For years, Nielsen’s radio clients have complained that the PPM doesn’t adequately measure radio listening that occurs on headphones. Now the company is finally addressing the issue. Nielsen will field a study to measure the amount of listening to AM/FM and streaming that occurs via wired and wireless headphones. It plans to share the results in the first half of 2020 and use the data to develop a model for accounting for headphone listening in PPM audience estimates.

Ever since the PPM’s rollout a decade ago, panelists have received a headphone adapter along with instructions and coaching from Nielsen on how to use the line-in/line-out gizmo whenever they listen to any audio on headphones. Broadcasters contend the setup is awkward and burdensome for panelists to use and thus fails to capture a good amount of listening. Meanwhile, wireless headphones have become far more prevalent, which the meter-adapter combo doesn’t capture at all.

Nielsen points out that nearly all of the listening to radio via wireless headphones is to the streams of the broadcast content.

Now Nielsen plans to evolve its measurement to better account for headphone listening, both wired and wireless. It will conduct a web-based survey of former PPM panelists in fourth quarter in all 48 PPM markets to ascertain what level of headphone listening is occurring. The survey is designed to capture one day of audio listening, including information about how they were listening, headphone usage, wired vs. wireless, location, and the types of devices being used.

Nielsen plans to use the results to construct a model of how headphone listening is measured. “There is listening tied to headphones that we could augment how we currently measure to make the methodology around it more robust – that’s why we’re heading down this path,” says Jennifer Carton, VP Of Product Management, Nielsen Audio. An Arbitron veteran, Carton crossed over to audio from Nielsen's TV measurement business in July. “The survey will inform that and give us a deeper understanding of the incidence of headphone listening,” she added.

Format-Level Findings

Should the survey show that some amount of radio listening is occurring on headphones that isn't already being captured by the PPM, Nielsen audience listening estimates would be adjusted upward by that amount to compensate for the uncaptured listening. This would augment whatever amount of headphone listening is already being recorded by the PPM.

Nielsen intends to break out the headphone listening data from the Q4 web survey by format and demos. This would put some empirical data against assumptions that the incidence of headphone listening is higher for younger-skewing formats, such as alternative and CHR, than older targeted formats like soft AC and classic hits. These findings would also be factored into the model of how Nielsen accounts for headphone listening in the future. Ratings could be adjusted accordingly, based on those format-specific findings.

Nielsen plans to conduct the survey annually so that its headphone listening benchmarks can be updated to account for future changes in behavior.

Capturing headphone listening has long been a challenge. Broadcasters worry that panelists aren’t bothering to use the meter’s clumsy headphone adapter. And it’s only been exacerbated by fast-growing headphone sales and steadily increasing listening to AM/FM streams.

The mystery of how much listening goes undetected has long eluded Nielsen and audio measurement predecessor Arbitron. To gain a better sense of attitudes toward the headphone adapter and how panelists were using it, Arbitron, in 2013, conducted exit interviews with panelists. While the behavioral study is now six years old and was intended to provide directional findings and not projectable results, it suggested that compliance with the adapter was indeed an issue. – Paul Heine