MEDIA FORUM: Should radio change how it measures listeners? Whether to use electronic metering devices as the standard to measure radio listening habits is dividing industry opinion

The media research business has more than its fair share of eccentric characters - there are too many numbers and not enough fresh air down in the dark basements where researchers generally toil. You know the sort.

So, when you first hear about the wristwatch that records your radio listening habits, your first instinct is not so much that someone somewhere is pulling your leg but that yet another boffin has lost yet more marbles. This is surely Man From U.N.C.L.E or Mission Impossible territory. It's the sort of device that Q would give James Bond.

But it's true. A guy invented it, it's already in use in a couple of countries and is being tested in many more. There's even a rival US system.

Technical details, should you be so minded, are available on radiocontrol.ch for the wristwatch system and arbitron.com for the rival pager system.

Electronic metering could turn the radio industry upside down - and many people are hoping that it will. Because, even compared with the inexact science that passes for research in other media, radio audience research is still in the dark ages. The Rajar system relies on people filling out daily diaries in which they try to recall what they were listening to, broken down into 15-minute time segments across the day.

It is, however, the industry's accepted gold standard - and although almost everyone concedes that electronic metering is inevitable at some stage, there doesn't appear to be any great urgency in the radio industry to push it forward. All of which is extremely frustrating for Kelvin MacKenzie, the chief executive of the Wireless Group, who is throwing his weight behind adoption of the Radiocontrol system. He says that data from ongoing trials of the wristwatch system prove what he already suspected - that Rajar is an extremely dubious currency and is especially unfair on events-based stations, such as his own talkSPORT.

A couple of years ago, talkSPORT conducted an NOP poll into its exclusive Test Cricket coverage. Plenty of people said they'd listened, but 75 per cent said it aired on Radio 4 or Radio 5. This illustrates (especially in the context of diary research) how reliable people's memories are. But even worse was the fact that no increase in listening was registered on Rajar.

MacKenzie is angered by what he sees as the complacency of the radio establishment. "Rajar is the creature of the commercial majors and the BBC,

he states. "It is a false form of currency. TV has had Peoplemeters for more than a decade and they are continually making them more sophisticated but when you talk about that in radio they throw their hands up. Why?

"I now know I am being robbed of money. My employees are being robbed. My shareholders are being robbed. The reason that the big commercial stations want to slow this down is that they have revenue coming to them that they are not entitled to."

Justin Sampson, the managing director of the Radio Advertising Bureau, points out that Rajar is already committed to investigating electronic meters for radio - but it must be done in an orderly manner.

"Rajar has agreed to look at both (Arbitron and Radiocontrol) because both are potentially viable. And Rajar must go through a transparent investigation process and we are right behind that. It needs a process of due diligence."

No-one wants to make the sorts of mistakes that lead to such chaos every time a new Barb panel is introduced in the TV market. And the costs would have to make sense too, Sampson insists.

Guy Phillipson, the advertising manager of Vodafone and the chairman of the radio action group of ISBA, tends to agrees. "There are dangers that we must be aware of as we move forward,

he says. "I think we need test data that's a lot more robust before we can be sure about taking it to the next stage. Of course it's important to show that people do tune into sports and special events and they don't just tune in to music stations for whole chunks of the day. But the diary system is a huge survey and we need to find a sensible way to move toward Peoplemeters with as few snags as possible. Whether that's possible hasn't been proved to me yet. You'd have to find some way of having the two systems running in parallel. You can't just do it overnight. We're probably talking at least two years away. And then there is the cost. It could be at least double what the current Rajar survey costs."

Jonathan Gillespie, the head of radio at OMD, also has sympathy for the situation that talkSPORT finds itself in."Big box office spectaculars, such as Tyson versus Lewis, will still be reported as broadcasting to insomniacs, night porters and security guards when we know that there will be a substantial uplift in audience,

he admits.

But Gillespie is sceptical about whether new systems are ready to replace what we already have. He comments: "I don't think we can blame Kelvin for forcing the pace, but we do need to remain sober to all eventualities. This level of change needs to be got right, not necessarily got right now."

Phil Riley, the chief executive of Chrysalis Radio, believes that MacKenzie has made a tactical error in committing himself so early on - and so firmly - to just one of the two systems in development. He adds: "He is too hasty in trying to consign one of the two systems available to the dustbin.

We have to test both systems robustly so that everyone - from the biggest national station to the smallest local station - is happy with it.

"Kelvin wants to bypass all of that and the tests that he has done so far prove absolutely nothing. He will only undermine the existing system, which has evolved over ten years. What people are saying is that this should be done in a proper manner. It needs to be examined properly. If that means it doesn't happen quickly enough for Kelvin, then that's his problem."

So shouldn't MacKenzie be more patient? Surely he doesn't expect the radio industry to destabilise a whole trading currency for the sake of one media owner? He argues that, on the contrary, a new audience measurement system would be great news for the industry - helping it to take a greater share of display ad revenue, enabling it to hit its 10 per cent target sooner rather than later. Indeed, he is considering selling talkSPORT against a combination of Rajar and electronic data within the next couple of months or so. He concludes: "Why should I be patient? This is about people's jobs. They are not patient and I don't blame them. The truth is that there is going to be a change and it is going to be a change for the better."