An Argument To Scrap PPM and Return To The Diary


(By K.M. Richards) As we all know by now, the latest Nielsen PPM fiasco turns out to be a single family with multiple meters which were exposed long-term to an online stream. And Nielsen’s “fix” is to remove that household from the process. I do not believe that’s going to restore the growing suspicions by the radio industry that PPM is not an accurate method of determining the listenership numbers.

This is only, as I said above, the “latest” in a string of negative incidents involving that little listener-worn device. Going back only about 18 months, we’ve endured the headphone measurement issue, the faulty reboot logic incident, confirmed irregularities in the Los Angeles ratings (even though Nielsen claims they weren’t significant enough to warrant even a footnote in “the book”), Mark Ramsey’s debate over placement of PPMs and number of households involved per market, the Voltair controversy, Harker Research’s report on minute-by-minute listening, and Coleman Research’s finding that older listeners by far “turn on/turn off” radio than switch between stations …

And yet we seem to be stuck with it, even though it’s never — as Arbitron had promised when they first rolled out the technology over a decade ago — expanded beyond the top 50 markets (okay, top 52 … but four of those are still on diaries). The claim has always been that PPM was developed to give the advertising agencies a better picture of the markets’ listening habits, but I find myself wondering if they might also be less than satisfied with the result.

Do they even know the sample size with PPM is lower than with the old diary-keeping method? Do they realize that a percentage of the reported “listenership” could be the result of a station in the background, but still detectable, being in the vicinity of a meter but the person wearing it not consciously listening? Do they know that younger demographics have been proven to switch stations at the first notes of a song they dislike or if they perceive a long commercial stopset is starting?

It’s my opinion that PPM provides a lot of irrelevant data and not enough that is relevant, and I believe the former is skewing the latter when it comes down to the processing of that data into the reports that both the stations and the agencies live and die by. And I have a fairly simple argument for going back to the diaries, by turning some of the so-called “flaws” in that methodology into a compelling positive.

I believe that stations want to know how they stand in their markets in terms of P1, P2, etc. That’s certainly the distinction most programmers focus on when trying to improve (and/or hold on to) their standing. Diary-keepers are proven to list the stations they listen to the most when filling out their personal reports; they don’t include incidental listening (which shouldn’t be important anyway) and if they dial-switch they tend to apportion their listening between all the stations they actively switch between. Let the book reflect who their actual favorite, listened-to stations are and don’t try to calculate it down to such a small fragment of time that the wobble erases the distinction.

A version of that argument applies to the time buyers as well: They shouldn’t … they likely don’t … care the precise number of minutes people listen to specific radio stations. They want — and need — to know which stations get the highest percentages of the listening for whatever demographic(s) their client wants to reach. If a diary gives them that with a reasonable margin of error (and it still does, in the vast majority of markets) that is enough for them to make their decisions.

Ratings have always been a popularity contest. Beyond that, trying to sort them into smaller granularity is more showing off the technology than providing something that is useful to all involved.

Let’s scrap the technology and go back to the method which gives us the result we really wanted all along.

K.M. Richards is the owner of K.M. Richards Programming Services in Los Angeles. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


  1. The biggest joke about ratings is that the old diary method or the PPM method don’t mean squat. The only thing that matters, as far as ratings are concerned, is whether or not a client gets advertising results. The fallacy of the ratings system is that it has no way of tracking this. Until that gets fixed, absolutely NO ratings methodology means anything.

  2. PPM has never been about listening. It’s all about what the device hears whether anybody is listening or not. Having some Tropical formatted station blaring from the speakers above the gas pumps at the local TEXACO station, and being heard by a PPM device, has absolutely NO bearing on whether or not the soccer mom getting gas is listening. But NIELSEN will give them credit in the report.

  3. Here in Kanada, internal devices have been installed on our microwaves.
    But, they only pick up signals emanating from counter-top radios manufactured before 1972.
    Ken did warn us. 🙂

  4. Dump PPM in 48 radio markets and return to the diary? Surely you jest (don’t call me Shirley). TV stations in smaller markets demanded more accurate ratings, so what did Nielsen do with TV diary methodology there? Going. Going. Gone. TV set meter ratings in 48 metros will be augmented by Nielsen’s PPM as TV stations and cable channels are encoded so the radio meters can compile the data of TV viewing along with radio listening. The diary is not the answer to making radio ratings more accurate. Unless you program Smooth Jazz.

  5. The FACT of this matter is that NOBODY LISTENS TO COMMERCIALS ON THE RADIO! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here people! A $17B ad industry based on paper diary entries and flawed PPMs…. seriously?!

  6. Technology is improving. The NSA can use your Samsung to listen to you and your wife talking about the threesome fantasy she wants to have with the college kid next door before her (bleep) sag. You telling me Arbitron can’t accurately measure the ratings of radio?

    Sounds like Arbitron needs to get its (bleep) together.

  7. I owned an ad agency for 17 years, before becoming a broadcast consultant and digital service provider. Any station that uses, or relies on Nielsen methodology or services in this modern era, when there are a multitude of ways to track ACTUAL audience and listener trends should have their heads examined.

    ESPECIALLY in market sizes that are unrated or below the top 20 markets because of the complete lack, or infrequency of the samples.

    We didn’t trust the methodology 20 years ago…and now employ a variety of actual marketing surveys that give us sample sizes that are not only 10-20 times larger, more frequent, and wider in scope…but also use the same tools to create side-channel direct email programs, on-demand listener-driven programming, and a variety of multimedia advertising products that would never show up on a PPM or a diary.

    I ALSO received a random, unsolicited diary from the good folks at Neilsen a few years back…along with $3 in one dollar bills as my “payment.” I have it framed on my office wall, along with a picture of an old AM transmitter site.

    Neilsen is an artifact of the “Good Old Days” and is about as useful in the modern communications era as a buggy whip for a Prius. The PPM is like attaching an electric cord to that buggy whip… Seems “more modern” but is just as useless, and is a little more dangerous in the delusion of “innovative” it provides.

    • Patric, you are probably the only one participating here who can answer some of the issues I (and others) have brought up without it being anecdotal. We can all speak to the radio side, but few of us know the agency side. That’s why I hedged my language in the paragraph about what I think the agencies want and need. So …

      Do you believe the agencies have some unspoken distrust of the ratings, and are using them because nothing else is available that anyone considers remotely credible? Someone suggested a version of diarykeeping that uses a (presumed) secure online connection. And I never said “pencil and paper” … that was a commenter reading more into my suggestion we go back to the diary.

      I am going to presume, from the detail you included in your comment, that you have some credible ideas as to how this can be fixed. And you have the background that makes it unnecessary for me to ask if your ideas have the level of credibility that the agencies would sign off on.

      But all of this — my opinion piece, the comments both pro and con, the anecdotal “evidence” — isn’t worth the price of a venti-size coffee at Starbucks unless we know for certain: Do the agencies distrust PPM? Would they prefer something that clears away the non-relevant listener data and tells them which stations people are consciously listening to?

      What can we fix to solve the problems either and both sides have?

  8. Years ago I received a diary package in the mail at home.
    I was working as Engineering Manager at a group of privately owned stations in suburban New York.

    I had never had an actual diary in my hand before and it took a few minutes for it to sink in!

    I brought it into the station and the PD and GM sat there gazing at the package. I can only describe the look on everyone’s face as the look one would have if the IRS decided to audit the station. They said what are you going to do with it? I decided to call the help line and tell them I am involved in broadcasting and therefore I’m disqualified myself. Their response was directing my call to another department who thanked me for being so honest and asked me to return the items. I asked if I could keep them to frame for my office- they agreed asking if I wanted the moments autographed- we all laughed!

    The diary and related introduction letter ended up in a large frame hanging on the wall in my office. It was common for executives, account executives, announcers, interns etc. to come see the document that determines the very destiny of a radio station large or small. It’s was viewed more times then the actual station license from the FCC that gives a station the power to exist at all.

    This monopoly is very frightening !

  9. Anyone out there remember AccuRatings from the ’90s? A smaller company that was trying to make their mark in markets across the country. They came into our small to mid-size market with 3 times more surveys than Arbitron and totally shook up the ratings with their results. Problem was, only one station in the 20 station market subscribed because no one believed anything but what the “Big A” published. Whether diaries or PPM….accuracy is a fleeting thing.

  10. In reality, Nielsen is never going to give up their investment in least in totality. My best suggestion (and yes, I’ve suggested this to Nelsen) is a hybrid system. A combination of PPM, which does measure exposure and (conceivably) listening and a system that could reward a great brand as well..they spends the time and money to truly outperform, outwork and out market their competitors “jock in a box”.

    I agree with Adam, a return to paper and pencil isn’t the answer…but a app or computer system/webpage where you could register your listening manually might be. ‘

    A system like that rewards actual listening… as well as a great brand… that is top of mind “recalled” as well. It also would drive up total ratings because in our real world, the biggest financial issue I face as a GM regarding ratings is that the “old” 1.7 ratings in diary demos have moved to 08’s in PPM and we as a industry haven’t priced accordingly. That, BTW, is’t a Nielsen’s a “look in the mirror” issue”

    Oh yeah, and the sample size and multiple meters in households is a joke. 🙂


  11. K.M. Richards: The new ratings authority? While PPM has seen a renewed round in the spotlight for “flaws,” a return to hand-scribed diaries in all markets reflects the ignorance and antiquated mindset of individuals in an industry many advertisers ignore or think last about. With programmatic and metrics designed with big data in mind, perfecting ppm is the only logical solution to measurement woes. This includes a total sample size push — the real issue here. PPM itself is far from the problem. As an Arbitron diary keeper I penned a column for R&R about my “diary of a madman.” It was an insane process that endures in small markets today, incredibly. By the way R&R and Arbitron no longer exist. Advertisers demand real metrics, but a return to diaries would kill off radio once and for all with any ANA member, making it meaningless for every media buyer and planner controlling billions of dollars in ad spend.