Photo by Ron Fell. Very cool, thank you, Ron!
"The arts and institutions of men are created out of thought. The powers that make the capitalist are metaphysical, the force of method and force of will makes trade, and builds towns." Emerson
"Seek those who find your road agreeable, your personality and mind stimulating, your philosophy acceptable, and your experience helpful. Let those who do not, seek their own kind." Henri Fabre
"When a great man has some object in view to be achieved in a given time, it may be absolutely necessary for him to walk out of all the common roads." Burke
A bunch of chatter this week about Arbitron's new Portable People Meter (PPM), the device being rolled out to replace the paper diaries used to capture radio listening behaviors. The subject is of great interest to radio broadcasters as it should be. Arbitron is hosting one of their consultant fly-in events at the Columbia, MD campus today. A meeting I'm sorry to miss due to other work. Congrats and kudos to Steve Morris, Pierre Bouvard, Gary Marince, Ron Rodrigues, Dr Ed Cohen, Bob Patchen and the Arbitron team for keeping the conversation alive, the parties engaged and doing so with transparency.
Some thoughts on PPM.
I began going to school on PPM over a decade ago when I was introduced to Dr. Roberta McConochie. She was then director of strategic research for Arbitron, leading the Pathfinder program and working in the area of new media. What impressed me most about Dr McConochie was not her measured speech, nor her gracious manner in making the complex simple. It was her curiosity. She had done her homework, she was asking great questions. My thought was she needed to be heard, she deserved an audience with industry. We were fortunate to have her accept our invitation to speak at The Conclave. The first session at an industry conference dedicated to PPM happened in Minneapolis one summer day many years ago. I moderated the session which was attended by a small group of about twenty-five programmers. We were too far ahead of the curve, not one trade pub made mention of the ground breaking event.
Now that PPM is no longer a science project but a practical reality, whenever two or more are gathered in the name of radio PPM is a hot topic of discussion. Overnight we have scores of PPM experts offering station and group folks assistance. Some of these same experts would have us believe they are qualified to confront Arbitron and take the lead in what amounts to an ongoing ratings police action. My opinion is most of these so-called experts are not qualified to discuss the subject matter at any serious depth. Suggesting one knows how to game the new system seems premature (to be polite about it). These same know-it-alls would not likely finish a basic undergrad course in statistics with honors much less be able to hold their own in any graduate level survey research lab. However, as Buzz Bennett famously said "Everyone has the right to program." It's radio where everyone actually does enjoy that right to program. Moreover, every programmer can claim, with little if any objection, to be a research and ratings expert. Seems to me too many are doing just that. Bottom line: the job of the program director is to deliver numbers to the sales department. If a PD is not able to do that they need to find other work.
Reading all of the rants about PPM over the last few weeks reminds me that some working in the programming trade should think before they opine. A sidebar: in my experience a good third of radio programmers are at home in the camp of grassy knoll theorists. Their particular brand of skepticism tainted with unwarranted notions of conspiracy. Like all fanatics they are vocal. Theirs is a repertoire rich with old programmer's tales, of finding black magic at work in Beltsville. About the single household that made a competitor #1, how they caught the arbiter red-handed and saved the day. They hold the belief that Arbitron's flawed methodology is the real and only reason why their station (or their format) has failed to move the needle. The station's not sick, it's sample size and methodology that's to blame, again! They are convinced beyond all empirical evidence to the contrary that their station, their format is in reality a winner and simply not getting proper listening credit. Further, some few of this group are convinced Arbitron is out to undo them, an evil enterprise dedicated to passing off slipshod research as good. Arbitron as the wily fox that must be watched.
A friend who works at Arbitron once said "When the phone rings it's never good news. No one ever calls us to say 'you guys rock' this book got it right, my station is #1 and we thank you." Seems to me the industry conversation is too frequently moved by the losers, those deprived of the higher ranker positions needed to generate the instant rainfall of "push print and buy" orders, the related waves of cash and the adulation of an industry and its trade pubs. These ratings starved folks are often unwilling to admit their own role in the poor showing, they tend to be talented makers of original excuses and, sometimes, it is even within their power to elevate rationalizing failure into persuasive dramatic art. While the experienced few may understand the true nature of estimates (i.e., one data point is high, another low and a third perhaps closest to the reality of the measured moment) too many others seek absolute truth at a discount when no such solution is possible nor practical.
Research is expensive, it's hard work and yet it remains an estimate. And that's the reality of survey research - it produces estimates. Chance error, sample bias, and the vagaries of any new method of capture, collection and data architecture are all baked in to that effort. We must accept and at some point trust that the arbiter will do their best, do what they must to produce a credible and reliable product and in doing so get and keep our business. Good research is never cheap and cheap research is never good.
PPM is a good idea but we've all got a lot of learning to do to make the best of it. Like any attempt to capture human behavior it is complex, a major challenge of multivariate proportions. It requires and deserves the ongoing attention of the research and user communities. Let's keep the conversation candid, the analysis serious and studied, and the debate informed. We must demand the rigor of intellectual honesty above all else. Now that we do have the first working meter, let's all agree to keep our discussions and initiatives to improve this new technology dialed up to eleven.
Closed circuit to Arbitron: don't let the hacks get you down.
LATER: A bunch of email response to this post. About 50% favorable, 40% unfavorable and 10% saying it is too early to tell how good or bad PPM will be for radio in contrast to how radio has done with diary capture. The majority of comments submitted have been negative. Because comments are moderated here I have deleted over fifty for one of three reasons 1) profanity - I would edit the language but then these comments would look like redacted FOIA documents, almost every fourth word being an expletive - I'm taking a pass. Bring on the conspiracy comments. 2) incoherent 3) off topic (e.g., "hey cheesehead your packers lost last night, who's crying now big fella"). My thanks to those that have joined the conversation. More next week.
Have a great weekend.
OK - so we'll start up another blog, one dedicated to PPM. Your suggestions, comments, and contributions are invited. Let's put it right here.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Photo by Ron Fell. Very cool, thank you, Ron!