Portable People Meter Fear and Loathing

Arbitron demonstrated some ways Radio Programmers can use data from their Portable People Meters (PPM’s) during last week’s Radio & Records convention, and some of their conclusions are destined to open a Pandora’s box of trouble.

I heard about this second-hand, but I was told they were demonstrating how you could actually measure the drop-off in audience when an extraordinarily long song is played (e.g., Stairway to Heaven). You can also measure the loss when a new and unfamiliar song is played – and chart how listenership grows for such songs as familiarity grows. This way, they suggest, you can use PPM’s as a form of new music research.

All very interesting, but I’m wondering a couple things:

1. When Arbitron’s diaries can’t accurately show how many people in total even listen to a given station from one month to the next, why should we place any credence in the ability of their PPM’s to predict listenership accurately one minute to the next?

2. Doesn’t the result about long songs suggest we should play the shortest possible songs only? Is this, in the long run, really going to give listeners what they want?

3. Doesn’t the result about new music suggest not only that we can measure when a new song is familiar enough – but that we’re actually best off by not playing ANY new songs? Again, is this really going to give listeners what they want?

Using the PPM the way Arbitron has suggested may suit their lobbying efforts – it may be sexy and persuasive – but it’s a reductionist view of the listening experience that will do our brands no good in the long run.

In that long run, imperfection and genius go hand in hand. And one does not exist without the other.

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