It is time for a new way of measuring radio listenership

Professional media bruiser Kelvin MacKenzie is a man who likes a battle. His editorial career hit its zenith in the first Gulf War. Now in the less combative backwaters of radio, MacKenzie clearly still hankers for the taste of blood on lip. And he has a new war to wage, writes Claire Beale.

For most of this year, MacKenzie has been thumping tables in disgust at the way radio audiences are measured. Last week, jackets were off for the kill, with MacKenzie threatening an imminent lawsuit against the dustily conservative Rajar.

The idea of the fearsomely determined, brutally crude MacKenzie -- an icon, still, of modern media -- squaring up to the wily but fragrant and rather invisible Jane O'Hara, Rajar's managing director, is delightful not least because both seem to have a pretty strong case.

MacKenzie's bloodlust oozes from frustration at the diary-based system of radio audience measurement. He argues it doesn't adequately measure listening to one-off sporting events, the backbone of his talkSPORT station's programming.

So MacKenzie wants an electronic system that automatically records radio listening, bypassing listeners' potentially patchy memories. He's tried it using bespoke research, and claims Rajar is under-reporting talkSPORT's audience by more than five million.

Rajar, however, has tested a couple of the electronic systems on the market and found them wanting, though why remains a mystery.

Of course, all this fist-baring is a nifty PR stunt for MacKenzie and talkSPORT. So what if he's been portrayed as a madman with an inflated sense of righteousness? He's built his career on this overblown caricature.

But he couldn't really have picked a worse time to challenge conventions. The career-trashing debacle over the introduction of the new Barb TV measurement system is still raw; if Rajar has learnt any lessons from that farce, it will progress with extreme caution.

Nevertheless, does anyone really doubt that electronic measurement is the goal? It's absolutely inevitable. The current system works well enough for most, but it increasingly looks old fashioned, inflexible and slow. The technology exists to move into the 21st century but if Rajar is insistent on waiting until that technology is infallible, then it's in danger of holding back the entire medium.

This should be a period of energetic research and testing, not only with the measurement of radio audiences but also how those measurement techniques might dovetail with other media. The excellent Radio Advertising Bureau is tracking technical developments but the RAB's enthusiasm does not seem to have universally infected the rest of the industry. At this crucial stage in its history, radio cannot afford to slacken its pace.

Finally, next week, the media editor, Ian Darby, takes on this column. I'll be in Dominic Mills' old shoes writing about where media meets creative: the ad campaign.

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