How to Research Radio Ratings

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Radio still reaches a majority of the United States' population, according radio research reported by AllAccess. Radio popularity is measured by one main source, Arbitron, which is a publicly traded company that sells its data to the radio industry. Although competing ratings services have come and gone since its inception in the 1960's, Arbitron is regarded as the most credible audience measurement service by the radio industry, similar to how Nielsen is regarded as the primary ratings service for television. Arbitron charges radio subscribers thousands of dollars per year for its services, which include demographic breakdowns for various time periods known as "dayparts." Because of the expensive costs for ratings, the information is difficult to obtain from non-subscribers, although newspapers around the country report the most general Arbitron findings for their respective markets. Ratings information is mainly used to set advertising rates, but pop-culture fans and writers also use the data for analysis.

How to Research Radio Ratings

Decide what you are using radio ratings information for. If it is for advertising purposes, then you might need to subscribe to Arbitron, which is very expensive for an individual, or meet with a radio professional to discuss ratings. However, if the purpose is to analyze radio popularity for a writing project, then you can do your own limited research online at radio industry Web sites such as AllAccess.

Choose the radio market you are analyzing. Arbitron ranks radio markets by U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Large markets such as New York City and Los Angeles are rated every three months, whereas smaller markets such as Palm Springs, Calif., are rated every six months. Keep in mind ratings are not an exact science and are treated as estimates. The latest information still reflects how well stations performed in the past and not the immediate present.

Read the lists of stations that are ranked in order on Web sites such as AllAccess and compare previous quarters with the current quarter. These trade publications will present ratings for people aged 12 and older. More specific demographics, such as the 25 to 54 age group, are usually withheld from the mainstream media because this information is sold to radio stations at premium prices.

Contact radio professionals if you need extensive radio ratings information. Chances are they are limited by agreements with Arbitron. But if you are interested in advertising on radio, a sales executive likely will answer your most relevant questions.

Make sure you understand Arbitron terminology. Weekly cume is usually the biggest number that reflects station popularity and refers to the cumulative audience that listens during the period of a week. This does not mean the total number of listeners at any given moment. The closest statistic Arbitron gives to determine how many listeners will hear a commercial is "average quarter hour persons."

Tips & Warnings

  • Be careful not to jump to conclusions about radio ratings. The methodology has been questioned by many leading radio professionals who are skeptical that "diary keepers" accurately log their listening behavior.
  • Arbitron is a commercial entity that sells its data to the radio industry. Use of their copyrighted information requires permission.

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