MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON RAJAR - MacKenzie still unconvinced by Rajar's diary methodology

Kelvin MacKenzie won't be persuaded that Rajar may be right, Alasdair Reid says.

Does anyone out there have any sympathy for poor old Kelvin MacKenzie?

Hang on. That doesn't sound right. MacKenzie, who famously equates any form of sentiment with congenital feebleness, seeks neither friendship nor favour from his colleagues in the media industry and, if past performance is anything to go by, he's certainly not in the market for sympathy, from whatever source.

He's certainly never sought to charm the radio industry since joining it as the boss of talkSPORT and has actually made clear his utter contempt for sections of the business. He seems, by instinct, to be a lone crusader or a prophet in the wilderness, fired by the sure and certain belief that the justice of his cause is unaffected by his Mr Angry image and his semi-detached status.

MacKenzie is probably right in this assumption - but perhaps not in the way he thinks. Because last week, the crusade suffered another set-back with the news that following field trials of two competing electronic systems (the Arbitron Portable People Meter and the Radiocontrol wristwatch device), Rajar, the radio audience measurement body, has decided that it will not seek to introduce electronic metering in the immediate future.

The response from MacKenzie was typically intemperate, threatening to sue Rajar and hinting at the existence of cabals conspiring against him. This "disgraceful decision" had been made, he asserted, by "vested interests behind closed doors". "These charlatans," he added, "are costing my business a fortune."

MacKenzie's case for the urgent introduction of electronic metering rests on the fact that Rajar's diary methodology (listeners on the panel have to record what they've been listening to and for how long) doesn't adequately reflect the true size of audiences for one-off live sporting events. And, of course, live sporting events have (or had) pride of place in the station's programme strategy. Rajar gives talkSPORT audience levels of around 2.2 million. Whereas, MacKenzie claims, the true figure is around eight million.

He's conducted his own tests with the Radiocontrol system and is convinced of the robustness of the data produced.

It seems cruel, doesn't it, that talkSPORT's success in attracting audiences will continue to go unrewarded? Well, perhaps. The rest of the industry takes MacKenzie's eight million figure with a pinch of salt - and is actually becoming less reluctant to say so in public.

And, unfortunately for MacKenzie, few in the industry seem to share his annoyance that Rajar rejected the electronic systems. Jane O'Hara, Rajar's managing director, points out that the issue wasn't ducked. Far from it.

"Changing methodology is a big step and until we are completely happy with a new methodology, we can't rush things. We have a duty of care to the radio industry. But, please, I want to emphasise that we're not saying never," she says.

The radio industry is completely satisfied that both electronic systems were given every chance to prove themselves. The problem was that when people on the test panel were being monitored by all three systems simultaneously, three wildly different and totally incompatible results were produced.

Jonathan Gillespie, the head of radio at OMD, agrees that Rajar tends to flatten out the impact of event-led programming, such as live sports commentaries. But he states: "That's just the way it works when you have diaries collected on a three-monthly basis. It's inevitable that as technology moves on we will be better able to measure audiences more accurately. But we've seen the problems that can occur when you change methodologies."

He's alluding to the chaos after the new Barb television audience measurement panel came onstream in January 2002; and the similar chaos there was when Rajar replaced the previous system, Jicrar, in 1995.

Many in the industry are impatient with MacKenzie's apparent inability to come to terms with the realities of the radio industry - and they argue that his approach is damaging his business in both the long and the short term. As one critic puts it: "Premium sports content is desirable to advertisers and you only have to look to Radio Five Live to see how it can be used to build audiences in the long term. But talkSPORT hasn't used it consistently to build its audience base. And you can argue that in focusing on the crude one-off audience issues, it has failed to pursue better ways to monetise its assets through sponsorship and promotions."

Mark Helm, the head of radio at MediaVest, would agree with some of that.

"To be honest, I'm bored with Kelvin MacKenzie," he says. "I'm bored with his bleating. I've actually got more faith in Rajar than I've ever had. They've done some very serious testing of these electronic alternatives and I don't want the market trading off a system that lacks integrity. Rajar has a pretty solid methodology and radio already spends more than any other media (pro rata to revenues) on research. Setting up an electronic meter panel to measure every single station in the UK properly would be a truly massive project. Let's not lose sight of the fact that we're just a 6 per cent (radio's share of total UK display revenues) medium."

And Helm adds: "If Kelvin MacKenzie is so confident of the validity of his (Radiocontrol) system, why doesn't he just go ahead and trade off it? The thing is, he doesn't - he's still a member of Rajar. If he truly believes in the value of the product he has, then it's up to him to sell it. But I don't think it's the industry's problem. Radio research will move forward in the future, maybe, hopefully, in partnership with TV research.

What we don't need, though, is people knocking the current system. I don't think Kelvin MacKenzie's attitude is particularly helpful to anyone, to be honest."