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R.I.P. Arbitron’s Total Audience Measurement

Earlier this week, a number of leading broadcasters piped in on a scenario whereby Pandora and other online radio services would be measured alongside radio in Arbitron’s supposedly forthcoming Total Audience Measurement report, and the most telling word was this one:  “Frightening.”

Indeed it is “frightening,” the thought that a stable ecosystem of radio brands with huge barriers to entry could be penetrated overnight by a theoretically limitless number of present and future online radio brands all nibbling at the same presumably finite trough. Forget the fact that any reasonable observer has seen this coming for years, that doesn’t make it any less “frightening.”

And it is that fright which is driving the conversation in radio circles.  It’s that fright that is motivating broadcasters to argue that Pandora and others are “not radio” or to create manifestly arbitrary distinctions like “one-to-one” versus “one-to-many,” a distinction which means as little to advertisers as it does to consumers.

One thing that’s lost in this debate is this all-too-simple conclusion: Online radio can be you, too, Mr. Broadcaster. Nothing is keeping traditional broadcasters from innovating in the online radio space and then using the enviable megaphone of their over-the-air reach to power it to success. Nothing at all.  Indeed, it is the relative lack of enthusiasm for online radio in traditional radio circles (with a few notable exceptions) that has brought us to where we are in this debate:  A place where radio feels threatened by the unique ideas, compelling execution, and audience acceptance of non-“radio” alternatives which have scaled enough to demand their seat at radio’s revenue table, assuming room will be made for them there, or to create their own table if room will not be made.

As I look ahead it’s hard for me to imagine a change in course for these broadcasters, since halting change is an easier and perhaps smarter short-term strategy than embracing it.

But here’s the problem:  Change is coming whether we want it to or not. And our challenge will not be to effectively stand in the way but rather to assess the landscape as it is:  The landscape of technology, consumers, and clients.  And then to innovate within that landscape and leverage that innovation with our over-the-air muscle.

Arbitron depends hugely on the good graces of their broadcast clients.  That’s what happens when the broadcasters foot the (very large) bill and the advertisers – the folks who want easy, cross-platform solutions – get the goods for free.  You made this bed, Arbitron.  Now you have to sleep in it.

Judging by the tone of the debate, judging by who is saying what to Arbitron – and saying it in public, judging by the short-term interests of those with the biggest stakes in the game, I predict that Arbitron will never release a Total Audience Measurement product. Or, if they do, it will be rapidly cast off by a marketplace which has long since moved on to other measurement solutions, such as Triton’s, which is independent of any single-industry interest and instead has the interests of the advertisers and the publishers, whomever they may be, at heart.

Arbitron’s idea on cross-platform measurement is, as Inside Radio put it, “separate but equal.”  How’d that work in the civil rights era, Arbitron?

This is a notion doomed to failure, and I see no reason why either side – the established radio industry players who constitute Arbitron’s biggest clients or the new pure-play folks who want their fair seat at the table – will ever agree to such tiered treatment as long as the money pot is perceived as finite.  As Renee Zellweger said in the classic movie Jerry Maguire, “First Class is what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal, now it’s a better life.”

Every player who reaches ears will have those ears measured, one way or another.

The opportunity for traditional broadcasters is not, in the long run, to block inevitable progress – it’s to make that progress its own. Viewing the online radio space as a blue sky opportunity for innovation for the benefit of broadcasters, consumers, and advertisers is the opportunity, not seeing that space as a throw-away, a place for incremental usage of existing stations which would ideally be tossed on top of existing ratings in a consolidated Arbitron ranker.

It’s time to evolve beyond radio’s understandably slavish worship of Arbitron to an even more understandable worship of consumers and the advertisers who need them.

Whether we’re talking about traditional radio or online radio, whether we want to acknowledge that Pandora and others are “radio” or not, the fact is that consumers are embracing these alternatives and they are, to one degree or another, advertiser supported just as “radio” is.

First class is no longer just a better meal.

Now every player in the game wants a better life.

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