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Using Research to Deal with Disappointing Ratings

A real test case from this year: A heritage youth-oriented station suddenly watched its ratings drop by more than half. Management had a lot of ideas about what might have happened. But they were only guesses, and at the end of the day they were powerless to take action in any kind of informed way.

It grabbed my attention, and made me sad for them. But five minutes later, I think I was more angry than sympathetic. This station had broken several basic radio programming rules. They had not put into place the basic feedback systems that would let them deal with this adversity in a positive way. This scene has been played out too many times. Let's look at some ways to make your station more prepared than these broadcasters were.

  • Avoid a huge ratings drop
  • Notice if we are in trouble
  • Determine whether the ratings drop is real
  • If real, understand the issues that may have caused it, to better focus our efforts


You've got to have good call-out and library research going. The reason is that listeners pay attention. Younger listeners care about your new music. You can't afford not to walk your talk, or to walk the talk of the record companies. For every current-based music format, the pressure from record labels is great. But the listeners have their own priorities, likes and timetables, none of which will match those of the music industry. Nor will they match your personal opinions.

If a new competitor appears, you will be affected. Your research should be monitoring the interest shown in any new or rejuvenated station. Be prepared to use what you learn, and market aggressively to defend your franchise. Not in the budget? Sorry. Either you will see the budget as a guide for normal times and throw it out when times are not normal - or be prepared to die in the ratings.


You've got to have good audience tracking. If the call-out is set up properly, you'll get that for free from the screening process. Don't do something funky with the screening call design that cuts off this opportunity. If ratings are slipping, you'll see it coming.




Does your own research show that your ratings are solid? Then do the right thing. Don't panic. But just in case, don't automatically discount the official ratings. A little paranoia is a good thing. Start to question anything that might truly be less than perfect on your station. But minus the panic, you'll think a lot more clearly.

Are you still worried? Then, with the tools in place to regularly take the pulse of your listeners, you're prepared to take another step and really study the shift in ratings:

You have a record of the people you’ve been talking to? Good. Call back 100 of them that you first talked to six months ago.

Ask them the listening questions again. Don’t make mention of their answers from six months ago. But you WILL take notice.

In fact, you’ll do a little report: x% of our P1s still are P1s, x% now only cume us, and here is the new distribution of their P1 listening, and x% no longer cume us. Also, x% of our former cume base has now converted to P1. You get the picture. You’ll expect to see 15% to 20% churn, but hopefully no net loss. If there was a net loss, who benefited?

You don't have to wait for bad ratings to care about the basics. You can put together a study any time. But if you are investigating disappointing ratings and making the follow-up study discussed above, you don’t just need to know how much truth there is to the ratings problem. You need to know why.

  • Which stations have improved their programming in the past six months?
  • Which stations have reduced the quality of their programming in the past six months?
  • Which station is the one your friends are talking about? Why?
  • If you could give one bit of advice to the people responsible for the programming on [competitor] what would it be?
  • If you could give one bit of advice to the people responsible for the programming on [your station] what would it be?

A picture should emerge. You’ll see curiosity about the new station, something you’ve not done well enough, or something more general.

Because you live with the programming, you will at this point have a pretty clear and accurate idea of the size and nature of the problem. No matter what problems arise with the ratings survey, you still have to pilot this ship accurately, and with some simple steps like these, you can. And you can do it without contracting for another $45,000 market study.