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Is Nielsen Still a Necessity?

Even if radio companies don’t outright cut Nielsen’s PPM service, they should at least demand improvements to the system.

Andy Bloom

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A photo of an iPhone receiving an incoming call from Nielsen

Last January, Meruelo Media created a buzz when it announced that it would stop subscribing to Nielsen and its PPM rating service in Los Angeles.

At the time, “Inside Radio” report, “This means that ratings data for Meruelo’s four L.A. stations, KLOS (Rock), KPWR, Power 106 (Rhythmic CHR), KDAY (Classic Hip Hop), and KLLI, Cali 93.9 (Spanish CHR) will no longer appear in published ratings reports.

More significantly, Nielsen will no longer include listening data for Meruelo stations in the summary dataset that fuels the major buying systems used by agencies and advertisers per (Nielsen’s) Subscriber First policy adopted in 2020.” (“Inside Radio,” January 24, 2024).

As stated in the announcement, Meruelo’s Los Angeles radio stations did not appear in the published Holiday Ratings period.

When the announcement that Meruelo was forgoing Nielsen ratings was released, it made a certain amount of sense.

For the past 15 years, radio companies have been cutting expenses, no matter how much it has damaged the business’s long-term strategic viability.

Today, Nielsen is likely the largest expense on most radio stations’ balance sheets after payroll. Cutting Nielsen seemed inevitable. Was Merulo starting a trend?

However, with less fanfare, Meruelo’s stations were back in published reports for the January PPM release.

Apparently, Meruelo dropped the Holiday Book while negotiating a new deal. They found, ‘It’s just not feasible now to subscribe to Nielsen in a market the size of Los Angeles,” according to a person knowledgeable about the situation.

Is it time for the radio industry to reconsider its relationship with Nielsen Ratings?

At least one operator did so long ago. Ed Levine, President, and CEO of Galaxy Media Partners, which owns and operates radio stations in Syracuse and Utica-Rome, NY, parted with Arbitron, now Nielsen, 16 years ago. He’s never looked back and has no regrets.

Levine calls it “The great under-reported story of radio.”

He recalls Arbitron rolling out the PPM during the “Great Recession.”

“It added all this expense exactly as revenue collapsed,” he said.

Levine had a decision to make. He could either make numerous job cuts or drop the ratings service. “Locally based agencies know the stations,” he said. Businesses want to know how many people you got through my door,” Levine added.

He reflects on 16 years without Arbitron or Nielsen, “I can’t remember the last time a business asked for a ranker. Oh, you went from sixth to fourth 25 -to -54? Great,” he chuckles.

“Maybe it’s different in the biggest markets,” Levine concedes, “but I’ll bet there are a lot of markets, maybe 15 to 50, that could get along fine without Nielsen.”

At least one New York City station is finding out about life without Nielsen. Craig Karmazin’s Good Karma Brands also ended its relationship with Nielsen. In a Newsday interview with Neil Best, Karmazin said, “It’s outdated to use one form of media to measure a show, especially one that doesn’t reflect the entire listening audience and viewing audience across all the different ways we distribute our media now.”

Karmazin’s conclusion is consistent with Levine’s experience. New technologies provide the tools the sales department needs, according to Levine: “We can digitally show how many people heard a client’s spot or went to their website. Those are the analytics that matters.”

Even if radio companies don’t outright cut Nielsen’s PPM service, they should at least demand improvements to the system.

In the pre-PPM era, total ratings were Persons 12+. Today, the ratings are 6+. Who does this benefit?

Returning to 12+ would be a luxury, but is anybody selling 12-17-year-olds? Including kids and teens allows Nielsen to inflate the total sample size. Keeping the same sample size with panelists over 18 would be more instructive.

But don’t confuse the total sample for the daily in-tab. Most ratings analyses on which decisions are made use much smaller samples than users realize. I encourage reading Dr. Ed Cohen’s excellent and highly informational columns on Barrett News Media to understand how Nielsen’s “sausage” is made.

Some recent case studies suggest that 6+ ratings inflate total listening and give a distorted view of total market listening. There are instances where “kids” with meters pick up the listening of their mothers. Looking at 6 to 12, or even 6 to 18 demos, can often reveal strange patterns.

With access to some of the tools Nielsen makes available, interested parties can pinpoint the listening and see it’s coming from one household with a large number of meters.

Further, remember that panelists can remain in the sample for up to two years. While it may not happen frequently, it does occur. When a station suddenly tumbles out of nowhere, it’s often because it lost a heavy listening meter that had been in the sample for an extended period.

Electronic measurement promised that it would show increased listening. It was also supposed to be an economic boon by bringing packaged goods advertising to the radio broadcast industry. Both claims turned out to be dubious.

Nielsen Media Research declined to comment for this article.

These are just a few of the liabilities in the current PPM system. For the money spent, the radio industry deserves better.

Will the radio industry demand more from Nielsen, or as companies continue to cut, will more stations see Nielsen’s huge expense line and at least consider cutting it, too?

Galaxy Media Partners President and CEO Ed Levine sums up the argument for the radio industry to reevaluate its relationship with Nielsen Ratings:

“The great disconnect is linear radio ratings are tied to how things were in the 1980s and 90s, while the world and radio have changed. It’s comical that radio is now completely focused on digital revenue yet continues to pay huge dollars for a linear ratings service that has no way, despite their claims to accurately measure digital listening. It’s not about us anymore; it’s about them – the client – and how many folks we got to their website, into their store, and ultimately to buy their products,” he said.

“If the Big Three had decided not to renew with Nielsen ten years ago but rather to invest in local radio talent, the industry may have had a very different story over the past decade and face a brighter future today. The good news is that it’s not too late for the rest of us. Smarten up and invest resources where everything is flowing, not where it was in 1994.” 

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Uri Berliner Told Us What We Already Knew About NPR

Is it possible that by going public, Berliner’s efforts will cause even the slightest self-reflection within NPR – if not actual change?

Andy Bloom

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A photo of Uri Berliner and the NPR logo
(Photo: NPR)

On April 8th, a rare celestial event, a solar eclipse, occupied the national zeitgeist. On April 9th, something even more rare occurred. A respected liberal journalist — Uri Berliner — became introspective and said out loud what many already believed about National Public Radio (NPR): It has become a liberal wasteland.

A 25-year NPR veteran and senior business editor, Uri Berliner wrote a column for the Free Press that pulled the curtain back on NPR’s DEI and liberal political agenda.

Far from being a conservative, Berliner describes himself as a Subaru driving, Sarah Lawrence College graduate, raised by a lesbian peace activist mother, and fits the mold of a loyal NPR fan.

The column is stunningly frank and revealing. It is instructive to conservatives, who incorrectly assert that NPR has always had an ultra-left agenda, and to NPR insiders, who fail to see how the organization’s current path has damaged its brand and listenership.

The column is blistering but honest and specific. It lays out NPR’s journey from journalism to advocacy. The question is whether others at NPR will become more reflective and consider changes.

The choice of outing NPR in The Free Press is interesting in itself. Bari Weiss founded the Free Press after leaving The New York Times in 2020 for what she called a “hostile environment.”

Weiss had been hired from The Wall Street Journal by then-editorial page editor James Bennet to expand The Time’s viewpoints.

Shortly after Weiss’ resignation, Bennet was forced out after he invited Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to write an op-ed with opposing points of view to those other Times editorialists had written about the George Floyd riots.

Liberals don’t tolerate opposing views; a point Berliner makes.

Berliner takes NPR to task for no longer having an “open-minded spirit.” He correctly asserts this wouldn’t be a problem if it were a “news outlet servicing a niche audience. But for NPR, which purports to consider all things, it’s devastating  for both its journalism and business model.”

He reveals that in NPR’s Washington, D.C. newsroom, there are 87 registered Democrats and not a single Republican. Imagine the spirited debates that must lead to – does Trump deserve the death penalty, or is life in prison enough?

Berliner traces NPR’s “rise of advocacy—as in many newsrooms” to Donald Trump’s election. He cites the Russian collusion fixation and NPR’s obsession with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who Berliner seems to have figured out bamboozled them. Then he goes on to do something I can’t recall any other liberal media figure doing; he criticizes the organization for not only blowing the story but “to pretend it never happened, to move on with no mea culpas, no self-reflection.”

“Russiagate was not NPR’s only miscue,” he continues, excoriating NPR for its handling of the Hunter Biden laptop story and its Covid coverage.

The problems at NPR, according to Berliner, started when NPR’s former CEO, John Lansing, went from working behind the scenes primarily as a fundraiser and liaison with member stations to a more visible role after George Floyd’s death in 2020.

What Uri Berliner describes, “NPR itself was part of the problem,” must have been a nightmare for guilt-ridden white liberals.

To fix the problem, “He (Lansing) declared that diversity —on our staff and in our audience—was the overriding mission, the ‘North Star’ of the organization. Phrases like “that’s part of the North Star” became part of meetings and more casual conversation.”

The effect? “And I believe, is the most damaging development at NPR: the absence of viewpoint diversity,” Berliner writes.

He cites stories that this mindset led to, including “How The Beatles and bird names are racially problematic; justifying looting, with claims that fears about crime are racist; and suggesting that Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action have been manipulated by white conservatives.”

The results? According to Uri Berliner: “Back in 2011, although NPR’s audience tilted a bit to the left, it still bore a resemblance to America at large. Twenty-six percent of listeners described themselves as conservative, 23 percent as middle of the road, and 37 percent as liberal.”

“By 2023, the picture was completely different: only 11 percent described themselves as very or somewhat conservative, 21 percent as middle of the road, and 67 percent of listeners said they were very or somewhat liberal. We weren’t just losing conservatives; we were also losing moderates and traditional liberals.”

The numbers he cites are from a combination of Pew Research Center and NPR’s data.

There is additional evidence that before 2020, NPR wasn’t as far to the left.

AllSides is an organization with the following mission statement: Free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world – and each other.

Their website states: “Don’t be fooled by media bias and fake news. We display the day’s top news stories from the Left, Center, and Right of the political spectrum – side-by-side so you can see the full picture.

AllSides also rates news organizations on a scale: Left – Leans Left – Center – Leans Right – Right.

In its most recent review (2022), AllSides rates NPR Leans Left.

In its previous ratings dating back to 2016, NPR was rated Center, Though Close to Lean Left.

AllSides ratings reflect what Berliner believes and NPR’s audience composition then and now.

Before he wrote the column for The Free Press, Uri Berliner tried to bring about change within NPR. He pushed for minor changes to make reporting less left-skewed, and more accurate, even scheduling a meeting with then-CEO Lansing, which never happened.

Is it possible that by going public, Berliner’s efforts will cause even the slightest self-reflection within NPR – if not actual change?

The answer came the same day (and was updated a day later) in a story written by NPR’s media correspondent, David Folkenflik, and posted on its website.

Folkenflik reports, “NPR’s chief news executive and chief content officer, Edith Chapin, wrote in a memo to staff Tuesday afternoon that she and the news leadership team strongly reject Berliner’s assessment.”

Reading into the memo, we should assume that life will continue as before at NPR, although perhaps not for Berliner.

At least one former NPR staffer disagrees with the organization’s response. Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR’s former VP for news and ombudsman, posted on X (formerly Twitter), “I know Uri. He’s not wrong.”

The shame is that this is a perfect opportunity for NPR to consider course corrections. NPR has a new CEO, Katherine Maher. She started on March 25th.

At least on the surface, it doesn’t appear that Maher is interested in Berliner’s views. A network spokesperson says Maher supports Chapin and her response to Berliner’s critique.

NPR used to practice journalism. Over the past several years, it has become another news organization advocating for liberal causes. Uri Berliner has done a tremendous public service by showing exactly how that transformation happened. It’s too bad that it looks like NPR won’t be returning to journalism anytime soon.

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Alex Silverman is Sharing How He’s Led KNX News Through Disasters at the NAB Show

“From my experience, sometimes what happens is the engineers…will put a plan together and it’s a really good plan on paper, but it doesn’t always take into account everything that is needed on the content side…”

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A photo of Alex Silverman and the KNX News logo
(Photo: Audacy)

As the media industry gathers in Las Vegas for the NAB Show, Barrett News Media was able to catch up with some key speakers this week including Director of News and Programming at KNX News 97.1 FM, Alex Silverman. His talk is going to be focused on emergency preparedness for stations, something he’s worked under several times.

From reporting on disaster zones to managing a team during a catastrophe, Alex Silverman has worked through some of the toughest stories of our time, and it all began as a childhood dream.

“I always wanted to be in radio. Ever since I was a little kid, there was just something about it. Something about the power of audio and being in the car with my parents, listening to audio. It just made me feel like that was what I wanted to do with my life,” Silverman told BNM over a Zoom call.

While he never made it to be a sportscaster, he did attend Syracuse and worked at both a local news station and the school’s radio station. Silverman said, “[At the school station] I became their chief engineer and operations guy, and later, general manager. That’s where I started learning the technical engineering side of broadcasting and those are kind of the two worlds that I’ve been in ever since.”

From The Orange he went to Seattle, followed by stops in New York and Philadelphia before moving out to LA.

Alex Silverman will speak on planning and enacted emergency procedures using examples from his own career including covering Hurricane Sandy and COVID.

“I’m also going to be bringing in John Kennedy, who is Audacy’s  Senior Vice President of technical operations, who oversees disaster planning for all 230 plus of our stations.”

Silverman went on to say, “I’m going to be talking about my experiences, and he’s going to be sharing some of his experiences, particularly things like Hurricane Katrina, which is probably the best example of a station actually having to implement its disaster plan for a long period of time and serving the community that way.”

Additionally, the pair will speak on how to know and what to do if you have a plan that might be faulty and not cover all you need.

“From my experience, sometimes what happens is the engineers and the technical people will put a plan together and it’s a really good plan on paper, but it doesn’t always take into account everything that is needed on the content side. Which is why collaboration between the technical side and the content side is so important,” Silverman said.

With his career straddling both the technical and content side, Silverman has learned how to pivot in emergencies including during COVID.

“When I was in Philadelphia, we had a studio at our transmitter site. But it couldn’t do all the things we needed it to do if we actually had to go there and we actually had to continue providing information to the public.

“As soon as we had that disaster plan in place, now we actually have to think about it. If one person gets COVID, the days when we thought that way, we have to abandon the facility, right? Okay. How are we going to do that? We’ve got to figure out how to get satellite feeds for our networks into this emergency studio at a different location. We have to figure out how to get phone calls and the app our reporters use. All those things.”

To get the full scope of how to plan for a disaster Alex Silverman believes, “Sometimes it’s not really thought about unless there is that collaboration between all the stakeholders at the in the newsroom.”

Throughout his career, the KNX News 97.1 FM leader has seen significant changes in the radio landscape.

“Just in the time that I’ve been in the business, the technology we use in radio has changed so dramatically. We used to — if we wanted sort of broadcast quality audio from a reporter in the field — carry around a clunky device. And now reporters will use an app on their phone and they’ll sound like they have studio quality audio.”

Alex Silverman also believes technology is changing the way radio is delivering content, “because we can’t just deliver it to them over the normal broadcast channels. We have to be everywhere. We have to communicate to people that we’re on all of these platforms.”

He believes the key for everyone to succeed on all platforms is to ensure we have good content. “Where I see the future of this business, it’s reliant upon people wanting the content, no matter what platform they are getting it on. So if somebody gets into their car and the first thing they see is CarPlay, we want them to be thinking ‘I’m gonna turn on 97.1.’”

For those looking to follow in Silverman’s footsteps, it’s simple. He believes this is an interesting time to be in the media. “A lot of people see it as a scary time because so many things are changing constantly. But there will always be a need for good content.”

He also noted how critical it is for those who want to be in the industry to be a true journalist.

“It’s a really critical time right now. We don’t have enough people who actually want to go into audio and video media to do real journalism. It was much easier to recruit journalists when I became a manager several years ago than it is now.

“So I would say anybody who has a real passion for true journalism, getting to the facts, letting the audience decide for themselves how to interpret those facts. There are so many there going to be so many opportunities. No matter what the platform is.”

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How Many Ads Are Too Many on Radio Stations?

While it’s fair to go after some radio stations for their heavy spot loads, let’s talk about the consumer experience for online…it might be much worse!

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A photo of Times Square

Last week, I started this column by confessing that I read too much radio, TV, ratings, and advertising trade press. Same goes for email ads. 

LinkedIn sends emails regularly suggesting entries that might be interesting to me. Most of the time, the posts aren’t all that engaging, but last week, I was rewarded with a good use of my time against the power washing that needs to be finished or a paper deadline in my Middle East international relations class at Western Kentucky that will be here sooner than I expect (don’t worry, Dr. Kiasatpour, my paper will be submitted on time!).

The initial post was from someone I don’t know, but George Ivie, the head of the Media Rating Council (MRC) and a longtime friend, had responded. It concerned digital advertising and while much of the conversation was beyond my knowledge, it was instructive. 

For example, among the many three-letter acronyms I’m aware of, I had never heard of MFA, or at least not in this context (admit it, your mind probably came up with something “not safe for work” or for broadcasters, “not safe for on-air” too!).  MFA is “Made for Advertising” and refers to certain websites that have numerous display ads.  Often, these websites run a ton of ads, sometimes by spoofing a legitimate website.

In the case discussed on LinkedIn, the publisher was Forbes magazine, a venerable title that has been around for over a century. If you happened to go www.forbes.com, everything was fine. As I understand it, there was also a www3.forbes.com URL that ran any number of ads.  According to the report from Adalytics, an online ad quality and transparency platform,

“Forbes appears to have set up a dedicated sub-domain – called www3.forbes.com, which appears to have a very different ad-serving experience relative to the “normal” www.forbes.com sub-domain. A reader viewing an article on the normal sub-domain may see about 3-10 ads in an article, whereas reading the www3 variant exposes the reader to approximately 201+ ad impressions in a single page view session.

“Several experts assert that this “www3.” subdomain of Forbes can be classified as “Made for Advertising” or “Made for Arbitrage” (MFA). One consumer was shown 27 New York Times subscription ads and 201+ ads total while viewing a 52-slide slideshow on the “www3.” Forbes subdomain. The New York Times paid an effective cumulative CPM of $60.39 to serve ads to that one consumer.”

Part of the LinkedIn discussion revolved around MRC’s digital standards concerning Invalid Traffic (IVT) and Sophisticated Invalid Traffic (SIVT) and how there may be a loophole in the standards. Ron Pinelli, another friend from his days auditing the Arbitron system who is now a senior vice president at MRC and well-versed in these matters, replied concerning how MRC handles these issues.

Why write about some LinkedIn “back and forth” that not many of us fully understand? While over 200 ads in a slideshow is over the top and to me, even up to ten ads with one article seems a bit much, this isn’t my reason for raising this issue. When we talk and write about how to improve radio, we invariably bring up spot load. I’ve not seen anyone defend the current spot loads on most commercial stations, yet this torrent of display ads on a website dwarf just about anything on radio.

And when was the last time anyone talked about “invalid traffic” on radio? Advertisers pay for spots and they run. Yes, mistakes are made from time to time and makegoods are run and our stop sets are often far too long. Perhaps this is “apples and oranges”, but the various digital advertising options are loaded with ads, oftentimes extremely annoying pop-up video ads that take away from what you were trying to access. While it’s fair to go after some radio stations for their heavy spot loads, let’s talk about the consumer experience for online…it might be much worse!

What advertiser would want to run their ad in that kind of environment? Let’s go back to the oft-used John Wannamaker quote that about half of his advertising was wasted, he just didn’t know which half. For the 21st century, perhaps the quote can be “Some of my digital advertising is fraudulent, but I just don’t know which part”. 

Oddly enough, when I searched on Google to get the exact Wannamaker quote, one option was a newsletter from Forbes. You should have seen how many ads popped up!

If you’re interested, here is the LinkedIn conversation that triggered this column.

And if you’d like to know more about the Media Rating Council (and you should), click here.

Let’s meet again next week.

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