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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

What is the Future of Radio Audience Research?

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

In pre-Covid days, I’d linger near the window of M & S, whistling, gazing nonchalantly at the window full of frocks, in the hope that a clip-boarded researcher might amble across and whisk me off to the redundant church nearby to partake in some market research.

The fun I’d then have, sampling hedgehog crisps or being interrogated about how I might behave if a new DIY store were to open around the corner.

Research is fun. I love it - and seize every effort to take part. Most I engage in in seems a little flawed, pressuring me to give over-detailed views on something I care diddly-squat about – or predict my future behaviour.

In terms of UK radio, however, as RAJAR struggles to adjust to COVID conditions, we must brush aside any notion that it has done a bad job for us.

Our medium invests huge sums in seeking the very best data. Whilst much research in other sectors is promulgated to vast mailing lists of odd people who’ve shown an unhealthy appetite for sharing their views on random topics, RAJAR’s appointed contractor Ipsos recruits a vast army of people who bang on carefully-stipulated doors trying to twist the arms of 100,000 average individuals annually to persuade them to give accounts of their listening.

It’s not the cheapest way of doing it. It’s also not the easiest. I still recall the freezing cold Winter’s morning when I was allowed to accompany a dogged researcher on their rounds. We eventually talked our way through but one door – and still only found a person who promised to talk to us if we came back the following Thursday. The field-workers are determined, conscientious individuals who you’d choose to lead you into battle. They serve us proud.

As for the back end – just imagine the complexity of the operation, with hundreds of stations - and ever-changing TSAs, brand names and ownership groups. Not to mention the bristling station execs angrily banging the table quarterly - convinced that their results are ‘wrong’. Yet, in my forty years in the business, I know of very, very few instances where RAJAR and its contractors have made errors in this mammoth exercise – and remedial action has been swift in each case. It's impressive.

But the existing approach of door-to-door recruitment of respondents and cosy chats over coffee is clearly not going to work well during a pandemic. Very little else does. Australia’s researchers were also not able to door-knock. So let’s not lay blame that we sadly won’t be able to tell the fascinating tale of listening habits during this spell within the tradeable routine data. It’s great, though, that so many research bodies around the World have produced useful insight and much favourable radio PR from specific tranches of research – just as RAJAR plans to publish a ‘Listening in Lockdown’ (working title) report with a 1000 panel sample.

Even without COVID, the media world was changing at an unprecedented pace and it is, accordingly, always appropriate to review how things operate. RAJAR methodology has been refreshed several times over the years, with careful controls before implementation to minimise the risk of nasty shocks. Such a change was to a reliance on online diaries, where possible, rather than physical diaries.

In terms of recruitment, even in peace-time, let’s be honest – how many of us would let strangers into our home these days? Inner cities can pose particular challenges - and we know that there have been valiant struggles to source respondents in some demographics.

France contacts respondents by phone for its major study – mobile or landline. How would that go down here? RAJAR’s current experiments in solving the immediate challenge will offer a clue. Many of us used phone-out for music research and audience tracking years ago; but stopped for several reasons. 'Have you had an accident that wasn’t your fault?' Slam. But, for those listeners who do stay on the phone, there is at least still a person-to-person dialogue where answers can be probed and documented with care. Whether solicited on the phone or at my door, I suspect I’d complete a RAJAR diary with more diligence than I complete some of the bizarre polls which just plop unannounced into my email inbox every couple of weeks. That’s not to say careful online recruitment cannot play a part in radio research – it simply has to in the long term. As ever, the answer will likely be a hybrid.

What really matters is reliability and relative stability. The RAJAR currency is trusted by its partners. Together with its predecessor JICRAR, it has served the radio industry well since the first co-ordinated study in 1977. (The BBC had its own studies prior. See the vintage 1977 chart here , just for fun - data RSGB to Jictar standard just in the area then served by ILR/commercial radio, note BBC local stations did not exist across that entire area).

Any major change would produce different results, just as the e-meter experiments have shown. Not wrong. Just different. That’s tough to explain to ad agencies, unpalatable for some radio operators, and politically unsettling for the BBC. Little wonder there’s been little appetite for change.

Now, however, just as we have a good excuse not to hug folk we don’t want to anyway, there’s a window to think afresh with research. The next RAJAR results proper won’t be published until 2021 (W4 2020 fieldwork) at the earliest - according to Lyndsay Ferrigan in the excellent Radio Today podcast – so the data are bound to show some significant fluctuations even if methodology were constant.

Whilst sorting the recruitment of respondents will be the urgent focus, what else might be looked at in the longer term?

In countries like Ireland and France, ‘yesterday’s listening’ is published, as opposed to/in addition to the whole week’s listening. That has some attraction to me. I rather think I can recall what I ate at breakfast yesterday; but would struggle to recall what I had last week – if I forgot to write it down at the time, which I would. Whilst daily diaries would indicate absolute listening, however, they may not tell us whether Tuesday’s 1 Xtra listener quite likes to make love to Lynn Parsons on Fridays.

There are fresh challenges too. Why should an Eddie Mair listening hour be attributed readily to a distracted mechanic dashing in and out of a noisy garage - but not if they are so dedicated they go to the trouble of trouble of listening-on-demand to the programme later. As on-demand grows – and it will – figures will show a phantom erosion to ‘radio’ if it is not captured and assimilated – as it is with TV. It would benefit talk and specialist music formats particularly. I’m confident the matter is already on RAJAR’s busy agenda.

Similarly, if we are to understand the fast-changing interplay between music streaming and linear radio – we programmers, at least, need granular detail of hour-by-hour habits. Why obsess about how well we are doing versus our failing radio competitor, and ignore the elephant in the room? When we lose listeners to music streaming – what are those streams providing specifically? Similarly, in a smart speaker world, if international media operators generate successful mainstream ‘radio’ or audio products, we need to know how our listeners are consuming them.

There are now also hundreds of non-RAJAR community stations, with RAJAR being unaffordable for sound methodological reasons. Do we all need to know more about listening habits to that sector?

Overall, will ‘other listening/listeners’ start to be a column warranting more consideration? It has remained remarkably static despite the contrasting factors of an increase in community and online radio – and a decrease in unattributed out-of-area listening thanks to national brands. One imagines this figure must begin to change.

Ancillary studies using a panel of selected respondents can help delve beneath the surface, and this tandem approach has merits – as proven by the brilliant Midas study from RAJAR. Similarly, in France, Mediametrie has its Radio Panel supplementing its routine ‘126,000 survey’. Obviously, the smaller sample size and nature of the ancillary studies may be fine for the broader questions of the medium, but insufficient to establish what’s happening to my listeners in my town. Or do we leave such investigations to the operators themselves?

What can streaming data tell us? As with every solution there are complications – with third-party data access and also with not knowing how many people are in your kitchen when the smart speaker is on – and what sort of people they are. Even if a distinct parallel exercise, solid regular insights into behaviour here would be of value – as would knowing whether the online listening is on a smart speaker or other device. Very long term - as IP eventually takes over from broadcast, the data become particularly interesting.

And audio itself does not sit alone in our world. How can we better understand how radio fits in with other pursuits – and, specifically, make meaningful cross-media comparisons on ad consumption? Given one of the reasons for the enviable level of detail in RAJAR is that it serves as a trading currency, how can we better illustrate its power and engagement in the broader media world?

Will radio always be bought and sold in the same way? Will we need the depth of RAJAR data we now assemble - or will programming and commercial interests be addressed separately? Is there still merit in the BBC and commercial radio continuing to research together?

What of electronic devices for audience measurement? Audio measurement meters (PPM) are used in the largest US markets. Panellists carry their meters around during the day and record the audio they listen to. For meters, read watches or phones or Fit-bit type devices. The RAJAR contractor Ipsos already has MediaCell, the ‘opt-in’ app which measures what consumers are exposed to, whether radio, TV viewing, cinema, or anything that contains audio.

Just like every method, though, electronic devices have their issues. Phones go flat (which they would more quickly with a listening app running) and we leave them in a cab and lose them. Or they are in a different room or turned off when we wake. That’s not to say this approach does not have immediate merit, certainly for ancillary and maybe hybrid studies. RAJAR has conducted its own experiments, as has GFK with its recent ‘super pilot’ in Australia and its plans to ‘harmonise' data sets from various sources. I cannot imagine a UK future where wearables did not become a key data source.

Do we still need to survey (almost) all year round? Some of us remember the days of designated shorter RAJAR periods – during which we all staged our major contests and were only allowed a day off if we were planning on dying. In the smaller markets in the US, Nielsen Audio conducts two 12-week surveys per year. Having said that, in the Top 50 radio metros in the US, there are monthly – and weekly reports. As a programmer, more frequent and timely data would be welcome, but how well does it play into airtime planning? There are issues of sample size to consider, of course, in designing any system which reports Radio 2 alongside Radio Norwich.

The challenges are many. Let’s give the RAJAR Board - each member with their understandably differing perspectives across the BBC, commercial and advertising fraternities - a healthy opportunity to consider the issues in the short and longer term. I have confidence in their ability to reach sensible conclusions on the basis of the findings from the research contractor - implemented in a measured way. Let’s hope we can have as much confidence in the commonsense of ad buyers and the scribblings of media journalists as we all adjust step-by-step.

Whatever changes this year - it will not be for the last time.

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