How damaging will the latest controversy over the Rajar figures be? Will
agencies attempt to use the new figures to screw rates down to the
floor? And will advertiser confidence in the medium be dented? Just what
steps can the radio industry take to try to restore confidence in it?
Alasdair Reid reports
In media research, the nightmare scenario is that you tweak a few things
here and there to make the figures more accurate and vast chunks of
audience suddenly disappear off the system. Ask anyone in the radio
industry - the worst has just happened there. In monthly figures
released last week, the first to come from the rejigged Rajar system,
listening appears to have dropped dramatically across the board
(Campaign, 8 December).
The system was modified because of the continuing proliferation of new
stations. The theory is that listening habits have been changing: people
are listening to more stations than before but are spending less time
with each one. But the research wasn’t really reflecting this adequately
- there were so many stations listed on the self-completion diary that
they had to be printed in a microscopic typeface that no-one could read.
A new diary format was devised to help reflect new listening patterns
and be fairer on stations whose listeners dipped in and out.
Not all observers believe that change was necessary - not at this stage,
at any rate. They believe that changes were forced through by under-
performing stations - and that those same stations still have a vested
interest in destabilising the system. They’ve already had a fair bit of
success in that direction and things could get worse if the BBC decides
that Rajar’s integrity has been damaged so badly that it has no option
but to pull out.
But just how bad is that damage? Has the credibility of the medium as a
whole been dented? Has the entire trading system been destabilised? Will
agencies and advertisers be alarmed at the new numbers? And what can
Rajar and the radio industry do to re-establish credibility?
Bill Kinlay, the media director of O&M Media, says that radio is playing
a dangerous game. ‘Rajar is by no means perfect, but it is better
thanits predecessor, Jicrar - it has a bigger sample size and has been
producing very robust figures. To discredit the whole thing is bad for
the industry,’ he argues.
Kinlay believes that the Rajar system is being attacked by a handful of
stations that have been disgruntled about the poor figures the system
has been giving them - but he warns that, in the end, this will produce
no winners. ‘No-one gains from a discredited system,’ he says. ‘It’s
wrong for Rajar to be changed to suit a few people who are unhappy. If a
group of stations comes out badly, they just have to take it. It’s
tough, but they can’t start trying to change the system in the hope that
it will start producing figures that will please them.
‘The real problem is greed. There was always bickering in the past, but
the industry managed to pull together and it began to reap the rewards.
But now that there’s more money around, the bickering may be coming to
the fore again. That’s the real problem the medium has to address.’
Corinne Purton, the head of campaign planning at one of the country’s
biggest users of radio, the Central Office of Information, certainly
isn’t prepared to panic. ‘Some people just love to make a drama even
when there isn’t a crisis,’ she says. She points out that the same
scaremongers were out in force when a change in the Barb television
audience research methodology produced similar discontinuities - and
they will probably re-emerge to rubbish the poster industry’s updated
Oscar research next year.
‘This is a storm in a teacup based on one month’s data,’ she adds.
‘Almost certainly any reported fluctuations in reach will be due to
changes in the very light listener group. I recognise that audience
research is essential for buyers and sellers, but what I’m interested in
as an advertiser is effectiveness. According to our own research, radio
is an extremely effective advertising medium if executed correctly. So
this current controversy is unlikely to turn the COI and its clients
away from radio - but we wouldn’t worry if it did because from our point
of view it would help to contain the medium’s demand-led inflation.’
Nigel Reeve, the sales director of Classic FM, agrees that panic is
totally unnecessary - but he does think that the new system should be
ditched. ‘Providing Rajar gets its act together quickly, there won’t be
any serious damage done,’ he states. ‘The new methodology has caused
falls right across the board - it’s not as if commercial listening has
suddenly fallen behind the BBC. So I don’t believe this will have much
effect on revenue.
‘It is true that the promiscuity of radio listening is increasing.
Unfortunately, the new methodology doesn’t capture listeners who tune
into a station for less than one hour - so it’s effectively a step
backwards. It will take some serious talking involving both sides of the
industry - the BBC and the commercial side - but I believe that we have
to go back to the old system until a workable new system is devised. The
sooner that happens the better.’
But David Fletcher, the head of radio at CIA Medianetwork, takes a more
sanguine view. ‘Until a few years ago, people thought of radio as an
immature and unprofessional medium,’ he points out. ‘Then it got its act
together and everyone got excited. This latest business is the ultimate
sign of that maturity - people always start fighting again.
‘The stations themselves are bound to take it all seriously - the thing
about media research is that its figures correlate directly to revenue.
And yes, agencies will be using this in negotiations. Some stations will
lose revenue and there will be short-term uncertainty. Round the
fringes, a few new radio advertisers might be put off.
‘But it isn’t as if there weren’t massive fluctuations on the old Rajar
figures. Other media have been through this sort of thing and have
survived. The worst thing that can happen is that everyone loses their
nerve and the whole research specification starts to unravel. I can’t
see that happening. In fact, I’ll bet that no-one will remember a thing
about all of this in a year’s time.’