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A Blast from the Qualitative Past

June 19, 2014

Americans’ lives have changed drastically over the past 15 years. Arbitron and now Nielsen Audio has had to respond to those changes through an ever-evolving radio ratings service. Today we put our focus on the qualitative diary, utilized in well over 100 radio metros, by comparing a diary from 1998 to one from last year.

At the back of the Nielsen Audio diary, respondents answer some basic questions about age, gender, education, income, home ownership, and number of children in the household – no changes there. There’s also employment status, and these days commute time is collected along with number of miles traveled for any purpose.

Attendance at a nightclub/bar or live concert in the 1998 diary has been replaced with attendance at a local sporting event or casino in the 2013 diary. Consumption of beer appears in both diaries, but soda in the 1998 diaries has been replaced with wine and liquor. Both diaries include visits to fast-food restaurants, and now the diary includes sit-down restaurants and fine dining as well. Other relatively unchanged questions include grocery expenditures, intent to purchase a vehicle, and types of stores shopped.

The most telling differences are apparent when you look at media use and technology.

For example, respondents are now asked if they read any online newspapers, in addition to Sunday editions and local weekday papers. And the number of cable channels listed has gone from 17 to 27.

Computers have become so ubiquitous that respondents are no longer even asked if their household owns a computer. Instead they are asked how much time they spent on the Internet in the past week, and how much they spent on Internet purchases in the past year. Additionally, take a look at the differences with the electronic items the household plans to purchase in the next year …

1998 2013
TV, VCR, or camcorder HD television
Stereo or CD player DVD player or recorder
Home computer Digital camera or camcorder
MP3 player
Computer hardware
Cell phone


Also added since 1998, the diary now includes the categories of ethnicity and political affiliation.

Sometimes we need to take a look back to realize how much things have changed – and in only 15 years! The changes in the qualitative diary not only demonstrate the advancements we’ve made, but also what’s top of mind for us as a society.

We’d like to hear from you – what other ways has the ratings industry changed to keep up with the times?

-Anne Doyle, Production Manager