By John Pellegrini

It happened again; you received the mp3 (or mp2) from THAT client… the one that always sends you the worst commercials you’ve ever heard. The client who does his or her own commercials and who sounds like all their teeth are falling out of their mouth while they speak. The client whose copy is so loaded full of grammatical and pronunciation mistakes you begin to question whether they’ve had a grade school education. The client who puts in so many price points and phone numbers that you can’t even figure out where their store is located.

You dread downloading the spot and opening it in your audio software. You cringe as you listen to the horror… the horror… this latest spot is the worst yet! Despite the fact that you believe in pacifism you want to walk into their store with a sledgehammer to do harm to this person. No matter how many times you’ve argued with the A/E, the GSM, and even the GM, your pleas against allowing this rotten piece of filth on the air go unheeded. Yes, they agree, the spots are awful, but the client’s money is more important. And so this commercial airs and you are only left with the silent prayer that the client will go out of business soon. Because how could any rational consumer patronize the business based on their advertising? If only there was a way to find out for sure.

Every prod director in the universe of commercial radio has dreamed of such a method. A way to be able to show clients like the above mentioned how many station listeners are lost when their lousy commercial gets on the air. A way to show how far the ratings of the station drop when the client’s commercials are broadcast. A way to finally prove to everyone from station management to sales reps to corporate honchos how badly the station suffers when those commercials are played.

Be prepared my friends because this dream… this nightmare… is about to become reality. The Portable People Meter (or is it the Purple People Eater?) is the name and it is about to radically change not only the entire concept of station ratings, but also that intangible known as “station creative.” A curse and a blessing at the same time, and the impact will be even more life or death than the impact of corporate radio conglomerates. If you ever complained about how your creative efforts are not appreciated, the PPM will make it brutally obvious to everyone. And not everyone is going to like the results.

Here’s the stuff: according to those friendly folk at Arbitron the PPM will take a minute by minute reading of each listener’s radio habits. What station they listen to at exactly every single minute of the day they spend listening to radio. No more fudging the books. No more attrition due to dozens of reasons. The PPM monitors everything and the diary keeper is barely involved other than to be sure to listen to some form of radio. At least, that’s how it’s allegedly going to work.

I’m not here to argue the merits or drawbacks of the PPM. I’m not even interested in the accuracy of diaries versus computerized logging. That’s for other people to worry about. I’m only here to point out a little fact about the PPM that’s going to have the huge impact on us in creative/prod. And that fact is that the minute-by-minute breakdown of listenership will apparently include spot breaks and promo breaks.

Nervous yet? Maybe you should be. Why? Because we’re all going to suddenly become painfully aware of how spot breaks and promo breaks affect TSL and cume. Minute-by-minute means exactly that; exactly when each PPM is listening to which station and exactly when they tune the station out or off.

We’re about to have real-time proof of what we all fear… spot breaks and promos are a major turn-off to listeners. Or are they? My theory has always been that the spot break itself doesn’t necessarily turn off the listener; it’s the quality of the spots being aired in the break that does the trick. Now we’ll be able to see if that theory is correct.

Let’s say the first spot of a particular break is great, but the next one sucks. If my theory is correct then there will be a noticeable drop in listenership on each lousy spot that airs. There will likely be a reflective number of listeners lost because of certain spots at certain points in each break. Ditto the promos.

The upside to this? Now we can point to the advertisers whose lousy spots cause us to lose listeners and say, “will you PLEASE do something about that crappy commercial you’re running!” Now we’ll be able to go to those agencies and clients and offer them proof that it’s the content of their commercial that’s turning off the listeners, and their lack of results is not because “radio doesn’t work.” Will the salespeople at your station or cluster be willing to do this? If they want to keep their jobs they will. What do you think PDs and GMs are going to do when they can see exactly which commercial is driving away listeners? Jump for joy and thank the client or agency? However, don’t start celebrating the PPM just yet, because for every upside there is…

The downside? Those lousy spots that lose listeners might be our very own.

For far too long we’ve been able to measure our success rate on intangibles. Well the client is getting response so the ad must be working. And we’re getting calls about the spot. But if the results aren’t there, we chalk it up to finicky listeners. Or maybe radio truly doesn’t work for this particular client.

But do our creative efforts really keep the listeners through the spot breaks and the promo breaks? Is it possible to do both: keep listeners and sell products? We may be on the verge of seeing that question brutally answered. We may find out with the PPM and, as I stated previously, we may not like the answer we get.

So what’s the average worldwide radio Prod/Creative type supposed to do about this? Panic? Maybe. Some people might ask themselves in a moment of reflection, “is my creative where I want it to be?” The reasoning being that if your creative exceeds your personal demands, expectations, and judgment, then all should be right with the world. Some might go further in their self-examination and ask, “Is my creative where my PD/GSM/GM wants it to be?” But neither of those are the right question. Instead we should be asking, “Is my creative where the LISTENER wants it to be?” After all, the PPM isn’t going to be used by you or your PD/GSM/GM. It’s going to be used by the LISTENER. Are you meeting the LISTENER’S EXPECTATIONS?

If the PPM delivers as promised, and we do indeed get minute-by-minute breakdowns of listenership throughout the entire broadcast day, then I have great confidence in predicting that the role of the Creative/Prod person is about to change radically in the next ten years. Not to mention all the on-air types. Stations will no longer be able to have just anybody doing commercials or imaging. Stations will no longer be able to allow just anyone (like the sales rep) to write the commercials. The PPM will make it brutally honest when commercials and imaging are inferior. The PPM will cause stations to finally and at long last realize the vital importance of finding trained and educated advertising and promotions people who know how to grab and hold a listener’s attention.

The only way radio will be able to do that is to finally quit paying beneath Mickey D wages for Creative/Prod types and hire industry leaders. To make this happen, salary levels will have to rise, and with them the expectations of the job. Is your work up to this standard?

Not worried yet? I hope your confidence is well placed. Because in the past five years a situation occurred in the advertising world that may lead to further problems. You see, the recession caused a lot of companies to stop advertising. A huge number, in fact. As a result, several hundred of the major advertising agencies around the world laid off thousands of mid to senior level creative directors. These CDs and ECDs have been waiting in the wings. Some have started “boutique agencies” with a small staff and a couple of clients. Some aren’t working at all, or if they are it’s not in advertising. Many would jump at the above mentioned opportunity if and when presented by radio, especially if radio executives finally admit they’ve got to increase the salary base for better creative. Let’s say your station or cluster decides that the PPM has proven they need to up the ante for creative. You might suddenly find yourself competing for your job against a former agency CD who has 10 or 15 years of experience with major clients. Plus that same Creative could also handle all of your station’s outside promotional advertising and P/R development. Your track record of many years of exclusive radio production may not stand up, especially if it’s discovered that your creative is causing listener loss. Ridiculous? Impossible? You said that years ago about the idea of radio conglomerates, too, didn’t you?

Yes, it is possible that none of this may come true. And it is equally possible that all of this might come true. One thing is certain, if the PPM does what it promises, then radio creative is going to come under even greater scrutiny to make sure that the least amount of listeners are tuning out at any given point. Will your creative be up to the challenge? That’s entirely up to you. There are hundreds of books on how to create successful advertising including psychological studies on mass marketing. There are hundreds of universities, colleges, and tech schools that offer courses in advertising and marketing. There are loads of famous radio industry people who offer seminars and conferences on applying successful advertising and marketing concepts directly to the radio industry. Will you take advantage of these resources?

To be honest, I’m looking forward to the PPM. I think it’s going to have a tremendous effect on the industry and how we present our product to the consumer (i.e. listener). I think it’s going to be the best thing to happen to radio creative in decades. I think it might even (dare I say it) cause a renaissance in the art of Theater of the Mind and bring about a new golden age of radio. I really believe this to be true. I also think the PPM is going to help broadcast radio combat satellite radio as it’s going to give us much more informative feedback on who’s listening to what and when than satellite is capable of doing. Which will again help us do better creative to make a more entertaining product. And that’s pretty much what we should have been doing all along, isn’t it?