Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Are Radio's Research Tools Antiquated?

Sony/BMG Chairman Joe Galante worries that radio programmers' research tools are antiquated:

"Some things are researching tremendously but aren't scanning," Galante said. "You're losing an audience. People like vanilla, but they aren't passionate about it. The biggest problem with radio today is an over-reliance on research."

In a CMAFest week article in the Nashville Tennessean, writer Peter Cooper quoted Galante complaining "...because programmers test listeners' reaction to snippets of each single to see what songs might cause audience members to change the station (the ultimate horror of horrors for radio), and it turns out that many songs that "test well" are dunces at retail."

It's not hard to see why the label exec would recommend to radio that we shouldn't bother playing anything that doesn't "sell," and yet hopefully the faulty logic behind that from RADIO's perspective is not necessary to refute. After all, is there really any 'problem' with country radio at this time when the format just had its best first quarter audience shares in eight years?

So, it's very tempting to immediately dismiss Galante's point because it seems that 'the problem' he sees is that we're not playing all of the releases from his imprints that he wants us to. Yet, there is indeed no doubt that radio's time-tested ratings methodology which determines how much of what we have to vend can be sold at prices we want dates way back to an approach (diary measurement) going back almost 60 years (to December 17, 1947, when James Seiler, who at the time was Research Director of WRC Radio-TV in Washington invented the idea of sending viewing and later listening diaries to TV and, ultimately, radio users).

Now, we are in the process of moving radio research from perception and attitude to actual behavior, and no doubt the arrival of the PPM is going to change the way programmers make music decisions as radically as the arrival of Soundscan changed the music business.

Finally, we knew what the 'real' sales hits were. Many highly-promoted chart hits from the pre-Soundscan and monitored airplay days, we acknowledge, could probably not be hits today.

However, with radio, what we are learning from the latest research from Houston and Philadelphia on how listeners behave when new music comes on the radio, it must be noted that the findings of People Meter-based music usage data, our old tools - callout surveys, emerging online testing and of course auditorium music tests - do pretty darn well in their abilities to predict actual listener behavior.

This isn't going to make Joe Galante any happier, I fear, as radio moves to the latest cutting edge research approaches. I'll bet there will still be songs like "Holes In The Floor Of Heaven" and "That's What I Love About Sunday," to name just two huge research smashes which continue to test in many places, on the radio. Turntable hits, we used to call them, probably will never become antiquated -- as long as we ask radio listeners what they want to hear more, the songs they love, on their favorite radio station.

Sorry, Joe, but doing that is something else that isn't going out of date anytime soon.

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