By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
This is about the time of year when I used to check Arbitron radio ratings. I'd calendar watch and then mash F5 on my keyboard until the latest round of fall ratings were posted, showing which radio stations were on the rise and which were losing power.
As I've written before, I used to work for a Top 40 radio station in Springfield, so old habits die hard.
But over the past couple of years, I've stopped caring about Arbitron ratings. Because they are worthless for the Joplin market.
Joplin radio stations know Arbitron is worthless, too. When's the last time you heard a station tout its ratings in a commercial? I haven't in years, and trust me, radio stations love to talk about themselves.
Here's why: Not every radio ownership group participates in Arbitron's service, and Arbitron doesn't list the stations that don't pay for membership. This is a recent change that helped make Arbitron useless to Joplin -- the company used to list the ratings for every station so that a true measure of popularity could be measured.
(Granted, Arbitron's idea of true popularity isn't that reliable in the first place. Despite market innovations, the company never releases specific information about important demographics, which allows radio stations to spin win stories with little to no chance of independent verification. But I digress.)
My advice to any radio group that subscribes to Arbitron would be to cancel its membership and invest in more local on-air talent. Or promotions. Or prize packages. All those are better investments right now.
Maybe things will get better, thanks to an upcoming merger: Nielsen Holdings, owner of the Nielsen ratings system, said in December it agreed to buy Arbitron for $1.26 billion.
While Nielsen's chief executive David L. Calhoun said that Arbitron would help Nielsen do its work, something tells me Nielsen is going to help Arbitron a lot more. Part of the merger involves the sharing of technology, and Nielsen has embraced it much better than Arbitron -- which rolled out its funky pager-style Portable People Meter in 2007, but still relies on written diaries for listening information.
Some fear that the merger will make Nielsen even more of a superpower and give Madison Avenue an even bigger hold on advertising currency. But Nielsen is much more in the present than Arbitron -- it has already expanded into social media research and is not as reluctant to share selected specific demographics.
Maybe, just maybe, Arbitron ratings can become relevant again with Nielsen's help. But I'll have to see it to believe it.
The entire point of a ratings system is to measure performance against competition in a market. A ratings system that doesn't take all competitors into account is like a tape measure with no inch markings -- it might be fun to play with, but it doesn't do anything helpful.