Mumbai: The sound of a beating heart, recently played over and over again for 30 minutes across many of the country’s leading radio stations by a maker of cooking oil, is causing a bit of a flutter over who would have actually listened to the staccato sounds.
The controversy also underscores an ongoing dispute among Indian radio station owners, as well as advertisers, about how effectively and accurately audiences are measured in the country, a debate that is vital for the economic health of addependent radio stations.
It all began with a promotion by Marico Ltd, maker of Saffola cooking oil, on World Heart Day in late September. Between 10.15am and 10.45am, radio stations in Mumbai, including Red FM, Big FM, Radio City, Radio One, Fever FM and Meow FM, aired sounds of a heartbeat with no other music or radio jockey (RJ) chatter. A few stations, however, also interspersed the beating heart sounds with health-related messages, such as “roz marra ki zindagi mein dil ka khayal rakhna ” (take care of your heart in everyday life). The idea was for Marico to associate its cooking oil brand with what is good for a consumer’s heart.
The controversy emerged when radio audience measurement (RAM) panel, conducted by rating company TAM Media Research Pvt. Ltd, showed no significant dips in listenership during this span.
Excluding stations that didn’t air the heartbeat, around 1.1 million people in Mumbai listened to the sounds. What’s more, RAM data suggested each person heard the heartbeat for an average of 18-28 minutes, indicated as “time spent listening”, across the various stations.
The time spent generally matched listenership levels for the same time slot on other days when that time is filled with music or RJ chatter.
“Would listeners keep listening to a station for so long when there’s nothing on air except heartbeats?” asks one well-regarded media buyer, who wasn’t keen on being identified since he works closely with the industry.
TAM Media declined to comment for this story.
But some radio station owners say the data highlights lacunae with RAM’s so-called diary method of measuring audiences under which listeners who are part of a panel keep a diary of what they heard and give those jottings to TAM each week. This data is critical because most advertisers base their spending decisions on it.
“It’s a well-known fact around the world that respondents to a diary survey fill up their diaries on the day the survey is supposed to be picked up,” notes Prashant Pandey, chief executive of Radio Mirchi, which is run by Entertainment Network (India) Ltd. “In fact, for the very same reason, a lot of media companies around the world plan their marketing activities a few days before the pick-up date. Keeping this aside, there are many other areas as well where there are inconsistencies in RAM data.”
Radio Mirchi, which did not air the heartbeat, has long maintained that the so-called “day after recall” method, used by the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), was more accurate as respondents fill questionnaires within 24 hours of listening to a programme. Ironically, the MRUC survey died, as broadcasters who couldn’t agree with its numbers migrated to RAM about a year ago.
Not everyone thinks the heartbeat data is incorrect per se, though they question what the numbers mean.
One industry specialist, who also begged away from being named, theorizes that the high listenership could be the result of viewers assuming it’s a technical glitch and returning to the station within that time band to see if it had been fixed.
“It certainly does happen in TV and it would explain the large numbers in Mumbai who appear to be listening to the Saffola promotion,” he says.
The makers of Saffola are convinced they did have willing and interested listeners for their ad gimmick. The heart is a compelling subject and health is a major pre-occupation in this day and age, so it’s only natural that listeners would tune in, says Gerald Roche, buying director from Madison Group, the agency representing Saffola.
Other media experts, such as L.S. Krishnan, president of Radar, a unit of Mudra Communications Pvt. Ltd, agrees, arguing that if Saffola’s promo was creative enough, there is little reason to think listeners wouldn’t tune in and then continue listening. “After all, radio is the theatre of the mind,” he adds, noting that it is also possible the radio is playing in the background without being switched off or channels shuffled.
And, in this case, most listeners who tried to switch would have come across the same sounds elsewhere, forcing them to stay tuned in until the programme changed.
“It is probable that either inertia...prevented people from changing channels, or if they did change and found the same programming on other channels, they stayed on their first choice channels,” says Fever 104 FM’s Mumbai station head Neeraj Chaturvedi. Fever 104 is owned by HT Music and Entertainment Co. Ltd, a venture of HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint.
As for RAM’s methodology, Chaturvedi says one programme shouldn’t be the deciding factor. “In developed markets, the panel figures are actually given monthly and not weekly, precisely for this reason,” he says. “RAM gives a better sense of actual listenership trend and is definitely a better methodology than the erstwhile Indian Listenership Track, conducted by MRUC.”