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Public Radio's Unique Place In Radio Ratings

This is the first part of a 2-part blog piece.  Part 2 will be posted next Tuesday.

In Arbitron's new PPM world, one of the biggest shifts in radio’s audience ratings has been the massive audience reach gains enjoyed by many commercial music stations. “Massive” is not an exaggeration here - the total weekly audience (i.e., all people who listen to a station for at least five minutes during a 15-minute period) for a commercial music station has increased, on average, by 70% compared to what these same stations were seeing in the diary-based audience ratings two years ago.

The reasons for the sudden expansion in audience are no big secret. Whereas Arbitron’s paper diary was dependent on listener recall – when, what, and where did a person hear a station – the PPM picks up encoded audio signals everywhere that a person goes. The meter can capture radio listening in everyday places such as walking through a retail store, sitting in a waiting room at the doctor’s office, in work places such as offices and cubicles, and while sitting in a cab - though it's important to add that a person would only be counted as a listener if they listen for at least five minutes in a 15-minute period. All of these places often have a radio playing in the background and these listening opportunities were likely not recorded in the paper diary.  Now radio listening - or rather radio exposure - in all of these types of venues is being picked up by the PPM, whether or not a person is actually listening to the radio.

Shifting how we measure radio listening from listener recall to panel exposure has led to a big shake-up in the ratings universe. Stations reaching more than 1 million listeners in a typical week is no longer a rarity.  Last year, 119 FM and AM stations in PPM markets surpassed the 7-figure barrier, compared to 31 stations two years ago in diary ratings.

But not all radio stations have experienced the love of the PPM. For the most part, public stations have not enjoyed the 'PPM bump'. Arguably, it comes down to the irony that few public stations are being heard in public spaces. Yes, some public stations - particularly Classical - are heard in waiting rooms but it's not on a scale seen for many commercial music stations.

This has some in public radio worried that their commercial counterparts are enjoying much larger measured audiences. But fear not, with a little digging into the numbers, there's a great story to be told for public radio.  All will be revealed in part 2 on Tuesday.

Ben Robins is the Research Manager for NPR Programming