April 21, 2015
There are radio lifers and then there are research lifers ... such as Roger Wimmer. Educated in mass media research, Wimmer has taken what he has learned and applied it in the real radio world, co-founding Paragon Research, The Eagle Group and his own Wimmer Research. He's senior author of "Mass Media Research: An Introduction, 10th Edition," which is used in colleges, universities, and other venues in more than 130 countries around the world and is translated into 12 other languages. Last but not least, Wimmer has overseen the "Research Doctor" column in All Access since 2000. Here are his takes on the current state of research and radio.
What got you into radio in the first place ... and then go into research?
When I got my Master's Degree in Communication Theory in the early '70s, my adviser, Dr. Charles Larson, strongly suggested that I get a Ph.D. in mass media research because it was going to be an important field in the future. I believed him and went to Bowling Green State University for a Ph.D. in Media Research. I was lucky to have one of the leading statisticians in the country as my adviser, mentor and dissertation director -- Dr. Raymond Tucker. In short, I got into media research because of my graduate school advisers.
As for what got me into radio ... before going to grad school, I taught at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for a year, and the students asked me many questions about radio. I didn't know the answers to some of their questions, so I decided work at a radio station. I sold advertising for a year in Mason City, IA, and then went for my Ph.D. at Bowling Green in Ohio. Getting college degrees is what got me into radio and the other mass media. I found that mass media were interesting and fun and I could apply all I learned to help decision-makers make better decisions.
How easy was it to apply the theoreticals of higher education to the real-life business operations of radio?
I learned research methods and statistics (univariate and multivariate) during my MA and Ph.D. degrees, not theoretical applications of those things. I learned how to design questionnaires, develop correct sampling procedures, analyze data, and other "hands on" aspects of research. In addition, I learned how to select a methodology and a statistical analysis that are appropriate for a given situation. I was never told anything about radio from a theoretical perspective. It was more on how to use research tools to collect information that would enable people to make better decisions. My graduate studies were never in conflict with radio or any other mass medium, largely due to the teachers I had and my advisers.
When I got into radio, I used my college experience to collect the information radio decision-makers needed to succeed. I was not trained in any type of theory, just research methods that can be used in literally any area of life.
What has changed more over time - the radio business or the research of it?
I would say the people who own and operate radio stations have changed the most. The research procedures we started using in the late '70s, when radio research started to take off, are basically the same as what radio uses today, although there have been many refinements with most procedures. What happened is prior to the time I started doing radio research in the late '70s, people made decisions based on their gut. Then they learned the three-step philosophy I have used for decades: (1) Find out what people want, (2) Give it to them, and (3) Tell them you gave it to them. Radio owners and operators discovered that if listeners are asked what they like to hear and they are given those things, ratings increase dramatically. The procedures we put into place to get that information did an amazing job in the late '70s, '80s, and most of the '90s, but then the big companies got involved (new FCC ownership rules), and all that changed.
How did that change?
The focus changed from "Let's give listeners what they want" to "We need to make more money to make our quarterly budgets, so we have to put on more spots. We don't need to spend money on research ... just put on the hits." The owners and operators decided they didn't need research information to help make programming (and other) decisions. They chose maximizing revenue over maximizing listener satisfaction and that same philosophy continues today with many radio stations.
Many articles now discuss new technology and how these new devices will kill radio, but I don't agree. If radio is going to die, it is not going to be because of technology. Radio's death is not going to come from smartphones or other similar devices, nor will it happen because younger people don't listen to the radio. Radio's death, if it happens, will be suicide at the hands of owners and operators not paying attention to what they should be doing. In the '80s, radio stations, in all sized markets, started doing research, everything from music tests, focus groups, and perceptual studies to gather information for almost every decision made at the radio station. Now it's rare for radio stations to do even one research project during a year's time. Owners and operators don't want to spend the money, because research is considered an expense, not an investment. These people don't believe research is a necessary tool, and they prefer to keep their money for their bottom line.
With research being so important in your eyes, where does gut fit in ... or should it fit in at all?
I have never believed that a GM, PD, or other decision-maker at a radio station should follow exactly every finding in a research study. That doesn't make sense. I always look at research as an aid for decision-makers to help them use their own gut to make the right decision. For example, a PD may think that a song is good and be helped by feedback from listeners and play the song. On the other hand, listeners might rate a song highly, but the PD doesn't believe the song fits the philosophy of the radio station and not play it. There's nothing wrong with that.
Research should be used as a guide and nothing more. Research conclusions shouldn't be considered as set in stone where decision-makers feel obligated to follow every single finding. As a researcher, my goal has always been to get the best information possible for decision-makers. I never have a preconceived agenda for any study. What I care about is making sure that the data are correct and that the decision-makers do not go out of bounds in the interoperation of the results.
How do you see radio surviving and prospering when it relies less on research than before?
I don't see radio surviving and prospering without research. Decision-makers in radio need input from listeners and if they don't get the information, decisions are just guesses. Guessing what people like and don't like is not the way to run a radio station. As I said earlier, that's suicide because it's too difficult (almost impossible) to predict what one person or a group of people like and don't like. It's that simple.
With landlines becoming an obsolete way to generate decent research, are you now using more online research?
I do use some online research when there is a way to verify that the respondents involved in the study are the correct respondents. However, it's still possible to contact people on their cell phones and also through e-mail or other type of online interaction.
The goal with all the new types of data collection is the same as always, and that is to ensure that the respondents are the correct respondents. There are a few statistical procedures to use to make sure that the respondents are who they say they are.
Has the advent of PPM changed how you do research?
I'm against programming TO or FOR a specific ratings methodology. That doesn't make sense to me. Regardless of how the audience is counted, it is always necessary to give them with what they want to hear. Who cares how listeners are counted? Give the listeners what they want and the method of counting becomes irrelevant.
So you're not concerned about diaries, which are considered to be brand heavy, vs. the PPM, which seems to emphasize more passive listening?
Not really. While information about passive listening is available, there isn't a lot a PD can do about it. The best a PD can do is program one radio station (or a group of stations) based on what the listeners want to hear. Passive listening is out of the control of a PD, so it doesn't make sense to worry much about it.
Judging by what you said earlier, you don't seem concerned that teens, who are completely wedded to new tech devices, have little interest in radio. Do you agree with those who believe that those teens will grow into radio listeners?
This goes back to what said before. I don't think technology is radio's problem. The problem is that radio stations aren't providing teens with what they want to hear. Young people will listen to radio on a phone or online if it's something they want to hear.
I'll repeat ... Young people may be more techno-savvy than older people, but the reason they're going to other sources rather than the typical radio station is because radio stations aren't providing them with what they want to hear. I have heard this many times. I ask young people why they listen to online stations and they say that the over-the-air radio stations don't have anything they want to hear. Why? Because those radio stations never ask them what they want.
A radio station targeted for younger people just needs to let them know about it and they will listen. Teens don't have anything against over-the-air radio. I've never heard young people say that they won't listen to terrestrial radio, but I have heard them say they don't listen to terrestrial radio station because they don't have what they want to hear. Radio stations aren't providing teens with what they want to hear. Very simple
Is this more of a demo problem, in terms of the targets being too wide? Should it be more like 12-18 and 18-24 than 12-24 or 18-35, let alone 25-54?
I couldn't argue against that. A radio station needs a narrow target so it can focus on that group's likes and dislikes. A 25-54 target is ridiculous. There is no way a 25-year-old has the same interests and desires as a 54-year-old. A narrow target will allow decision-makers to better find out what the people want and then give it to them. Such an approach will develop loyal listeners who won't care about listening to Pandora because they're getting more of what they want from local radio stations, including DJ entertainment.
So bottom line, are you bullish on radio's future?
Radio will last a long time if radio stations are owned and operated by people who know what the heck they're doing, not only concerned about getting 21 minutes of spots in an hour. If owners and operators worry first about the quality of the product, concern for revenue will virtually disappear because the listeners will tune in and ratings will increase. To paraphrase a line from "Field of Dreams," I'll say this . . . "Provide a quality product and they will come."
Radio has a bright future, and I'm very optimistic for radio stations operated by people who are interested in providing listeners with what they want to hear. If not, that's when radio commits suicide.
In closing, I also would like to thank you for all your work on this interview. You made everything go very easily; your expertise made the interview a fun thing to do rather than a chore.
If you have questions about the information in this interview, feel free to send them to Roger on the "Research Doctor" page in AllAccess.com; he'll answer them there, or send you a private answer if you prefer.