Kicks 101.5, following Q100, cited for effort to 'bias' Nielsen Audio ratings

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Country station Kicks 101.5 was flagged in the latest monthly Nielsen Audio ratings book for an effort to tamper with the system.

UPDATE: Management, in a note to advertisers, said any appearance of fishing for survey users was unintentional and the third-party vendor who sent out the offending questions was fired.

Nielsen provided a "note" in the book (see below) but did not punish the station or its parent company Cumulus Media, based in Atlanta. It did publicize the infraction so advertisers and rivals in the market were informed of the situation in hopes of discouraging anyone else from doing it down the road.

This is similar to what happened to sister pop station Q100 around the same time. Q100's survey distortion efforts were noted in the April Nielsen book last month.

Why is this a big deal?

Commercial radio stations live and die by ratings provided by Nielsen Audio.

About 1,640 metro Atlantans at any one time use portable people meters, which they wear so the machine can pick up radio signals within earshot. The ratings are used by many stations to set ad rates and make a living.

These individuals are supposed to be anonymous so radio stations aren't encouraged to "bribe" them to listen to their stations. And given the relatively modest sample of users, it only takes a handful of "heavy" listeners to markedly shift ratings, especially when you parse out smaller demo breakouts.

Nielsen wrote that Kicks on March 7, 2016 sent out an email to loyal listeners directing them to a "secret" contest website which asked various demographic information but also included a question inquiring if the survey taker would carry a "device that recorded all your radio listening" as part of a "radio ratings project." One option was, yes, they already do.

This particular survey was flagged and taken down within 27 hours, a shorter period of time than the Q100 situation around the same time. That one was up for several days.

In neither case was there evidence Cumulus was able to track down any actual people meter users.

Here's what was posted in the ratings book to subscribers:

Credit: Rodney Ho

icon to expand image

Credit: Rodney Ho

Tracy Johnson, a long-time radio consultant based in San Diego, has worked with both Kicks and Q100, including the Bert Show. He was responsible for the entire "Secret Contest" concept, but it's unclear who came up with the Nielsen question and who ultimately cleared it.

According to his own bio on his website: "Johnson has written three books about developing on-air superstars that have been described as The Bible of Personality Radio. The books have been a guide for tens of thousands of personalities and programmers in over 40 countries."

Radio consultant Tracy Johnson was involved in the "Secret Contest" for Kicks and Q100 that included questions seeking out portable people meter users. CREDIT: LinkedIn profile photo

Credit: Rodney Ho

icon to expand image

Credit: Rodney Ho

His LinkedIn page notes 30-plus years in the radio programming, marketing, management and promotion business.

"I love motivating audiences to take action," he wrote on his LinkedIn page. "I wake up each morning excited to find new ways to gain attention."

This is clearly not the type of attention he'd want.

Sean Shannon, the general manager of the Atlanta cluster for Cumulus, has not responded to emails seeking comment.

UPDATE: He sent an email to key advertisers. I only received a copy on Monday, June 13. He told them that the questions were not supposed to be included in the survey, that the vendor who left them in was fired.

As you may know during the April ratings period we cooperated with an investigation Nielsen conducted into a contest we marketed to our Q100 and Kicks 101.5 databases.  During that investigation Nielsen determined that while no ratings bias or distortion was created by the contest and the survey attached to it, two of the questions posed had the potential to influence potential panel members.  As such Nielsen attached a note to the Q100 ratings for that period indicating just that: two of the questions could have caused ratings bias.

In further investigating the contest, we discovered and disclosed to Nielsen that some members of the Kicks database had similarly been exposed to those two questions.  Nielsen found, again, that no ratings bias or distortion was created.  Again, though, those two questions had the potential to influence panel members.  So you will see for the May ratings period that Nielsen is attaching a similar note to May ratings for Kicks.

We are proud of our 36-year history of being Atlanta's country leader and delivering bottom line results for our clients and these notes do not reflect our values.  The contest and surveys were administered by a third party vendor with which we no longer do business and we have cooperated fully with Nielsen at each step of the way in an effort to ensure the integrity of the Nielsen data.

Should you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to me

Nielsen provided me the same statement as last month since it was basically the same issue:

"The integrity of Nielsen ratings and the privacy of our panelists is of the upmost importance. Shortly before the April survey period a station in Atlanta conducted a contest where one of the questions and answers could have resulted in the station learning the identity of panel participants. Nielsen conducted an internal investigation and concluded that the contest did not appear to result in the station learning the identity of any PPM panelist.

Kicks 101.5 ranked 14th last month in the ratings with a 3.2 rating. Rival 94.9/The Bull landed in 10th place with a 4.2.

Coincidentally the month this incident happened (March), Kicks had a stronger-than-usual month with a 4.1 rating, ranked ninth place.