A radio group announced last month that they were severing ties with Arbitron, citing problems with measuring audiences in smaller markets and rural areas, and was going with a telephonic measuring system called the Eastlan group.

New Northwest Broadcasters owns over 30 stations in four western states- Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Alaska. In my opinion, this move is like going from playing music from hard drive back to throwing two turntables and bringing back 45’s and 33’s into a smoky studio with live on-air talent 24/7. In other words, they’re going backwards technologically, and logically, this move makes absolutely no sense.

Ten years ago, as more and more folks got cell phones and dropped landlines altogether, call out research tanked on just about everything firms were trying to get a handle on. The first question I ask folks is this- if you see a name of a research group or a company you don’t recognize on your cell OR landline phone, are you going to answer it? I am safe in saying 9 out of 10 folks I have asked that question to have told me no, for various reasons. Some don’t have the time. Others have the time but simply don’t want to be bothered after a long day at work. It’s an election year, so there will be many other companies not affiliated with radio station research calling homes and cell phones as well.

Methodology of these type of surveys is also suspect. There isn’t much a company can do when you’re sending out diaries for people to fill out to “help” them if they’re confused. In call out research, however, there is an ability/opporunity for the company to reach out to folks that will “help” the listener (the caller they’ve reached) determine the station they listen to if they don’t know it. Many call-out companies will try and get a definitive answer, and although they are most times instructed not to give call letters, they have a job to do. They claim they don’t lead the listener, but about 12 years ago, I got a call from this group. I didn’t tell them who I was and gave them vague answers. Since we didn’t commission them, I waited to see if they would drop a frequency name down if I mentioned a specific format. Ours was not mentioned. Theirs was.

When a group announces they’ve signed a major deal involving several markets with a research firm, it is almost a guarantee that stations owned by that group will show well in telephonic surveys provided by the vendor, in this case, Eastlan. Some call it buying a survey. I can only think that if my group is the one that has commissioned these people in my market and 7 or 8 others in 4 states, we’re going to do quite well. We always notice that the stations owned by this group that have commissioned this telephonic survey group do well in other markets. If they were that good, why are the Arbitron numbers so vastly different from their survey numbers? Telephonic survey organizations don’t leave a return phone number, either. So if you truly DO want to talk to them, but they miss you, well, they miss you. Timing is everything.

Demographically, the older a person is, the less likely they’ll have a cell phone and/or answer a call from an outisde interest group no matter who they are. Fraud is on the rise across the country, including telephone fraud, and older demographical listeners are more skeptical now more than ever on who, or what, is on the other end of the telephone.

Finally, the group across town had a station sent “below the line” in one survey because of on-air tactics used during the survey period. “If anybody calls you and asks what station you listen to, and you say K—, you COULD win 92 dollars and 50 cents in cold hard cash.” I recently heard a promo that said, “Here’s what happened the last time,” meaning the last time one of their listeners was reached by a member of their staff was recorded and actually won money…..but the promo is at least 5 years old! One of the oldest tricks in the playbook is to make the listener- even those that just sample your station briefly-believe they will win money by giving call letters out that may not correspond to the actual favorite station of theirs, only to find it’s the research firm, and not the promotions department of the radio station.

Telephonic surveys are a tough animal to not only execute properly, but the margin of error seems to be quite high. I’m not a huge advocate of mail out diary surveys, either, but given the choice, I would prefer the Arbitron method. Despite the anomalies you may find with unranked markets and year old county wide books, it’s a much more time tested method of measuring audiences. People meters aren’t the answer either, but call out research will soon be a memory along the lines of lava lamps, bean bag chairs, and ash trays filled to capacity in every studio in your building