Arbitron’s shaky take on satellite radio ratings

As I’ve noted before, Arbitron’s analysis of satellite radio ratings is hopelessly flawed due to methodological circumstances which make these estimates closer to fiction than an episode of Bionic Woman.

I do believe there’s some veracity in the proportions between the various channels, however. That is, the stuff that Arbitron shows as more popular is probably more popular in real life than the stuff they show as less popular. But do not under any circumstances believe these numbers beyond that.

For example, here’s what Inside Radio wrote:

Howard Stern then: 20 million listeners. Today: 1,225,100. That’s Stern’s weekly cume according to Arbitron’s first-ever report detailing listening to XM and Sirius. It shows his $500 million contract with Sirius buys the company an average 96,700 listeners in any given quarter hour.

Hold your horses.

While there is no question – nor has there ever been any question – that Stern’s audience is down dramatically from its radio prime, the audience is certainly larger than this in real life (and I assure you both XM and Sirius have data indicating this). And it would be premature to celebrate this outcome (and, as written, that is most definitely framed as a celebration).

That said, Sirius is and always has been making a terrible mistake by keeping Stern locked in the Karmazin Tower of London. All over the new media landscape those who own content are awakening to the notion that they cannot and should not erect barriers to that content, premium or otherwise. They are realizing the audience – and the advertisers – are their friends. In fact, if the content is “premium,” that premium should come from the advertisers, thanks to the audience. More on that later.

And this…

Satellite radio’s biggest ratings come from its most terrestrial-like stations. Whether listeners are simply used to a station that has a tight playlist or people really do just want to hear the hits, Arbitron’s first ratings report on XM and Sirius shows the channels that are most like terrestrial radio have the largest audience…So much for niche radio.

Duh. This is why they call it “niche.” To expect broad-based appeal from stations designed not to deliver it is like expecting to see Wolfgang Puck making your lunch at McDonalds.

As I have always said, radio is doing a good job at appealing to most people most of the time. Of course people “really do just want to hear the hits.” That is our goal and we fulfill it well. And that, my friends, is why the vast majority of listeners are not dissatisfied with radio.

The implications for niche alternatives should be obvious: For radio it will be injury not by being usurped overnight. Instead it will be injury by a thousand tiny cuts.

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