“Arbitron” showed up on my caller I.D. so often last month that I finally decided to pick up and tell whoever it was to get lost. Turned out they were calling to ask me to keep a Nielsen Diary for one week of listening to the radio (you know, the thing that came with your car and is built into your alarm clock). If I agreed they would send me a small cash gift.
Hmmm. I wondered whether anyone besides semi-old, semi-retired white ladies is listening to the radio, and how they figure in podcasts. I wondered how honest I’d have to be. Well, it would be for only one week, and my only paying gig is as a college adjunct. I’m in!
In the mail came a packet from Nielsen containing two copies of their Radio Rating Diary with instructions and a crisp George Washington in each. My husband had no interest in participating, so I pocketed his buck and mine. Halfway to a grande latte.
The diary asks you to note the time, the station (including Internet or satellite), and whether you’re listening in your home, car, work or “other place” – like the deli counter at Price Chopper, where WAMC’s “The Media Project” livestreamed through my iPhone as I ordered a half-pound of low-salt turkey breast – but fails to ask about podcasts.
Local public radio’s WAMC is hands-down my station of choice at home — especially for Joe Donahue’s interviews with authors and the liberal lovefest on weekday mornings — and I hope my diary somehow helps the station (and appeases my guilt for not donating during the recent fund drive).
Alone in the car, I listen to WAMC or swap between Sirius XM pre-sets on Bruce Springsteen and Comedy Greats, which provides the added amusement of playing Alive or Dead. But when my husband is in the car, depending on time of day and year, we’re tuned into the Celtics, Syracuse or Yankees. That makes my radio diary tracking a little tricky, because Nielsen defines listening as “any time you hear a radio, whether you choose the station or not.”
As any student, employee or married person knows, hearing and listening are not synonymous. When sound selected by Jim is coming out of the speakers, I’m usually immersed in Words with Friends, a novel, or R.E.M. (the dream state, not the band).
To be honest and accurate, my diary distinguished between hearing and listening. After all, the results can help or hurt stations’ efforts to get advertisers. And someone’s shelling out big bucks to create, print and pack the diaries; label and mail them (at $2.74 per packet, plus the prepaid return postage and the good faith dollar tucked into each diary); gather, input and analyze the data; and place thousands of calls all day and night.
As if on cue, while I was writing this the phone rang – 11:15 a.m. Thursday – with Laura from Arbitron politely reminding me that the diary was to be completed yesterday. “Can I count on you to return it?”
Sure, I said, using this opportunity to ask where she was calling from (Dallas), how did I get picked (their system selects phone numbers at random), and who gets the results (they’re reported to all the stations). I forgot to ask how they account for podcasts, a growing way of listening to radio broadcasts that doesn’t show up in the diary.
I’m a dying breed of people who have land lines – let alone answer them. I’m as suspicious of telephone survey solicitors bearing gifts as I am of political polls, which I scan with one eyebrow skeptically askew. But I don’t know how to more reliably assess opinions and media habits. Besides, if I’m picked next to record my TV watching, I’ll soon have enough singles to stop at Starbucks.