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PPM Transforms Radio’s ‘Clock’

For programmers, Monday is the most critical day; and the entire hour is important

COLUMBIA, Md. — It’s a new world for radio programmers, thanks to the PPM.

Consultants and PDs chasing rating success say new rules of thumb apply, thanks to Arbitron’s Portable People Meter. But they also conclude that the process of learning the subtleties of the electronic audience measurement service is an evolutionary one.

PPM, which was launched in 2007, has replaced Arbitron’s paper diary methodology in 43 of the top 50 rated markets. Scheduled for “currency” in December are Greensboro, N.C.; Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, Fla.; Hartford, Conn.; and Memphis, Tenn. With the additional five markets, this completes the current planned PPM rollout.

Photo Courtesy Arbitron Despite some early stumbles, PPM has gained the respect of broadcasters and, more important, the radio advertising community, observers say. It now is firmly entrenched as the next-generation radio measurement service.

Arbitron’s PPM technology encodes broadcasts with inaudible signals that are detected by software, which can be downloaded into a cell phone or a meter worn by research participants.

Early PPM beefs of programmers ranged from small sample panels to under-representation in samples of minority populations. Arbitron has said sample sizes are on track to increase approximately 10 percent in 2011; and the company has made changes to its recruitment methodology to address concerns expressed by groups including the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.

Some programmers also have complained about PPM “wobbles,” seemingly random rating swings, according to Harker Research. It found that “flipping a coin is directionally more predictive than looking at monthly PPM trends.”

Arbitron has said it will address worries over these perceived wobbles by shortening the amount of time panelists carry a meter in some cases to smooth turnover.

As Radio World has reported, Arbitron also intends to roll out an updated meter, dubbed PPM360, in the field in 2011. Currently, panelists must dock their PPM each night at home and transmit the data back to Arbitron over a land line; the new wireless units don’t need to be docked, and no landline is needed to transmit data to Columbia, Md.


Accurately interpreting the nuances of PPM is crucial to a radio station’s ability to maximize ratings and revenue, according to experts. Radio World asked a half-dozen radio programming consultants whether any universal programming tactics work for PPM and what new challenges it has presented.

Cume — the number of different people tuning to a station — goes up for many stations using the PPM methodology, because the meter is passive; it does a better job of capturing media exposure than the diary system, which relies on human memory, several experts agreed.

And just as PPM reveals that people listen to more stations per week than previously thought, it also shows that people spend less time with each station, which is why two other statistics, time spent listening and average quarter hour, tend to be lower using PPM. As a result, programmers now work to get their listeners to come back for more visits, rather than emphasize longer visits for each occasion.

“I think most of us are generally satisfied with PPM, but it is a work in progress,” said Jeff Johnson, senior vice president for Alan Burns Consulting.

“Obviously cume is much higher (with PPM), and stations that typically have a higher cume are doing better than those who do not. It’s not important as much how long a person listens, but how often a person listens.

“Recall awareness is still a vital component of success,” he continued. “Certainly some of the things that actually worked in the past still work now. However, more than ever, stations are being punished severely for unnecessary or unentertaining content, so streamlining your station is key.”

As evidence of that, the experts point to a recent decision by American Comedy Networks to offer streamlined and shorter bits geared specifically for morning shows in PPM markets. Other program suppliers have begun customizing content especially for the PPM world, too, several of the program consultants said.

“In a world that has speeded up from sound bites and tweets, attention spans are short and PPM picks up on that. Programmers and talent are confronted with the challenge to get to the point as quickly as possible,” said Alex Demers, president of Demers Programming Media Consultants.

Programmers are employing tactics that play to the strengths and limitations of whatever research is being used, said Demers, who specializes in rock formats.

“Stop-set placement has been altered dramatically, and there is an increased emphasis on significant commercial-free music segments.

“However, PPM does not erode a stations reliance on its core P1 listeners. Therefore, brand building, consistency of execution and effective external marketing all remain important elements,” Demers said.

One talk radio consultant senses PPM paranoia among FM music stations that they should “just clam up and play the music,” and that, he says, plays directly into talkers’ hands.

“The most successful music stations continue to be those who distinguish themselves by bonding with listeners with what is between the songs,” said Holland Cooke, president of Holland Cooke Media. “And (talk) stations and hosts who quickly recognize what is relevant, quickly set the topics and avoid windy monologues, will do well with PPM.”

Cooke said it’s hard to pick formats that have been winners and losers with PPM, but that the system is demonstrating that execution of any format is really what matters, Cooke said.

Radio has to remember that people listen exactly as they always have, said another consultant.

“(We) are the ones learning a new language. It’s really about real usage now,” said Jaye Albright, consulting partner with Albright & O’Malley Country Consulting/Radio IQ.

“Having a solid brand is more important than ever — big brands. That really hasn’t changed. However, consistent execution on a minute-by-minute basis every single quarter hour is crucial.”

No-talk segues

Albright said a winning PPM formula no longer includes getting someone to listen on Thursday morning at 7:20 a.m. in the hopes of winning thousands of dollars.

“Instead, you must increase the number of occasions that person listens. Today you have to try and get them to listen every day, three or four times a day. You can do it with cash and prizes, but it is much more efficient to do it with content.”

Chris Elliott, president of Chris Elliott Consulting, said, “No-talk segues between songs have increased because PPM measures all radio that people are exposed to, compared to the diary’s recalled listening. There also has been an increase of specific time ‘appointments’ as programmers attempt to simplify appointment tune-in for interviews, features and contests. Moreover, those elements can now be analyzed with more precision in PPM.”

Truth is, there is a lot more beneficial information to decipher from PPM, Elliott said.

Arbitron is testing its new meter, PPM360, and hopes to roll it out in 2011. Photo Courtesy Arbitron “For instance, it was surprising to learn that Monday is a much more important day of the week than we have thought, whereas the diaries had Thursday as the biggest listening day of the week,” Elliott said.

“And listening occurs evenly throughout the hour. Diaries had implied the first quarter-hour was dominant, so therefore programmers would load up their best songs and promos in the first 15 minutes of each hour.”

Cume is up and TSL is down, the consultants said; classic hits, CHR, country and AC formats have seen nice bumps from PPM, while urban and talk formats have suffered with lower shares.

“Cume has often doubled compared to what was detected in the diaries. Time spent listening has become ‘average time exposed,’ and we are seeing that listeners listen in short bursts, evidently asking the question, ‘What have you done for me lately?’” said Charlie Cook, vice president of country programming for McVay Media.

PPM distribution concerns continue for Cook and other programmers.

“Arbitron is still finding their way to a good distribution of meters across age, ethnic and geographic areas. I think Arbitron has had a hard time enticing all demos to carry the meters,” Cook added.

Distribution of meters was at the heart of the dispute between Arbitron and the PPM Coalition, which formed in 2008 to address concerns of minority broadcasters over lowered listening levels of their stations with PPM measurements.

The enhancements agreed to by Arbitron earlier this year, negotiated with the help of House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns, included promises from Arbitron to include address-based sampling with targeted in-person recruiting to increase PPM panelist participation in key markets.

Arbitron has begun targeted in-person recruiting for PPM panelists in high-density black and Hispanic areas, including Dade County, Fla., Miami, Dallas and the New York boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx. In-person recruitment helps target population segments that are more likely to be reached by cell phone only, according to the company.

By the end of 2010, in-person recruiting is expected to be in place in high-density black and Hispanic areas for the approximately top 25 PPM markets.