Arbitron's 'little gadget' causes major static

December 9, 2009

Luis Gutierrez, the Chicago Democrat, surprised fellow members of Congress earlier this year with the revelation that he and his wife were participants in an Arbitron ratings survey. They'd been chosen to carry Portable People Meters, which are compact devices that monitor radio listening electronically. 

What Inside Radio called Gutierrez's "shocking announcement" not only ignored Arbitron strictures against survey panelists disclosing their participation, it also underscored why the PPM system -- which replaced the old paper-and-pencil diary method -- has not yet gained full acceptance by the industry or federal regulators. "It really is very burdensome technology," Gutierrez said of his experience during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on minority broadcast ownership. "My wife's dresses sometimes did not accommodate the little gadget." While joking about the five-dollar fee he received as a Hispanic participant, he said it was a struggle to remember to carry the pager-like device each day: "I barely take my medicine when I'm supposed to, and I forget about my glasses. . . . I can't see an auto mechanic using this. If you're a nurse or a doctor, are you really going to walk around with this pager all day long?"

Even more controversial than the technology is the sampling Arbitron has been using to gather its data. As stations aimed at minorities have seen their ratings decline (by one estimate they've dropped between 40 and 60 percent nationwide since PPM kicked in), Congress has been holding Arbitron's feet to the fire. As recently as last week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform grilled Arbitron CEO Michael Skarzynski, who declared: "We share the concern regarding the health of minority broadcasting, and are certain that PPM is not the cause of its problems." According to a summary by Radio Business Report, Skarzynski said his company had spent more than $100 million to develop technology that produces valid and reliable audience estimates.

So what happens when a minority-targeted station does well in the ratings? Consider Clear Channel Radio's urban adult-contemporary WVAZ-FM (102.7), which finished first among all listeners between the ages of 25 and 54 (the "money demo" coveted by advertisers) in the PPM survey for November. That achievement prompted the Sun-Times to ask in a headline: "Is Arbitron cooking ratings numbers?" Citing unnamed radio execs, columnist Lewis Lazare had them "wondering whether Arbitron, to avert any unwanted action by Congress, might in recent months have been reallocating its‚  [PPMs] -- and/or weighting the data from those meters -- in a way that skews the results more heavily in favor of minority-oriented formats." The allegation drew a strong denial from Arbitron -- and a sharp rebuke this week from Sean Ross, the highly respected executive editor of music and programming for Radio-Info.com and vice president of music and programming for Edison Research, who wrote:

"Even if Arbitron were showing greater diligence at hitting its ethnic targets in Chicago or any other market, well, that's what a ratings provider is supposed to be doing, particularly now. Describing that as 'cooking ratings numbers' in a major daily suggests naiveté about the vicissitudes of the sampling process and broadcasters' rhetoric on the topic --  every month, the station that goes back up in the ratings thinks it's because they raised hell with Arbitron about the sample the month before."

In this market, the effect of the new ratings system is most evident in sweeping talent changes over the past year or two. Everyone from Steve Dahl, Melissa Forman, Ed Volkman and Joe Bohannon to Jonathon Brandmeier, Ramsey Lewis, Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey can blame their predicaments on PPM numbers that were lower than the ratings they delivered under Arbitron's old method.

Even so, to make Arbitron a scapegoat for all of radio's ills is more than naive or simplistic.‚  It overlooks the double-digit declines in advertising revenue brought about by the economic downturn and competing media -- especially the Internet. It disregards the impact of iPods, online streaming and satellite radio. And it ignores the crushing debt loads that threaten the very survival of many radio companies.

But then again, in troubled times, it's always been easiest to blame the messenger.

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