March 6, 1998


During the early days of television, giant gizmo vans -- stuffed with wires and electronics -- trawled suburban neighborhoods. Their mission: to monitor America's TV-viewing habits. Using specialized radiowave receivers, the vans tried to pin down how many households were watching a given broadcast channel. The goal was to generate potentially valuable market research for advertisers and TV programmers. But the vans, a victim of crude technology and dubious sampling techniques, never caught on.

The idea of actively measuring radio and TV audiences -- by logging "leaked" frequencies from radio and TV tuners -- didn't vanish into the ether, however. Beginning this spring, a small, privately held company in Birmingham, Ala., called MobilTRAK is rolling out a new system for monitoring radio listenership in automobiles. It will sell the data it collects to radio stations and advertising agencies for $1,000 to $8,000 per month, depending on market size.

Instead of using vans, the company will install fixed sensors on utility poles. The sensors will randomly sample frequencies from 20% of passing cars, as many as 20,000 samples per sensor per day. In a huge radio market such as Los Angeles, that could translate into 300,000 samples every 24 hours. At 2 a.m. each day, the sensors will transmit the collected data via cellular phone to a central server in Phoenix. The server will collate the information and place it on Web pages for customers to view. Plans are in the works to make the feed continuous, or at least hourly.

"We've invented a whole new kind of information," says Jim Christian, MobilTRAK's president and owner of sister company TapScan, which makes software for media buyers. "You'll be able to find out the next day whether that contest you ran yesterday is attractive to listeners."

Christian envisions a variety of other uses for the technology: Radio programmers can monitor a new disk jockey's popularity; advertisers will find out how quickly listeners turn off their ads; retail stores will install sensors in parking lots -- and base their radio-ad buying on which stations are most popular among shoppers.

But don't call any of this information "ratings." MobilTRAK charts only in-car listening -- which makes up just 25% of total listening nationwide. And technical constraints currently limit the sample to FM stations, though the company promises it will soon add AM monitoring. Without AM monitoring, says Encino (Calif.) radio consultant Allen Klein, advertisers will miss out on a vital part of the radio universe. "Every major market has one or two AM news-and-talk channels which are heavily listened to," says Klein.

The system's other weakness is that the data collected is anonymous -- devoid of demographic information. A sensor may pick up that a car is tuned to a local rock station. But it doesn't know who's listening -- a 50-year-old businesswoman or a pair of 17-year-old high school dropouts. That's why this service will never replace Arbitron ratings, the entrenched standard that ties listener habits to consumer profiles. "The radio industry is not interested in another ratings source," says Jerry Del Colliano, editor and publisher of Inside Radio, a daily industry publication. Abitron, in fact, had a chance to buy the technology, but passed.

"There are too many holes [in MobilTRAK] as an audience measurement tool," says Jeff Vidler, vice-president for media research at Angus Reid Group, a Toronto consumer-research firm. "The most exciting thing about the technology is its application as a laboratory for radio listening."

Indeed, many industry experts say MobilTRAK is likely to fit in as one of any number of research tools for radio programming directors and media buyers. Programming managers, who are constantly rejiggering lineups and switching formats, say they often have to wait three or four months for Arbitron reports to assess whether their changes caught on with audiences. Overnight MOBILTrak logs might essentially function as huge listener surveys, because in-car radio listeners, who have immediate access to a tuning knob, are most likely to change stations if they hear something they don't like.

The technology could become even more powerful once the reports are updated continuously. That way, a station manager could sync the listener logs to a song-rotation schedule and get an early indicator on a particular tune or advertisement's appeal.

After six months of testing in Toronto, the technology will soon make its U.S. debut in Phoenix and later Los Angeles. One day, MobilTRAK may be eavesdropping on you.

By Dennis Berman
Staff Reporter, Business Week Online

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