The rather quaint "pen and paper" Rajar diary system for radio audience measurement is no stranger to controversy. A few years back, the former talkSPORT chief executive Kelvin MacKenzie was so incensed by what he termed the "Luddites of Rajar" that he launched a doomed 2004 High Court challenge to the system.
Yet, true to form, last week's Rajars prompted great debate over the future direction of at least one commercial station. This time, the focus was on Absolute, the station once known as Virgin Radio, which was rebranded by new owners last summer. The Rajars showed the station lost 461,000 listeners, a fifth of its audience, in the last three months of 2008 (it now has 1.89 million listeners, according to Rajar).
Clive Dickens, Absolute's chief operating officer, believes a big factor in the fall was listener misattribution in the Rajar diaries. He argues that the system is not favourable to rebrands.
Alongside Absolute Radio's name on the Rajar diary cards given to the 130,000 people who recorded their listening habits, the words "was Virgin Radio" appeared in parenthesis. Dickens believes this was not enough clarification for a confused audience who still think they're tuning into Virgin.
He says: "The brand prompt has a disproportionate impact on whether they choose the card. The listeners we've lost are people outside London listening to AM across the day who still think it's called Virgin."
The way to fix it, he believes, is for Absolute to work closely with Rajar, simplify the Rajar card and allow the Virgin name to appear more prominently, and to keep investing in brand awareness. With hindsight, he admits, he would have liked to run an off-air marketing campaign in the three months before the rebrand to raise awareness of the new name.
But Dickens argues that the commercial impact of the reduced Rajar listening figures is not a problem for the station, because Absolute had foreseen it and factored it into its business plan. He is also confident the station will hit its audience target of 3.5 million by the end of 2010/beginning of 2011. Absolute's research data shows that the methodology of the Rajars is lagging behind the actual performance of the station. Dickens says: "From our perspective, we know we haven't lost listeners; what we have lost is reported listening."
Not everyone is convinced, though. Howard Bareham, the head of radio at Mindshare, questions just how much of the fall in listeners was due to confusion. "I'm not sure anyone was expecting that loss. What proportion of the 461,000 made a mistake or turned away? With any station name changes, you have to give these things 12 months to settle, but I don't think anyone was expecting that level of decrease in reach."
But Matt Landeman, the head of radio at Carat, believes the Rajars aren't the full story. "There's a blurring between what the Rajars say and the reality," he says. "Absolute needs to sort out the issues with the Rajars. It had the Virgin name for 15 years and that's one of the biggest brands out there. I regard it as a new business and it's tough for any new business starting out. But it's got a good base, because, in my view, it's got the product right."
Malcolm Cox, a partner at Naked Lunch Communications and a former marketing director at Emap Radio who oversaw Melody's transformation to become Magic, believes Absolute's handling of the rebrand resulted in the loss of Virgin listeners: "The rebrand took place over a very short period of time. If you haven't made the old listeners transfer, it just gives them an opportunity to switch over."
But Brian Jenkins, the head of radio at COI, says that, despite the results, the station is still a significant player: "If a station offers the right profile, we will look very seriously at it. So we expect to carry on looking at Absolute seriously. I personally like the station and I am quite surprised by the figures."
MAYBE - Howard Bareham, head of radio, Mindshare
"History shows it takes a long time to influence the Rajars, but once you've lost people, it takes a long time to get them back, if you can get them back. I don't think you can put a 23 per cent drop down to a mistake."
YES - Matt Landeman, head of radio, Carat
"Everyone trades on the Rajar book, so this will be a problem for them commercially. But I'm not convinced 23 per cent of people have left and all the qualitative bespoke research they've done supports this."
MAYBE - Malcolm Cox, partner, Naked Lunch Communications
"The initial results aren't great. They've certainly lost listeners, but have they gained any new listeners? If I was them, the first conversation I would like to have is with my old listeners, trying to get them back."
MAYBE - Brian Jenkins, head of radio, COI
"I would not read too much into one Rajar. It can be volatile at times. I certainly think that with last summer's name change, some listeners may not have realised what station they were listening to. It looks dramatic but time will tell whether it's true."
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