Arbitron's Hispanic Radio Today report showing that the country format's share of Hispanic listening in PPM is less than half of what it is in diaries shines a fresh spotlight on something pretty scary, even as the radio ratings giant touts its sample improvements in the latest monthly report to clients.
Country listeners have always been very cooperative in participating with the ARB sampling technique. They have always been very loyal to their favorite station and proud to write it down.
As a matter of fact, ARB actually used an analysis called "neural networks" back in the mid-1990’s when they first implemented the DiaryLink computer for client diary reviews in Columbia as a means of looking for common elements in comments written in the back of respondents' diaries that might provide a key as to why people send the books back and others do not.
Neural networks involve pattern recognition and search randomly through all the words people write in the books and count repetitive words or phrases. Based on all of the comments on thousands of diaries, here are the most commonly-used words written in ARB books during the summer of 1994, when they did the first neural networks study on 40,000 diaries which had just been computerized in full, for example:
1. I love Rush.
2. I hate Rush
3. Thank you for the dollar, I enjoyed participating in your survey and giving you my opinions.
4. I love country music.
5. I hate rock.
All of ARB's attempts since that time to get more diaries back from 18-34 and ethnic homes, which for many years have had the lowest response rates (even worse now, due to cell phone only households!), have really been directed at just the opposite kind of people than the ones who wrote those responses.
It is possible, as a result, that country listeners are returning just as many diaries as always and maybe even willingly carry meters too, but their impact on the sample may be much less in situations where young males and ethnic (Hispanic, Asian and African-American) homes are having a positive impact.
In short, I believe that the country format has a very 21st Century marketing problem that mirrors the reality of the new America.
If we want to continue to do as well in the coming decade as we have in the past, we are going to have to find a means of reaching and converting young males and minority families.
I hope that the Media Ratings Council continues to study the possibility of setting sample targets for the number of households as well as just the number of diaries/meters and establish geographic proportionality goals based on actual population figures. PPM's multiple weighting factors further act to distort realities in many cases.
The result would be more stable rating estimates.