This week I want to talk about one of my least favorite subjects: ratings. “Growing up” in AM sports radio in the mid-90’s, the ratings weren’t really much of a factor on the programming side of things as we were the only sports station in town at the time. The sales management and team wanted to have them to use, then got them, and then they wished they didn’t have them. Especially in the diary system, once you were intimately aware of how the process worked and really studied the numbers, you saw just how fickle they could be. Plus, I saw a few examples that really had no explanation.
At the first cluster I worked in the mid-90’s, we had an AC station that owned Soft Rock and Women 35+. If you wanted to hear Air Supply, Chicago or Dan Fogelberg, this was your place. And a lot of times you didn’t have a choice, because it was on in every office and store in town. The morning show had been in place for a long time, delivered a consistently above-average show with a few laughs, a lot of music and your typical weather, news and traffic. The midday, afternoon and evening slots were all manned by familiar voices in the market and, quite frankly, not a whole lot ever really changed on the station. Except the ratings, which were all over the place. How could something so consistent have such fluctuation in audience? It made absolutely no sense.
Fast forward several years and I’m heading up a cluster in Alabama where one of our formats was a News-Talk station. In one ratings book, our midday show’s core audience vanished. The show was Rush Limbaugh, who if anything, is one of the most consistent hosts in broadcasting. As I recall, the drop was nearly 50% (this was during the Obama years, by the way), which is practically impossible, especially when you consider the audience returned a few months later.
These examples and several more I’ve encountered over the years always led me to always proceed with caution when it comes to ratings. Yes, when you have good numbers, they’re a great support tool to use for the right clients, but what happens when they go down? After all, the only thing we know about ratings that go up, is that they’re eventually going to go down. So, if you can avoid it, why not have a great idea, concept, or plan for a client and get them results so you don’t ever have to try and explain to someone why, all-of-a-sudden, a significant portion of older women in your area decided they didn’t like Michael Bolton for a few months.
We all know, however, there are still many sellers who rely on the numbers and use them not as a tool to support a great idea, but more a way to try and get in with the client (“Hey! Look at us! We’re #6 with left-handed men who golf and plan to purchase a vehicle in the next 6 months, want to talk?!). To me, this is crazy and setting yourself up for failure. Whether it’s someone in sports, like us, or music, talk, whatever the format, there has to be something other than numbers you can use to present your brand. Remember, we want to be thinking about the renewal and if ratings are what gets you the sale, and those ratings drop, what now?
In addition, today, we see more and more markets where the separation between station #3 in the market and station #12 is hardly anything, so the numbers can’t really separate you from the competition. In a way, it forces people to get more creative than just throwing the ranker in a proposal and calling it a day. What really separates you from the competition? What makes your station special? And what can you create for a business that they aren’t going to get somewhere else?
The ratings system is what it is. Your ratings could be sky high one book and then the next book, half of your conservative audience decides Rush just wasn’t for them.
If you live by the ratings, you will die by the ratings. After all, nobody has ever seen a rating point walk in to a business and buy something. People who listen to sports radio stations and hear creative messages, repeated the proper amount of times, they go in to businesses and make purchases. Deliver results and you won’t ever have to rely on the numbers.