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People Meters Threaten Ethnic Radio

New America Media, News Report, Karina Ioffee Posted: Oct 02, 2008

A new system measuring radio audiences has some ethnic radio stations in a panic, wondering whether the change will mean the death knell for them. On Oct. 8, Arbitron, a media and marketing research firm, plans to introduce a new system to gauge listener preferences in several cities throughout the country. The company says the system, called the Portable People Meter (PPM), will revolutionize the way data is collected and is a more accurate way to find out what people from San Francisco to New York are tuning in to. But owners of ethnic radio stations say PPM means only one thing a drop in ratings, which are directly tied to advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any media company.

The communities we serve will lose their most trusted source for news and information, said Jim Winston, executive director of National Association of Black Broadcasters, a trade association representing African-American stations around the country. When they want to know whats going on, they always turn to their own media. Now theyll be left without a voice.

The complaints havent come from only ethnic radio stations. The offices of the attorney general in New York and New Jersey both launched investigations in September into whether PPM discriminates against ethnic radio stations. The New York City Council has asked for the Federal Communications Commission to look into the matter.

Arbitron, the only provider of radio ratings for stations in the country, has already introduced the new measuring system in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, among other cities. They plan to make the switch complete in October and continue to eight other markets across the United States, including Riverside-San Bernardino, San Jose, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Detroit and Dallas.

The problem, say critics, lies in the way the company collects information on listener preferences. Previously, households were asked to keep track of what they were listening to on a piece of paper and report back at the end of the week. The new system gives participants small, pager-like devices that are carried on the body and monitor what music they listen to. However, most people dont stay in one place throughout their day, but travel to work, to school, stores and doctors offices where theyre exposed to music they might not choose themselves. Thats one of the inherent flaws of the system, say members of the ethnic media.

Another is the small sample size of households surveyed. Using the new system, only about one-third of the number of households previously tracked will be included. In a market like New York, for example, the preferences of 4.3 million Hispanics are decided by a sample size of only 5,000 people. In Philadelphia, the musical choices of African-American women ages 18-24 are decided by just 17 survey participants, according to Winston.

Arbitron is not asking the right questions, said Frank Flores, vice president of Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS), which owns 20 stations around the country. Because the information we get from PPM is so stark and so different, we know there are many flaws in it.

Take WSKQ, a popular Spanish-language station in New York that plays salsa and merengue and is owned by SBS. For years, it was tied with the citys R&B and blues station, WBLS, for the number two spot. Then PPM was rolled into town last year, and the ratings slid down. Now WSKQ is ranked #11, while WBLS is down to #17. Currently, both the diary reporting method and PPM are in use in New York.

Our rating has gone down 60 percent and so have our revenues, said Flores. That is drastic.

Arbitron ratings can cost upwards of $1 million for a station. But deciding to not be rated is not an option, as advertising agencies look to station ratings when deciding where to buy airtime. The higher a stations Arbitron rating, the more it can charge for each second of commercials.

Arbitron has bristled at the criticism of PPM, saying that the previously used diary method is simply not as accurate in recording listener behavior, especially in complex markets such as New York or Los Angeles.

What were debating here is change change of a survey instrument from a recall-dependent, paper-and-pencil diary to an electronic, completely passive, objective measurement device, said Steve Morris, chairman and president of Arbitron at a City Council hearing in New York earlier this month.

The company has also said its sample size for Hispanics, for example, is twice that which is used to measure television preferences of the same demographic.

Still, Spanish-language and urban radio stations remain unconvinced, pointing to cities where stations have been forced to change programming formats after a significant drop in ratings. A station in Philadelphia known for blues now plays classic rock. So does a former Spanish-language station in Houston.

We know what will happen in the future because its happened in other places, said Charles Warfield Jr., president and chief operation officer of ICBC Broadcast Holdings, which owns 17 R&B and blues stations around the country.

Arbitron has said it does not believe the FCC has jurisdiction over them, although it has said it will continue to work with stations to conduct audits of each market and prepare them for the transition.

NAM contributor Karina Ioffee is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York.

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