Roger Lanctot: Taking the Measure of Car Radio Listening

Roger Lanctot is Associate Director of Strategy Analytics, and a thought leader in the connected-car space. He is an influential voice in the field of automotive infotainment systems, and safety, in cars of the present and future. This guest article was originally posted at Strategy Analytics

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“When the parking lot is full,” Ron said, “I know the campaign is working.” – Ron Mervis of Mervis Diamond Importers quoted in Barry Drake’s “40 Years 40,000 Sales Calls”

Measuring radio listening is a dark art dominated by a single organization in the U.S., Nielsen, which acquired Arbitron in 2013. As the sole practitioner of this dark art Nielsen is accorded equal portions of respect and suspicion. This is especially so in a radio world increasingly complicated by the emergence of Internet radio, HD Radio and SiriusXM radio.

In the quote above, Ron Mervis was talking about measuring the effectiveness of an advertising campaign. But the first step in measuring effectiveness is determining whether anyone heard the ad.

Fox News Anchor and radio personality Sean Hannity highlighted this issue last year when he complained that Nielsen understated the size of his audience because it failed to take into account his Internet listeners and his SiriusXM fans.

Nielsen is dependent upon its 62,675 so-called “people meters” to measure listening across 48 major metropolitan areas in the U.S. The goal of the system is to establish reliable measures of:

  • AQH Persons – Average # of persons listening to a particular station for at least 5 minutes during a 15 minute period.
  • AQH Rating – AQH estimate expressed as a percentage of the population being measured.
  • Cume Persons – The total number of different persons who tune in to a radio station during the course of a daypart for at least five minutes.
  • Cume PUR – Cume Persons expressed as a percentage of all persons estimated to be in the specified demographic group listening to a particular radio station or format.
  • Differential Survey Treatment – Weighting process to account for Black or Hispanic respondents in metro areas with significant Black or Hispanic population.
  • Format Share – Percentage of those listening to radio in the metro area who are listening to a particular radio station or format.
  • Time Spent Listening – An estimate of the amount of time the average listener spent with a station or total radio during a particular day part.

As an added note, Arbitron normally disclaimed its radio listening findings thusly: “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron (now Nielsen) and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.”

In spite of that disclaimer, Nielsen’s ratings are the law of the land for audience measurement which is the basis for setting advertising rates. But the radio industry has a major black hole smack in the middle of its listener data measurement – listening in the car.

No company, not even Nielsen, knows what people are listening to in their cars. That wouldn’t be such a problem if radio listening in cars were some sort of marginal or incremental listening activity. (Nielsen can distinguish between radio listening at home and away from home, but cannot segregate in-car listening within that away-from home listening in its PPM data. Separately, in smaller markets, Nielsen does capture in-car listening in its diary data gathering.)

The reality is that nearly every researcher looking at the space estimates that 50% of radio listening is occurring in cars. That’s a lot of media and content consumption that’s taking place beyond the reach of Nielsen or any other researcher.

This analytical blind spot is contributing to a groundswell of speculative studies like one published by MacQuarie Capital last week suggesting that the car radio was hitting the skids: “More streaming, SiriusXM may mean the demise of car radios” – –

Industry observers say that regular broadcast radio listening overall may be seeing an annual decline of as much as 5%, but, again, no one knows what’s happening in cars, the venue where a massive portion of listening is believed to be taking place. It is especially curious that this information gap exists because the car is such a unique listening environment.

  • When we listen to radio in the car:
  • We are seatbelted in
  • We are engaged in a life-threatening activity
  • Our senses and attention are focused
  • We have heightened contextual awareness
  • We are probably on the way to conduct an economic transaction
  • An advertisement delivered to a driver via the radio very often represents the last opportunity to shape a potential purchasing decision whether it be for groceries, gasoline, clothing or a diamond. How is it possible that neither Nielsen nor any other research has found the means to measure this listening activity?

But it’s worse than that, because the reality is that the listening activity in the car is perfectly recorded and stored in the vehicle’s electronics system. The data is available and companies ranging from Agnik and Nebula Systems to Iosix and others are already prying that information out.

At the Mobile World Congress, for example, both Blackberry and Harman International were demonstrating how system integrators can peel back the data available on a car’s CAN bus to see precisely what radio stations and content drivers are tuned into. The only question that remains is whether Nielsen or some other company will be first to reveal precisely what consumers are listening to in their cars – in an appropriately structured and segmented manner.

It’s time for researchers to get behind the wheel and plumb the mysteries of in-vehicle listening. The only remaining question then will be whether car companies get into the advertising sales business. How about it, Ron? Sean?


Roger Lanctot