MEDIA: Is Rajar geared up for the digital era? - As it celebrates its tenth birthday, the radio body faces the challenge of new platforms, writes Andy Fry

Whenever anyone explains why commercial radio turned a corner in

the early 1990s, you can bet that they will mention research currency

Rajar as a major contributing factor.



Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, Rajar enabled advertisers

to directly compare the BBC with commercial listening for the first

time.



Its first decade has been characterised by a massive increase in the

networks available to UK audiences.



Accommodating this change has been the currency's real success. But with

digital and internet listening on the increase, it will also be the

critical challenge going forward.



Rajar tackled network expansion head-on in 1999, when research

contractor IPSOS-RSL introduced a new methodology. The system is still

based on paper diaries, which the Rajar survey sample uses to record its

listening habits, but the process was made simpler.



The system also sought to standardise reporting by individual radio

networks, says Radio Authority Bureau managing director Justin

Sampson.All stations - regardless of size or location - provided

quarterly updates on their listening figures. Previously this frequency

of data had only been available for bigger networks.



The switch took three years to plan and test. In all, Rajar's 50-50

shareholders, the BBC and commercial radio, spent about £500,000

on the changeover - but still didn't avoid teething problems. Given the

fact that Rajar costs £4m a year to run and involves 150,000

respondents, it is not surprising there were problems. The question now

is whether it can meet the challenges presented by the measurement of

platforms such as digital audio broadcasting (DAB) and the internet.



In essence, there are three key questions. First, can paper diaries

handle the momentous changes in the listening landscape? Second, how

much more are data users willing to pay? Third, is Rajar still the right

forum in the digital age?



On the first point, Rajar chief executive Jane O' Hara is anxious not to

ditch a robust system: "We aren't resistant to change, but we must

ensure that we know how changes will affect the data, and ensure that

everyone affected understands what's at stake."



Most attention has been focused on how two competing electronic

measurement systems might be used to supplement or replace paper

diaries. The first system in the spotlight is a US model designed by

Arbitron, a market leader in US radio measurement.



Essentially, this system relies on every radio station to insert a

unique, but inaudible code into their broadcasts. This code is then

picked up by a pager-style device that is issued to survey respondents.

As the day progresses, the pager records listening patterns by

periodically logging codes.



The other system has been developed by a Swiss company called

Telecontrol and is more along the lines of a wristwatch. In this case,

the watch records audio signals for a period of four seconds in every

minute. This information is then collected and matched against a

database of radio station play-lists to ascertain listening.



There are also questions that need to be asked: will people remember to

carry these objects from the moment they wake up until last thing at

night?



Whether or not these systems are used will also depend on how they

measure up to the demands of media owners. Companies such as Chrysalis

are keen for Rajar to start specifying how listeners heard their service

- on analogue, DAB, internet or through a digital television

platform.



Given that most services are simulcast, it is not clear how the watch

would handle this. Chrysalis Radio commercial director Don Thomson

confirms his desire for "a system that can cope with the layer of

complexity introduced by listening across platforms."



Networks that are currently confined to specific geographical regions

may be picking up additional audiences elsewhere via the new

platforms.



"London's Heart 106.2 is getting listeners in Glasgow, but we'd like to

know how many so we can decide whether it has commercial value to

Chrysalis," says Thomson.



The debate about electronic meters also has the advertiser perspective

to consider. If electronic measurement becomes the norm, the way the

industry defines "a meaningful listening occasion" will need to be

modified. Currently, Rajar respondents are advised to include periods of

two or three minutes of continuous listening. Under the electronic

systems, how valuable would it be for short snatches of airtime to be

included in the survey?



In addition, there is also a question-mark over how much data agencies

can actually digest. Rupert Steele, head of research at GWR-owned sales

house Opus, says his discussions with agencies have revealed little

desire for more data than Rajar already provides. "The truth is that the

paper diaries are very accurate."



But for some media owners there is a real anxiety for Rajar to move

quickly on the electronic measurement issue. TalkSport chief executive

Kelvin McKenzie has claimed Rajar is an "absurd charade" and its diary

days are "numbered". McKenzie has already employed a small number of

wristwatch-style measuring devices and claimed to have scored big

uplifts in audience as a result.



But Rajar's O'Hara says she cannot afford to let such developments rush

her into change: "I've no problem with what talkSport is doing. But

Rajar has got to go slower because it represents the whole of the radio

industry."



McKenzie is a lone voice among media owners at present. But while speed

of data is not a critical issue for most radio networks, where listening

behaviour is based on established audience habits, there is an issue for

the sort of event-led programming aired by talkSport. That said, GWR's

Steele believes Rajar is working on methodology to deal with this.



If it doesn't meet the station's needs, and talkSport proves to be in

the vanguard of deepening dissatisfaction with Rajar, what would that

mean for the industry? Sampson says it would be a massive step backwards

if the debate about new methodology was handled outside Rajar. "It's the

industry's gold-standard currency. There's no advantage in having two

competing currencies."



Moreover, O' Hara estimates that a fully-metered system would cost three

times as much as the existing method. This suggests that if electronic

meters are to be used, it will only be for big networks, with small

stations still relying on paper diaries.



Electronic metering will be treated no differently, she says, though she

argues that the earliest any changes can take place is 2005 when the

current research contract expires. That delay could buy the body enough

time to formulate and test a robust hybrid system that suits both the

BBC and commercial radio. Or it could encourage mavericks such as

McKenzie to forge ahead with their own strategy.



RADIO LISTENING HABITS

- The commercial radio audience has grown by 11% since 1999.

- Ninety-one per cent of adults listen to radio each week.

- Forty-seven per cent of adults listen to the radio in the car.

- Sixteen per cent tune in at work.

- On average adult listeners listen for three hours and 32 minutes each

day.

- Sixty-six per cent of adults listen to commercial radio each week.

- Eighty-four per cent of adults listen to commercial radio over a

four-week period.

- Fifteen- to 24-year-olds are most likely to listen to commercial radio

- 81% of them for 16 hours and 23 minutes per week.

- Commercial radio accounts for 59.2% of all radio listening time among

15-to 44-year-olds.

- Sixty-four per cent of over-45s' listening time goes to BBC Radio.

Source: RAB based on RAJAR Q3 2001



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