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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
- Sixty-six per cent of adults listen to commercial radio each week.
- Eighty-four per cent of adults listen to commercial radio over a
- 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
- Sixty-four per cent of over-45s' listening time goes to BBC Radio.
Source: RAB based on RAJAR Q3 2001