Q&A with CRA’s Joan Warner: Why the radio ratings are on hold and what will change while they’re gone

COVID-19 has not only hit radio's revenues, it's also taken its toll on the industry's ability to report who is listening to what, and when.

Commercial Radio Australia's Joan Warner talks to Mumbrella's Vivienne Kelly about why the industry body had to pause its ratings reporting, what things might look like on the other side, and what counts as 'success' in a market with declining revenues, less data and more pressures than any time in recent memory.

Joan Warner, CEO, Commercial Radio Australia (JW)
Vivienne Kelly, editor, Mumbrella (VK)

VK: Did putting the radio ratings on pause feel like an inevitable decision, or were you trying to find alternatives?

JW: Well, I think it was inevitable, given that it felt like it was the time to do it, because we finished survey two, so all that fieldwork is done, and survey one in the regions is almost done, and we’re very pleased that that’s been able to go ahead. But now, just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve been saying “What does this mean for the field team, for the field workers? And what does it mean for people who have a fieldworker come and knock on the door?”

So I think as the restrictions got tougher and tougher, I think it became something that was inevitable, just to adhere to government restrictions, but also for the safety of the field force and the diary keepers.

The radio industry has had to make changes to adapt to COVID-19

VK: How do you think the radio stations will react, particularly those that top the ratings and then use that as a marketing strategy?

JW: Look, we would not have made this decision without talking to our radio networks. And they fully understand why the decision [was made], and why GfK itself had concerns for its own workforce. So this was a lot of consultation and a lot of discussion.

We looked at ‘Is there another way to do it without compromising the currency?’ And the answer was no. So, we then made the decision, [and] obviously our members knew before we made the announcement. And they’re very happy that the survey results are going out in April, which is great.

And we are aiming to be back – of course this is all dependent on restrictions – hopefully, they will be lifted by September. But we’re planning for the next survey release in September. So it’s like four months without data, without complete survey data.

But we are now, as we said in our media release, looking at what data we can put out to the market in the interim. And we believe we probably will be able to put out some top-line data sets based on streaming numbers, Radio App, Podcast Ranker, and some other things we’re also looking at doing in the next couple of months. So it won’t be a data-free zone for radio at all, but it won’t be a complete in-depth radio survey data.

VK: Does it feel like a bit of an unfair dynamic, that there’s probably more people listening to radio right now than there has been in a while, but you can’t get the accurate and complete data on that?

JW: Yes – I mean we will have it for survey two, and certainly in the regions they’re still in field for survey one, so we will have some data from survey two, which is in coronavirus time. And we will be having a look in-depth at that to see if we can do a supplementary release about that as well.

Sandilands is often top of the Sydney FM breakfast pile alongside Jackie ‘O’ Henderson

But yes, that’s the frustrating thing, because we believe people are listening to more radio. And we see that – we put out a release [last week] about the increasing use of Radio App, which has gone up by 20%, and we’re seeing similar interest in stations’ streaming figures. So we’re going to be having a really close look at that so we can actually keep advising the market on listening patterns and the fact that people are listening to more radio.

And I’ve hear people say ‘Well, people aren’t driving anymore, so radio listening will go right down’. As I’ll drive into the office – I’m the only one there – every morning, the roads are full of people. So, people are still driving as opposed to taking public transport, I think, and they’re still driving to the shop and they’re still driving to the doctor. So, we’re not concerned about that. And a very large percentage of listening, anyway, takes place at home, so we expect that percentage of listening to increase now that people are stuck at home.

VK: And because there is less commuting on public transport, what do you think that will mean for podcasts, because anecdotal evidence is that people listen to podcasts while commuting. Do you think that will have an impact at all?

JW: I don’t know. I think probably our next Podcast Ranker [will show us that]. That will be in another four weeks, so I think we will see some very interesting trends coming out of that. We had, as you know, seen an increase in the download of news podcasts and true crime had suffered a little bit in the last couple of weeks, which is interesting, because that’s usually one of the biggest sections of podcasts, and news podcasts have increased.

So, I don’t know. I think you’re right about people listening to podcasts on public transport, but I don’t think we’ll know for a couple of weeks yet, certainly with all the publishers that are involved with our ranker, we’ll get some good data we can put out there as well.

VK: And you mentioned in the release on Friday that you were going to get GfK to expedite its hybrid system while we’re on this pause. Can you talk me through what you want them to do with that project?

JW: Well, they have collected a massive amount of data. And as we know, they’ve been testing apps, electronic meters in the form of a watch, online diaries, and looking at how they can integrate the streaming data into a bigger set of data from diaries and apps and watches. And we’ve been expected to get advice from them, just some top-line advice in April and some firm recommendations in June.

A previous iteration of CRA’s Radio Alive campaign

So what they’ve said to us is through the super pilots all through the second half of last year, we’ve collected a massive amount of data. And now we’ve got to wade our way through it, look at how we can harmonise it, look at what sort of recommendations we can make to you etc. etc. So we’ve said to them “We would like to see you expedite that data analysis and possibly come up with some firm recommendations a little bit sooner.”

The sooner they come up with recommendations for the industry to consider, the sooner we can start implementation plans.

VK: I listened to the Christian O’Connell episode of Wil Andrerson’s podcast Wilosophy, and he was talking about how hectic the Australian market is because our ratings are released so often….

JW: We actually release more than any other jurisdiction, so for us, we’re really only pausing surveys and data for four months – but because there’s three surveys in that four months, it’s like ‘Oh, it seems like a lot’. Whereas I’ve been talking to people in the UK who are going ‘Oh, yes, we might have to pause one survey’ because they only do four a year.

So it’s interesting. We do report a lot for the market, so we’re hoping the market will be understanding of what’s going on at the moment.

VK: So even when you pause, you’re still going to have a number of surveys this year. Would this situation make you perhaps reassess how often you do it in the future? Or do you like doing it as regularly as you do?

JW: Look, I think we do it because we want to give the data to the market and we know that certainly the Australian market is a very demanding market.

Well before my time in this job, they did only do four surveys, four releases a year, and in response to market pressure, they upped them to eight. Now that was probably 30 years ago. But no, I don’t think we will be rethinking the number of releases to market. I think we’ll continue, we’ll just go back [to what we had before].

I’m hoping next year, actually, we’re going to have our new hybrid methodology rolling out. So I can’t see us giving any less data to the market. What we’re about with the hybrid system is trying to find ways we can give the same sort of data that we give now, but also more qualitative data. More panel data. More data about specific demos, by using different tools. So our whole aim of hybrid is to increase the data that we have available. So I can’t see us cutting back on surveys.

Warner: Success is surviving 

VK: Given it’s been such an unpredictable year, and it’s only early April, and you’ve had to put a pause on surveys – for you, as the peak radio body, what will success be in 2020?

JW: In 2020 I think it will be – I can’t talk about revenue as you know because everybody, and it’s not just radio, and it’s not just media. I think everyone’s got to take a big pause and say ‘This isn’t about just revenue for radio or TV or anyone else in media – it’s every business is hurting’.

So I think success for us will be maintaining our audiences, which I think we’ll do very easily, being able to demonstrate our usefulness and ubiquity in this time of crisis, and demonstrate that Australians, their habit is listening to radio, and we want to be able to demonstrate that that will continue, and that radio can step up, and do the job that we’re here to do in giving factual information to our listeners.

So I think success for us is that we come out the other end. We’ve still all got operating businesses, and our audiences are intact and hopefully by the end of 2020, we might see the revenue start to come back.


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