How radio audiences were measured before ratings

Former Assistant Editor
Image: Nielsen

Before the era of radio ratings, measuring listenership was no easy business.

It left stations in a real pickle, with no clear way to see how many people had the opportunity to see a given advertiser’s message.

“Before the rating services started, a lot of it was fan mail,” Professor of Media and Communication at Fairleigh Dickinson University Karen Buzzard told Gizmodo in a recent interview.

After fan mail, the next step was researchers calling people and asking what they’d been listening to.

It was a time-consuming but necessary practice, until Arthur Nielsen invented the Audimenter in 1936.

As Campaign Brief notes, it was a collaborative effort between Nielsen and MIT, which came about after Nielsen had come to hear MIT marketing instructor Robert Elder give a speech about advertising.

Elder said he was “really hipped on the idea that the effectiveness of advertising could be measured if we could be just smart enough to figure out how to do it”.

Together they came up with a device that could record families’ radio listening habits.

The device was made up of a series of gears, with an arm that moved whenever the radio dial was turned, and had a tape with a month’s worth of recording space.

The Audimeter was installed in people’s homes and placed next to the radio.

“The Audimeter made it more scientific,” said Buzzard noted about the measuring device. “They got automatic readings.”

It increased in popularity through to 1945, when a new Audimeter was invented for measuring TV viewership.

The Audimeter was used in the US through to the 1980s, and while Nielsen ceased to be Australia’s ratings provider in 2013, the company still measures ratings in the US to this day.

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