director of research Lynne Robinson

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