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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
Radio's diary woes
Nick Higham
With the radio industry awaiting its next set of listening figures on Thursday, the BBC's media correspondent Nick Higham looks at calls to update the system.

It used to be very simple. If the BBC wanted to know how many people were listening to its radio programmes, it stopped a few in the street and asked them what they'd been tuned in to the previous day.

It was cheap and it was straightforward to do the research and process the results.

But when commercial radio came along it needed something more sophisticated (and more accurate) to convince advertisers to spend money.

And so the "listening diary" was born: a booklet in which each radio station in a given area was given a column and people ticked which stations they'd been listening to each quarter of an hour through the day.

Since 1992 the diaries have been issued and the results analysed at the behest of a company jointly owned by the BBC and commercial stations, Rajar.

Complex survey

But time and technology have marched on, and Rajar fears its existing methods may soon be inadequate.

Rajar is already the biggest and most complex audience research survey in the world outside the USA.

Every week 2,500 different people must be tracked down and asked to fill in diaries - a total of 130,000 a year.

Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley
Mark and Lard: Recent Rajar winners for Radio 1
Audiences are measured for more than 260 radio stations, but since no two of them seem to have the same transmission areas information from the diaries has to be analysed for more than 600 separate listening areas.

Shortcomings

Not surprisingly perhaps, Rajar is also the most expensive audience survey in the world (at 4 million a year) compared to the size of the industry it serves. Even so it has its shortcomings.

Though it publishes data every quarter, the smallest stations only get audience figures once a year - and then based on sample sizes of only 300.

The system still can't produce proper listening figures for a particular programme on a particular day - only an average of the audience for the time slot over three months. And there's no way of telling whether someone listened to a particular station on FM, on digital or over the internet.

What's more the diary could soon be superseded by something even more accurate, an electronic meter.

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Unlike the "people meters" used to measure television viewing, however, these are not attached to a particular set but to the individual, worn like a wristwatch or a pager, because for most people radio listening happens in many different places and on many different radios during a day.

Swiss meters

The first country to measure with meters is Switzerland, where they started in January.

The wristwatch-style device records what its wearer hears, then sends the data back to a central computer overnight. the computer also records samples of all the local stations' transmissions to compare with the information sent back by the meter and work out which stations it overheard.

A rival US system works by recording a special inaudible code transmitted alongside stations' programmes.

One advantage is that the meter can distinguish between the same programme transmitted on different frequencies (FM, say, and digital), which is important for the operators of the fledgling digital multiplexes.

PM presenter Clare English
...as do those of flagship Radio 4 shows such as PM
But meters have their problems. How accurate will they be in practice? Can they distinguish between a radio programme and piped music in a shopping mall? Will people be happy to wear them? Will they remember to keep them charged?

And, above all, how much will they cost? Jane O'Hara, who runs Rajar, says introducing meters could increase the cost of the survey by as much as three times.

Trade-off

The radio industry clearly couldn't afford that, so in the end there will have to be a trade-off, and it may be the smaller stations which will suffer.

Perhaps some stations' audiences could be measured by meters, others by diaries.

Perhaps there could be several different surveys, each using a different methodology, under the Rajar umbrella.

Perhaps costs could be saved by reducing the numbers of people surveyed or by cutting those 600-plus areas to something more manageable - even if in larger survey areas small stations' audiences would inevitably show up as smaller percentages of the total population.

The industry is now planning trials of the meters. No major changes are likely for a while yet: the current contract to carry out the survey - with the research company Ispsos/RSL - runs out next year, but can be extended for a further two years.

But the one thing the radio industry will be desperate to avoid is anything which knocks confidence in the accuracy of its research, especially among advertising agencies.

A solid audience "currency" is vital for commercial radio.

Whatever else happens, a reformed Rajar must produce audience figures advertisers will believe in.

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