Sunday, 16 May 2010

What is RAJAR’s function? Cheerleader or research bureau?

This week’s publication of the latest UK radio listening figures begs the question as to what RAJAR’s function is:

• Is RAJAR a cheerleader for radio, to convince Licence Fee payers and advertisers how successful radio is? Or,
• Is RAJAR a serious research agency providing objective data to advertisers and advertising agencies about radio audiences?

I ask because this week’s media coverage of the latest RAJAR results seemed to result entirely from the cheerleader role, while the objective data role was nowhere to be seen.

The Guardian headline said: “Radio’s booming”. The BBC News headline said: “Radio listening soars”. The Media Week headline said: “Radio industry buoyed by strong Q1”. The Drum headline said: “All time radio high”.

So the radio sector is apparently performing better than ever? Well, if you believe the opening statements of the RAJAR press release:
• “Radio listening reaches an all time high as 46.5 million adults tune in to radio”
• “Radio listening in the UK has reached an all time high as 46.5 million adults, or 90.6% of the UK population (15+), tuned in to their favourite radio station each week”

The question is: who is this press release for? Certainly, it is not for the people who use RAJAR data for their work – buyers in advertising agencies and advertisers – who know from their daily examination of the detailed numbers that “radio listening” is certainly not at all at an all-time high. Rather, the volume of radio listening has been in decline since 2003, a long-term trend that shows no sign of abating.

The RAJAR press release is deliberately misleading in its use of wording. This is by no means the first time. Previous RAJAR press releases have claimed that radio listening has hit some kind of high. In RAJAR-land, every day seems to be a sunny day. This is the kind of PR puff we come to expect from commercial companies. But RAJAR is not selling anything. It is meant to be providing objective radio listening data to the media sector. It is funded jointly by the BBC Licence Fee and commercial radio.

In fact, the “all time high” assertion in the RAJAR press release derives solely from the fact that more people are listening to radio than ever before. This is good news, but the number of people listening to radio is at an “all time high” for the same reason that hospitals have more patients than ever, schools have more children than ever, and public transport has more users than ever. The adult population of the UK is increasing by around 1% per annum. More people = more people using things.

So from where does the RAJAR assertion “radio listening reaches an all time high” derive? It is nothing more than hot air. If, in using the phrase “radio listening”, RAJAR had meant to imply “the volume of radio listening”, then it is a plain lie.

More people are listening to the radio, but they are listening for less and less time. The volume of radio listening, the total number of hours that all UK adults spend listening to the radio, has been declining since 2003. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it:

The average amount of time adult radio listeners spend listening to the radio has been declining dramatically over the same period. Here is a graph of RAJAR’s own data that shows it:

Are either of these facts, from the same research, mentioned in the latest RAJAR press release? Of course not. Why? Because RAJAR’s cheerleader role seems to require it to publicise a metric for radio listening that shows an increase: the absolute number of people listening, in this press release.

Here is a graph that shows the increase in the UK adult population and the number of people listening to radio. When the estimated population goes up, the estimated number of radio listeners goes up!

The airtime buyers in advertising agencies who have to use RAJAR data on a day-to-day basis probably chuckle at the preposterousness of the RAJAR press releases, laugh at how gullible the media are to simply reprint their headlines, and then go back to their work.

For some people (like me, having analysed radio audience data for 30 years), it creates market confusion. Clients are understandably puzzled and baffled when they see a presentation that clearly shows radio listening is in decline in the UK. They inevitably ask with suspicion: “But didn’t RAJAR just say that radio listening is at an all-time high?”

So why is RAJAR hell bent on this policy of trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes? Why does it need to be a public cheerleader for radio when we already have RadioCentre, the Radio Advertising Bureau and the BBC Press Office, each issuing their own PR puff on the RAJAR results? The RAJAR press releases might convince journalists, but they certainly don’t fool the media industry players. Instead, the opposite effect is probably the case.

How can the radio industry expect to be treated seriously within the wider media sector when its industry ratings body, charged with publishing objective listening data, insists upon grabbing headlines with misleading facts about radio audiences?

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