Drive-by ratings: Research firms listen in on drivers' radio habits

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Think your Howard Stern morning drive addiction is between you, your car stereo and your cup of coffee? Don't be so sure. Auto dealers, shopping centers and jewelry stores are eavesdropping on radio listening, thanks to a company called MobilTrak, which picks up more than 200,000 radio signal samples a day from 15 markets.

The technology hinges on the fact that car stereos not only receive signals but also emit them. MobilTrak's antennae pick up radio signals within a 120-foot range, allowing retail clients to see what stations drive-by and parking lot traffic are tuned to, and it is helping radio clients bring localized listening numbers to ad pitches.

"We're in business to help broker radio deals," says Mike Degan, director-operations for the Phoenix-based company, which counts Clear Channel and Infinity stations among its clients. Privacy advocates needn't worry, he says, because the technology doesn't identify the specific cars in which the signals originate and doesn't offer demographic information on its random samples, typically 5% to 10% of passing traffic. The specificity, he says, is in the geographic location. "When Arbitron comes out and says station A is No. 1 in the market, that station may be popular on the west side but not the east side, where your business is located," he says.

Navigauge, an Atlanta-based market and media intelligence service, claims it can go above and beyond that. What MobilTrak isn't allowed to do because of privacy concerns, Navigauge does, coupling a passive listening devise installed in its consenting panel members' cars with global positioning technology.

Navigauge can also measure a car's speed, the volume of the stereo, if a listener has popped in CD or cassette, satellite radio listening, and exposure to outdoor advertising, having geo-coded Clear Channel and Viacom billboards. Navigauge also publishes a monthly consumer behavior index, measuring everything from what product categories retain listeners through commercials-non-prescription remedies ranked highest, alcoholic beverages the lowest-to whether Grammy-nominated songs had better listener retention-they did, and Los Lonely Boys held 8% more listeners than Alicia Keys.


"We're truly into consumer behavior analysis," says Drew Simpson, senior VP-media, Navigauge, which launched last August in its home market and plans to expand to Houston this spring. "We wanted to measure not just AM and FM radio, but total media consumption." Amid criticism that a single market is not a wide enough reach to attract national radio and advertising clients, the company promises to be in five of the top 10 markets by year's end.

Although Clear Channel Radio isn't a Navigauge client, it gave the company a rash of free publicity when it touted a Navigauge study that corroborated its "Less Is More" ad program. But even Clear Channel CEO John Hogan cautioned against subscribing wholeheartedly to research coming from such a narrow slice of the national population. In another analyst call, Cox Radio CEO Robert Neil said Navigauge fell under the category of "interesting stuff" but dismissed its relevance because more than half of listening does not occur in cars.

But as the car becomes a media vehicle in its own right, measurement may become more important, predicts Brad Adgate, director-research, Horizon Media. "It's a little futuristic," he says. "But down the road cars are going to be mobile media centers as well-it's not too far fetched to expect there will be broadband in cars. And at that point, they'll be poised to measure that usage."

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