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How do FM/AM radio stations determine how many users are listening to their station?

Radio ratings, which give some idea about how many listeners a station has, have been around since 1930. A researcher named Archibald Crossley ran the first company to use survey methods to determine audience size, although only on network programs— the so-called “Crossley Ratings.” There were other companies too— some used telephone surveys, some used mail-in surveys, others used in-person interviews, etc. Until fairly recently (2013), the vast majority of US radio stations (both AM and FM) were rated by a company called Arbitron. For many years, Arbitron used a “diary method”, where random users in major, medium and small markets were surveyed as to what they listened to during the specific period of the survey; they wrote down their listening habits on a form, and then they submitted the completed diary to Arbitron, which compiled the results into what was called “the Book” by radio stations. (“How did you do in the Book?” was radio talk for “Did you get good ratings during this rating period?”)

In 2013, Nielsen, which had previously been known for television ratings, purchased Arbitron. Now, radio stations are surveyed by Nielsen, which does not use a paper diary any more. The preferred survey method now is “portable people meters” (PPM) which compile a person’s listening habits electronically. Individuals are still surveyed randomly; a specific number are contacted in each major, large, medium, and small market (city). Many people think the PPM is more accurate and easier to use than asking people to fill out a diary for a week or two. But others believe the PPM results are not as accurate, or that they favor younger formats (where the diary method favored older formats, since older people were more likely to fill their diaries out). Here is a link to a 2015 article about all of this, written by a very knowledgeable radio colleague of mine: Inconsistent Nielsen data vexes public radio stations and inspires a commercial solution


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