As one of the first countries to welcome entrepreneurial commercial broadcasting, the US established a tremendous lead over other countries in radio broadcast innovation.
Decades before other countries had any independent broadcasters, we had nearly ten thousand radio stations operated by thousands of independent owners.
This giant collaborative network produced diverse programming, rapid technological innovation, and a well developed system for measuring and reporting radio listenership.
As other countries gradually opened the airwaves to private operators, they looked to the US to learn how competitive commercial radio was done. One country that took a keen interest in US radio was the United Kingdom.
Harker Research began consulting British radio stations in 1990, and we found an industry that had a lot to learn, but an industry eager to learn.
Now two decades later, UK radio has not only caught up. In many ways, it has quickly moved beyond US radio, leaving it in the dust.
One important area where the UK is well ahead of the US is how radio is measured and reported.
The US has a patchwork of different companies measuring the various ways people listen to the radio.
Arbitron measures over-the-air terrestrial radio using two different methodologies that produce contradictory estimates.
But Arbitron doesn’t measure the fastest growing segment of radio listening, Internet radio streaming. Triton Digital among others does.
Triton produces ratings using different listening metrics and different editing rules from the way Arbitron measures terrestrial listening, however.
Consequently, Arbitron and Triton numbers are not directly comparable. They cannot be combined as reported.
On top of that, Triton only measures the streams of those companies who pay Triton to be measured, a small percentage of US broadcast stations streaming.
This hodgepodge means that the US, once the world leader in commercial broadcasting, has no reliable measure of total broadcast radio listening.
The US radio industry does not know how many people are listening to commercial radio, how long they listen, the proportion using each platform, or even whether broadcast listenership is growing or declining.
Not a clue.
Compare the plight of US broadcasters to UK broadcasters.
In the UK, commercial broadcasters and the BBC jointly own RAJAR, Radio Joint Audience Research, a service who’s task is to measure all radio consumption.
Terrestrial, digital, and Internet listening are measured by one service owned by broadcasters using a consistent methodology that produces reliable and comparable estimates of radio listening.
UK broadcasters know how many people listen to radio and how long they listen across all the different ways people listen to radio today.
The rating service was able to recently announce that radio listening had reached an all time record high, something US broadcasters can only guess about.
While US broadcasters focused their hopes on PPM to advance US audience measurement, RAJAR was looking beyond PPM and recognizing the need for a system that could measure all platforms equally as well.
UK broadcasters have already succeeded in that goal while US broadcasters haven’t even begun discussing the need.
After years of leading the world, US radio has fallen woefully behind the UK in the innovation necessary to prepare radio for its digital transition.
The US needs a single radio measurement system that looks at radio in all the ways it is consumed. Having lent the Brits a hand in the past, maybe they’d be willing to help the US now.
We need it.