How do radio stations know how popular they are?

How popular is that radio station?

Maybe I am the only person that ever thinks about stuff like this, but I’ve often wondered “How does a radio station know how popular it is”? How do they know how many people are listening? How do they know how much to charge advertisers, and how do they convince advertisers that they’ll reach as many people as they’re claiming?

I’ve wondered this for years until this evening, when I finally had time to do a little search.

It turns out, radio stations get their marketing data from a couple of different companies, the largest and most popular of which is Arbitron, a Public company traded on the NYSE. They collect rating and market data, and then, you guessed it, sell it.

But how do they collect the data?

Yes, that’s definitely the question I’ve always wanted to know. How the crap does the radio station know how many people are listening? I have to admit I’m a bit of a technology fan and always have been (If you haven’t guessed) and I could conceive of no technological way in which I found it feasible to monitor an entire market using existing radio technology.

Turns out, this life-long question ends in a very underwhelming way: A small sampling survey. Yes, the way they’ve been collecting data for years has been:

Selecting a random sample of a population in roughly 100 metros throughout the United States four times a year. An additional 200 markets are surveyed in the Spring and Fall. People in the sample are asked to maintain a written diary describing each radio program listened to. Each selected household agreeing to participate is provided a diary for each member aged 12 and older… A new random sample is selected weekly…

In my heart I’ve always known this was really the only way they could have done it, but finding out seemed to break my heart all the same. It must get cooler. It must! Does it?

Are there cooler, more awesome ways? YES!

So it turns out Arbitron has done what you probably thought would have been pretty bad-A to begin with. They created a little device called the PPM, or Portable People Meter. This hardcore piece of equipment is about the size of an oldschool pager. Its electronic ear literally listens and picks up inaudible data encoded into your audio, identifying the radio station you’re listening to. You wear this baby for a year (yes, apparently they do compensate participants. I wonder how much?) and then turn it back in. How hot is that? That’s just plain cool.

You need to be a rocket scientist to interpret Arbitron data

All good things come to a dissapointing end when you find out two things:

1. You can view the radio station data online for free (here)

2. The data is so difficult to interpret, they teach courses on it

What Is AQH Share?

Average Quarter-Hour Persons (AQH Persons)
The average number of persons listening to a particular station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period.

The percentage of those listening to radio in the Metro who are listening to a particular radio station.
[AQH Persons to a Station / AQH Persons to All Stations] x 100 = Share (%)

Looking at my local market, I still see things like SP06, SU06… and so on, and I have NO idea what the heck all that means.

What have we learned from all this?

I think of stupid stuff while driving in the car, or sitting in the bathroom, or daydreaming at work.

What’s your favorite “Potty Question”?

Potty questions is defined as: A question no sane person would ever consider except when given a ridiculous amount of ‘free-time’ in which they’re not able to freely do anything but, uh, sit and think. (More Potty questions)