Consultant Randy Kabrich is one of radio’s industry’s sharpest minds, and a guy with whom I had the opportunity to work on a few market research projects in the ’90s, back in the glory days when radio broadcasters actually spent money on such items as market research, ad campaigns, and consultants.
(Remember when you could drive down a freeway in a major city and see competing billboard campaigns for radio stations? Or watch TV and sometimes see commercials for two different radio stations in a single spot break? Those were the days! As a result, radio was at its peak in terms of audience size (in terms of hours of listening per consumer per week).)
In the news today, Kabrich is getting press for a provocative and well-researched blog piece he’s written regarding the Voltair controversy titled “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” (Read his original blog piece here.)
(Just in case you’re not following news of the broadcast radio industry: Radio ratings produced by Nielsen Audio (formerly Arbitron) in the 48 largest U.S. markets are produced using virtually inaudible tones in a radio station’s audio that are picked up by “Personal People Meters” (PPMs) — pager-size devices carried by a couple of thousand randomly selected respondents. Voltair is an audio processing unit (which sells for about $15,000) that claims to increase the audibility of those tones to the PPMs, purportedly resulting in ratings increases.)
In Kabrich’s blog piece, he looks at the P25-54 AQH ratings of all 1,239 FM stations (957 of which Kabrich defines as “competitive”) in all 48 PPM markets — a smart, impressive piece of research — and looks at whether in the past year, since clients have begun using Voltair, those stations’ audience sizes, on the whole, changed.
He uses, correctly, “AQH rating” as the statistic he looks at, because “AQH persons” can go up when the population goes up, “cume persons” can go up and yet stations can have no meaningful increase in listenership, and “AQH share” always by its definition adds up to 100.0 (and thus would never change even if usage of the medium grew or declined).
What Kabrich finds is that the AQH rating of the stations involved averaged, nationally, a .2% increase — in other words, he says “statistically flat.” Thus, with over 600 Voltair units sold in the U.S., he concludes that the Voltairs have no measurable overall positive effect on audience size, and cannot have the ~10% positive impact that its promonents [sic proponents] claim.
It’s a very compelling argument — except for one thing.
What I believe this analysis is forgetting is that radio’s AQH rating has been declining every year for the past couple of decades — at about 1% per year during the ‘90s and ‘00s, and with the decline increasing to about 5% per year, I believe, in this decade. (The exact percentage is hard to know; Arbitron used to publish quarterly numbers on their website that allowed one to track this statistic, but they quit publishing those numbers several years ago.)
If AM/FM radio has indeed been on a trend of 5% per year declines lately — this trend due primarily to existing data seems to suggest, to consumers transitioning to other forms of radio like satellite radio, Internet radio, and podcasts — and if in the year of Voltair there was no decline, that suggests that Voltair devices may in fact have had a 5% positive effect on AQH ratings!