The World According to Nielsen


(By Mike McVay) The name Nielsen seems to strike fear in some programmers these days. The fear of being judged by the ratings is normally stressful enough, but during a pandemic when the audience’s habits have changed dramatically, the stress-o-meter for most of us is off the chart. We’re learning how to program while Nielsen is learning how to measure the audience during these unusual times. 

There is always fear of the unknown. Pressure fosters in an atmosphere of fear. The Hall of Fame football coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chuck Knoll, once said “Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what’s going on.” It is exactly that type of “pressure” that I’m trying to relieve for you by suggesting how you take advantage of what’s going on.

 Because our livelihood as Programmers and Talent is dependent upon rating success, I have committed myself to learning as much as possible about the ratings systems in both PPM and Diary markets. Despite hours and hours of self-education, time spent with representatives from Nielsen, and by connecting with industry legends and successful programmers, trial and error has been my best teacher. I learned a lot by examining successful stations, and working directly with stations in New York City, LA, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and more. Being involved with diary market stations, big and small, has also provided me with many a lesson. Some good and some not so good. 

I can assure you that only one thing is for sure … and that is … NOTHING IS FOR SURE. Despite all of the homework that we’re doing, and no matter what anyone tells you, we’re all still learning about how radio (aka Audio) is being used during this pandemic. We’ve seen stations shift the airtime of their morning shows to start later and stay on later, when audiences first started working from home, others made no change, and with others we’ve seen the elimination of all contesting and marketing. Some of these changes were driven by technical issues as many shows now originate from the homes of the air talent. Some were financial decisions. Some as a counter-programming competitive move. 

We’re learning the many ways in which listeners are now using radio and we’re also learning how effective the rating system is or isn’t, what is measurable market-to-market and what the seemingly successful practices are for maximizing your ratings when the habits of the listener changes.

There is no “carved in stone” policy for increased performance right now. Except that there is still an audience using radio, albeit smaller than pre-pandemic. Available listeners didn’t all vanish, as some suggested would happen. That means that you have to focus on taking advantage of those that continue to use radio.  The answer is simple …. Get more available listeners than anyone else! Easy to say. Hard to do. Start by getting credit for the listening that you have. Work hard to have your listeners counted in the ratings.

 Everything in the PPM World applies to the Diary World. The people meter is measuring what people listen to … and this is a form of research that can be applied to both PPM and Diary markets. If listeners like it in a PPM market … the odds are that they’ll like it in a diary market. That is except for spot placement. That is because of how Nielsen measures a quarter hour in a diary market versus in a PPM market. In a diary market you need 5 continuous minutes of listening inside of a quarter hour in order to get credit for a full quarter hour. In the PPM market you still need to have five minutes of listening inside of a quarter hour, but they do not need to be continuous minutes. You can have 5 individual minutes and you’ll get credit for the quarter hour. Salvage wasted minutes of listening by expanding the music time inside of each quarter hour.

Because of the rule-of-measurement diary markets should continue to keep their stop-sets in the middle of a quarter hour, either at the 20 and 50 positions or at 10 and 40 in an hour. PPM markets should straddle the quarter hours. You want to cover the greatest part of each quarter hour with music. Stop from:13-:18 and:43-:48 or do the same thing by straddling the top-of-the-hour and the bottom-of-the-hour. I’m a fan of balancing stop-sets across from each other, but there are many tactics that can be employed versus your competition.

Even though AQH is down during the pandemic, cume and time spent listening both remain essential. Some PPM programmers believe that it’s all about cume. In most situations you need both to be truly dominant. Bigger and More is better.

“Duration” and “Occasions” drive time spent listening. You build TSL by having the audience repeat listen. That means teasing what’s coming up next is critical. Tease with an incentive to listen. Don’t tease something that’s coming up a longtime from now. No one will change their habits if the window where to listen is a long way away. You have a much better chance of keeping the audience if you tease no more than five minutes ahead. If you want them to stick around for more than that, what you’re teasing better be really huge.

Listeners leave the station “on our cue.” Do not tip-off the audience that commercials are coming. They’ll listen deeper into a stop-set if you avoid clichés like “We’ll be right back…” Don’t telegraph stop-sets by having a set system in which you always initiate a commercial break. Make the way in which you enter a break as unpredictable as possible. Search for and look for new ways to enter a stop-set. 

Prioritize your commercials so that those that sound most like music air first in a stop-set. This is a policy that went away when traffic systems made it nearly impossible to air music sounding commercials first. Music based advertisements should air first in a break. If you have no music commercials in a stop-set, then air the longest commercials before the shortest duration commercials. We know that radio airs too many commercials in a break. Try to program your stop-sets so they don’t “feel” as long as they are. 

“Boxcar” the segueing of music … meaning play-music-to-music and talk over an intro of a song versus the outro. Keep in mind that speaking over an outro of a song means “commercials are coming.” Only speak over an outro when you are entering a stop-set. 

Does your station have a leadership position in the mind of the listeners? The station that is known as Number One of “anything” is especially valuable in a diary market where recall is important.  The #1 Country station, the #1 Rock station, the #1 News station.  These stations perform better in both Diary and PPM markets as these are generally stations with a bigger cume. Having a bigger cume helps overcome the wobbles that occur in all rating surveys.

Do listeners know who your station is for? Like people of like tastes like the same radio station. The adage “birds of a feather flock together” is appropriately applied here. Do people know how to use the station? This could be a double-edged sword.  For instance, a Christian AC (CCM) station may be clearly known as “the station you listen to when you want to hear Contemporary Christian Music.” The bad news may be that the only time you’re in the mood for that music is Sunday morning as you drive to church.

Daily ratings are more important than weekly ratings. Because the week is made up of 7 individual days and those weeks lead to a monthly report. Focus on winning individual days. Look at your competition and you’ll see that they, as well as your station, perform better on some days versus others. This is an area for further growth among those stations that are already dominant.

Super heavy users are more important than P-1s. Most programmers spend a lot of time focusing on Preference 1 listeners for your stations, but a P1 listener who has a low number of quarter-hours does little for your overall ratings. A P2 with a longer TSL has more value to your overall numbers. Most music stations need at least 60% of their audience to be made up of heavy listeners in order to be successful. This is very true for most formats, but especially true for AC, Hot AC and Country.  

Tactical contests like “the Cash Clock” and “Work and Win Payday” contests have a positive impact on the ratings because they encourage repeat tune-in. Keep them coming back hour-after-hour. It’s easier to do that than to try to force an individual to change their daily habits. Money is always a desired prize, but during these times when so many are out of work and suffering financially, it’s the best and most attractive prize to offer. 

Play your “Power Songs” or air your best talk content at the audience point of recovery. Recovery is that point at which a listener who exited the station when commercials came on re-enters the station, just in time to hear a big hit song or compelling talk. Let’s suppose that your stop-set is 6 minutes long, but the average listener who leaves a station goes away for 10 minutes, so whatever you do immediately after the stop-set falls on deaf ears. Move the biggest hit song or that monster news story/interview to 3 or 4 minutes after the stop-set concludes. That’s when the “punchers” come back from punching a button. 

Avoid the superstitions of PPM ala the statement that PPM hates talk. PPM is a device that monitors the listening habits of a select panel of PPM households. People are telling us what they like and what they dislike, which is tracked by the meter. How hard is it to figure out that doing more of what they like will increase your ratings? Listeners dislike boring and poor talk content. They love entertaining personalities. 

Avoid airing a “Best of” program on your station. If you have to, present a “Best of” but don’t use those words on the air. Avoid saying anything that screams the words “we’re not here … this is a stale show that we aired a while ago. You’ve heard this Show. No reason to listen.” 

Taking vacation during a traditional Monday-Friday week actually impacts two weeks. That’s because the rating week starts on a Thursday and ends on a Wednesday. Encourage your talent to take off Thursday-Wednesday. If that violates your senses … then ask them to VT select days and simulate a live performance during their absence. The same goes for those that may be furloughed a week at a time. Impacting one week is bad enough. Try to avoid impacting back-to-back rating weeks. 

It’s a lot to think about, but the steps to success start with understanding the tool that’s measuring listening and understanding how to maximize your programming. 

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Great vision. Maybe it’s time to go back to the past when Sam Paley gave advice following the Pareto Principle. Simply stack up your heavy users with no regard to branding (P1,P2,P3), dial them in, and get more of them. Factor in internet behavior, and it may be the way to go.

  2. These are great thoughts from you Mike, but as you offer suggestions on “masking” (pardon the pun) the issues facing radio today, you’ve kind of let harsh reality slide by. When a stop set is LONGER than most of the songs a station plays, it might be a problem. The listener still controls the receiver. When 11-12-13 units are crammed into that six or seven minute commercial break, it’s a disservice to the listener, the client and the account executive who was good enough to convince the advertiser that the station was a good buy.

    It’s a great suggestion to stack spots with music up front – but in most automated situations these days the spots “fall as they may”. With production directors responsible for 4, 5 or 6 stations they’re hard-pressed to pay any attention to the quality of the spots they have to put together. I once worked for a company that was trying to build its own commercial scheduling system and suggested we use the RCS (Selector) model of music scheduling. That was 1990. It’s never seen the light of day.

    It’s time to face up to the real issues in a medium that’s getting slammed left and right by digital media. The “entertainment” factor needs to be re-thought to put broadcasting back into the spotlight. Please don’t make me sit through six minutes of mostly irrelevant talk on my favorite music station. Make those spots fun again. (Think “Dick Orkin”.) Think of the entire environment your station exists in and make it shine.

    Programmers these days are walking into battle with other stations, the pure plays and now other media (as in podcasts and other distractions) and much of the old school thinking (as in commercial stop sets) immediately ties one hand, if not two behind their back.

    There are solutions to these issues, Mike. Not easy solutions by any stretch but now, with broadcasters looking at every penny that goes OUT the door as the number of pennies coming in is reduced, a brilliant programmer can offer up a solution that can, again reshape the broadcasting industry. You’ve been around this rodeo long enough to realize the real issues, and it’s getting close to the time we need to fully address them.

    The last 6+ months of “sheltering” and isolation has shown the value of the collective entertainment experience, with many hearing material from one source.

    Your thoughts on this address the concerns of the Wall St. investors but broadcasting results (Nielsen) are still determined by Main St. listeners.

    Those of us who know you and know of your devotion to what broadcasters do need more of you to step up and really address the issues with definite solutions! Thanks for getting the ball rolling as well as you always do!


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