How an air-conditioning mechanic in Sydney Australia became an award winning broadcaster in Britain; Part 164.


Lies, damn lies and radio ratings.

Apart from revenue figures, the most important numbers in radio are the ratings. In the past I’ve been bonused on good ratings and I know people who’ve been fired because of poor ratings.

Only the radio stations take ratings seriously. Everyone else, including the company that collects the numbers, don’t. You’ll realise this if you ever see a ratings “diary”. A sample group of people are selected in every radio market and asked to fill in a diary of their radio listening for a week. The word diary conjures up an image of a hard backed book you might get at WH Smith, but the truth is a ratings diary looks more like the pamphlet they give you at a school fete.

Radio stations present ratings numbers as “facts” but Rajar, the people who publish the survey don’t. At the top of every report, you’ll see the word “estimate”. The dictionary definition of “estimate” is “roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, or extent of”. Yes, ROUGHLY! And it is a rough figure for a lot of reasons. First of all, only a tiny fraction of the population is asked what they’ve been listening to. Based on this little bit of information, the rest of the numbers are, well, made up! I’m not joking. When the sample size is too small to cover all of the demographics, the numbers are “weighted”, that means THEY MAKE THE NUMBERS UP OUT OF THIN AIR!

The people who fill in the “diaries” in the UK don’t get paid. Instead, they’re entered into a prize draw. That means there’s no incentive to do a proper job. To them, this flimsy, seven page booklet is just something they have to fill in to enter a competition. It’s like the bingo cards you used to get with tabloid newspapers. There’s a page for each day, which is divided up into fifteen minute segments. You put a tick in a box in the column under the radio station you listened to in that fifteen minutes. Does anyone actually tick the exact fifteen minute segments for every day? According to the figures, more radio listening is done on a Monday than any other day of the week. Could that be because Monday is on the first page you have to fill in? Maybe Monday is the only day that gets filled in properly or even at all.

And that’s only part of the problem. It’s not who listens to you that you get credit for, it’s who people REPORT they listen to. In the UK that doesn’t work because people can get snobby. How many people would admit to shopping at Aldi or Lidl if you asked them? I’ve met people who’ve told me they listen to “Radio 4” in the morning but when I ask them to name any of the presenters on the Today Programme they can’t. I’ve met people who say they NEVER listen to the station I work for, then tell me all about features on my show they don’t like. What station will they put a tick next to in the diary?

People who want to seem “hip”, SAY they listen to Radio 1, even if the don’t. People who remember the edgy Chris Evans on Radio 1 in the 90s, say they listen to him on Radio 2, not realising that is not what he sounds like now because they don’t actually listen to him any more.

The people who go door to door encouraging people to take diaries can’t be trusted either. A radio presenter I know had a knock at the door from a lady handing out Rajar diaries. His wife answered the door and explained to the diary lady that she couldn’t take one because her husband works on the radio. That’s when the diary lady leaned in and whispered, “Well don’t tell him!” and handed her the diary.

Diary collectors are mostly women and retired people. They won’t walk alone into some of the areas of town that are perceived as rough because they don’t feel safe. Those areas almost never get diaries. This favours stations aimed at middle class audiences and could explain why Radio 4 out-rates 5 Live or TalkSport by so much.

Radio ratings are compiled based on postcodes which alternate every quarter. How does measuring listener numbers using static post codes make any sense for a medium that is personal and portable? A retirement home can have it’s own post code. All of the people there will be representing a part of a radio market if that post code comes up. If your station doesn’t target people in retirement homes, you don’t stand a chance (until the numbers are “weighted”).

At one station I worked at, we used the way ratings are calculated to “cheat”. We noticed a pattern in the post code placement of diaries and became quite accurate at predicting which postcodes would get diaries in each survey. We made sure winners of our competitions came from those postcodes only. Instead of posting out prizes, we delivered them in branded vehicles and did live crosses as they were given their prize. Seeing a branded radio station vehicle in their postcode caused curtains to twitch and radios to be switched on or re-tuned. On the air, you heard every winner win their prize twice. Once when they won the contest and again when their prize was delivered. We did outside broadcasts live from the postcodes that needed the biggest lifts. We took the Breakfast show on the road to these postcodes for four weeks every year (one week in every Rajar quarter), creating a buzz in these areas. It was at this radio station that the presenter’s wife got a diary so we made sure she filled in that diary tactically (I know of at least three other radio stations that have ended up with diarys and have done this).

As the first page of every diary is “Monday”, we figured that was probably the only day that was filled in close to accurately. Our guess was that just before the diary was collected, they’d just copy Monday and quickly fill in every other day the same. With this in mind, we changed how we did on-air contests. Instead of a small prize every morning starting on Monday and a big prize on the Friday. We gave out a small prize Tuesday to Friday and the BIG prize the following Monday. We heavily promoted this right across the weekend.

And the numbers went up!

Craic on!

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If you enjoyed this Craic, please click “like” and tweet a link. If you’d like to talk to me about it, call me on +44 1438 422106 between 6 and 9 weekday mornings (UK time) on BOB fm.


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