Why radio surveys still use paper diaries

Comment from Peter Saxon

On the eve of survey 5, it’s appropriate to ask why radio persists with pen and paper technology.

Five years ago, the radio industry, both commercial and the ABC, appointed GfK to measure audiences, replacing Nielsen who had held the contract for 66 years – dating back almost to the horse and buggy era. 

GfK introduced a number of innovations, chief among them that 20 per cent of diaries would be collected online. This was a serious departure from the 100 per cent pen and paper diary system that had served the industry well since just after WWII. What’s more, since then, the mix of paper to online has been bumped up to 70 – 30 and there are plans to go even further in coming years.

Yet, this breakneck rate of adventure into the digital age is apparently deemed ‘snail paced’ by some of the switched-on people in the advertising industry. They point to the fact that other media, including television and online have fully embraced electronic data gathering.

The reality is that radio has been in search of an electronic solution to audience measurement for the past 20 years without success. There were promising versions of wearables from pagers (who wears them anymore?) to watches that would, by various methods (all of them flawed), decipher what station was in earshot of the wearer at any given time and upload the information to a server from a bedside dock each night. They were trialled extensively in the United States but abandoned in most markets.

The latest attempts to “crack the code” of listening habits have been via smartphones, which exist wholly in the digital realm. But smartphones still represent a miniscule share of listeners and can’t account for the bulk of listening that’s done on other platforms. 

Radio’s unique mobility and platform neutrality has, so far, proved to be the nemesis of universal electronic data capture.

In the end, the old diary system has proved to be the most reliable and honest method of audience measurement of any media. Which is one reason why radio advertising revenues have continued to grow over the past decade – the data matches the results. It’s no fluke that a consistently high rating station sells more of the advertisers’ stuff than a low rating one. 

When it comes to using the ancient pen and paper method, radio is not alone. Federal and State elections remain steadfastly analogue because when all else fails, the physical evidence of pencil on paper remains to be checked and recounted if need be. The result has been that unlike the U.S. where different states can employ different voting methods and something called “hanging chads” can be brought into play, the Australian system has, for the most part, remained immune to accusations of the vote being contaminated in any way.

Sure, the current GfK regimen has been known to throw up an occasional “rogue result” in  a shift or demographic in a random market from time to time but it has  invariably shown to be accurate on average over four or more surveys.

Join us here on radioinfo tomorrow morning from 9:30 to be the first to find out who the winners and losers are in Survey 5 and check our trend charts to see how they shape up over the long term.


Peter Saxon