Arbitron's Portable People Meter Under Scrutiny

At RAB: Panel Debates Whether New Measurement Will Help Bring More Money to Radio

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ATLANTA (AdAge.com) -- Arbitron's delayed rollout of its Portable People Meter metric system in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago has not scared off advertisers from placing more of their dollars in the medium, said Janice Finkel-Greene, Initiative's director-futures and technology. "It's important for the measurement ... but I don't believe it's going to stop anybody from putting money in radio or keep them away from it," she said.
Janice Finkel Greene
Janice Finkel Greene

During the panel, "PPM and Diary: Much Ado About Measurement," at the 2008 Radio Advertising Bureau Conference in Atlanta, Ms. Finkel-Greene and her two co-panelists spoke volumes about the lingering disconnect that remains between radio buyers, planners and programmers. Also appearing were Carol Hanley, senior VP-sales and U.S. media at Arbitron, and Blaise Howard, general manager of WBEB Radio in Philadelphia, the first market to receive PPM measurement last year.

Mixed reactions
Perhaps the most glaring example of that disconnect was the reaction to a panel poll question that asked, "What has the rollout delay done to PPM's credibility?"

"I believe it's hurting," Mr. Howard said.

"No difference," Ms. Finkel-Greene stated.

"Enhanced it immensely," Ms. Hanley retorted, to audience laughter.

Equally divisive were the responses about the importance of the PPM measurement to national advertisers. On a scale of 1 to 10, Mr. Howard ranked its importance a full 10, while Arbitron's Ms. Hanley rated it a 6.

"From the feedback that I've received," she said, "radio, as it relates to all the things that have in-depth information, needs to put all the pieces of the puzzle together."

Ms. Finkel-Greene, however, put the importance at a 3. "I don't know that it will keep money out of radio in its current state. All the improvements have been made and the tools are there. Just to put yet another metric on the table is not going to help anybody."

A blessing and a curse
Radio has traditionally been measured by asking a panel of listeners to keep a diary of radio programs they had heard. The PPM is an electronic audience measurement system that can track consumer exposure to any encoded broadcast signal. It can determine what consumers listen to on the radio; what they watch on broadcast, cable and satellite TV; what media they stream on the web; and what they hear in stores and entertainment venues. But so far, PPM panels have only been installed in a few markets while Arbitron works out some improvements.

For Mr. Howard, being one of the key stations in the first city to test out the PPM data has been both a blessing and a curse. "It's important that radio stations, for the amount of money we're going to be paying, that the tools to do our jobs and go to agencies with these things have got to work," he said. Mr. Howard still wasn't sure if everything was working at this point, a year after the initial rollout in Philadelphia. "To be honest, the software we have is really poor at best, in my humble opinion. And we're working with it, and we know Arbitron, hats off to them, are trying to get stuff done."

Program ratings up
Not that all the results have been negative thus far. Mr. Howard pointed to a dramatic increase in program ratings during the week of Christmas, when a variety of holiday programming lured a total of 3.5 million listeners to turn their dial to his station. "More people listened that week than watched the Super Bowl in Philadelphia," he noted. He had an indication the numbers might change that significantly during a beta test in 2002, but "we didn't know that the actual cumulative number was going to be that high."

Although the urgency for PPM measurement across the board remains with Mr. Howard, a lot of work and communication remains between the agencies and the programmers. "With New York rolling out in the fall, we have to have all that stuff done to make sure we have all this information. We need to show examples of how it works and think to pre-sell on this, of the wonderful capabilities that came out of this data. And I don't think we're there yet."
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