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Will 'The Big One' Stay Number One?

New ratings device could alter radio market

By Dave Malaska · September 23rd, 2009 · News
For a long time, 700 WLW has been Cincinnati’s top radio station. The 50,000-watt AM behemoth has been the home of local staples like Bill Cunningham and Jim Scott and enjoyed a huge lead in the radio ratings.

But what would happen if “The Big One” was no longer number one?

We might find out in December, when a shakeup in radio station rankings could accompany ratings giant Arbitron’s announcement of its fall numbers, the first in Cincinnati measured with a new technology that has lead to ratings shakeups in nearly every other market where it’s been used.

Starting Sept. 17, Arbitron began measuring local listening tastes with its Portable People Meter (PPM), a pager-sized listening device that automatically records what stations the wearer is listening to, and how long they listen, by picking up specially-encoded signals. In December, Cincinnati will be the 26th market nationally to adopt the system when the first official PPM ratings numbers will be released.

Most expect a ratings tremor that could rattle the market as Cincinnatians have come to know it, at least in the short term.

“It’s caused a fair amount of upheaval each time it comes into a market,” says WLW Program Manager Darryl Parks, who says local stations have been bracing for the switch.

Until now, Arbitron has used listener diaries to feed its ratings — and, in turn, stations’ ad revenues — with survey members filling out weekly logs of what they’ve listened to and when. That system was prone to inaccuracy, as those surveyed had to rely on memory for their data.

PPMs are a move to eliminate that inaccuracy, says Arbitron spokeswoman Jessica Benbow. The technology itself, developed in the 1990s, will be distributed to a sample group mirroring the city’s age, gender and racial demographics. After being worn like a pager throughout the day, the device will report data to Arbitron computers each night, marking every station you’ve listened to in the car, heard on a passing radio or ignored on an elevator. Unlike the diary system, the results will not be colored by the human factor.

And that, Benbow says, could fuel changes in the Cincinnati radio hierarchy, as it has in other PPM cities.

“Whenever you switch from one system to another, there’ll be a certain amount of change,” she says. “When Nielsen changed its television ratings from a diary system to local people meters, they had better information and that caused a wave of changes.

It’s not unprecedented.”

PPMs’ affect on national radio markets has been pronounced since Arbitron started rolling out the system in 2007 with Philadelphia and Houston as test markets.

Since then, the company has slowly been placing PPMs in the nation’s top 50 markets, with the changeovers expected to be complete by December 2010. Along the way, ratings surprises have arisen as popular stations took unexpected ratings hits.

WMXD “The Mix,” an urban adult contemporary FM station in Detroit, was the top-ranked station in the area during 2008, with a 5.9 share. When the first PPM results were unveiled, the station dropped to a 3.7 share and to seventh-place among the Motor City’s stations.

In Washington, which also debuted the PPM ratings last year, news talker WTOP jumped from a close second-place finish to an urban adult contemporary station to a commanding 2.6 share lead in the first PPM-based ratings. Another urbanprogrammed station plummeted from a close third place to a distant seventh place.

And in Miami, adult contemporary station WLYF jumped from 19th place into first.

A similar shakeup may be in the making for Cincinnati, but top dog WLW isn’t panicking, Parks says. His station assumed its regular No. 1 spot in the latest ratings, with a 10.9 share for the spring and is ready for the switch.

“Ratings are ratings,” Parks explains, “and over the years, the smart programmers have learned to adapt to the system and exploit its rules to benefit their stations. We may drop some initially, but the same thing’s going to happen here. Brands tend to do well in ratings and, I’m not trying to be arrogant, but WLW is arguably the biggest media brand in the market.”

Stations have watched previous PPM markets and are learning how to absorb changes. WLW and other local stations already have started adapting programming that is PPM-geared, from time-stamping upcoming events to the way stations market themselves off the air.

Another factor is that stations can gain additional ratings points never available before. In the diary system, out-of-market radio stations overlapping from Dayton and Louisville figured in the ratings numbers. Using PPM, Arbitron rates only Cincinnati market stations, meaning the 4-5 ratings points previously divvied up by out-of-town stations will be up for grabs.

Ratings shifts haven’t been the only thing to accompany the advent of PPMs, though.

Arbitron has suffered controversy as well, with charges from states’ attorneys general, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and groups like the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters that the new system underestimates minority listenership and damages urban stations’ ratings.

Earlier this year, the company agreed to settlements with the states of New York, New Jersey and Maryland because of complaints that roughly 5-6 percent of PPM samples consist of cell phone-only households, when nearly a fifth of African-American and Hispanic homes don’t have landline phones. Detractors also questioned PPM’s smaller listener group sample, compared to the diary survey participants.

Arbitron’s resolution with the states includ ed cash settlements and adjustments in how Arbitron selects its survey members, especially cell phone-dependent homes.

In May, the FCC also took notice of similar complaints and initiated a Notice of Inquiry investigation into problems; in July, Florida’s attorney general filed suit against Arbitron.

Benbow admits there have been problems, but says Arbitron is working to correct the issues.

The company has moved from using a random telephone survey to gather members for its testing groups to include cell phone-only homes, as well as using address directories and door-to-door canvasses to sign up new members from previously neglected areas.

“The ratings don’t mean as much to our subscribers unless we have the demographics right, and we’re working to bring that where it should be,” Benbow says.

K.J. Holiday, urban programming director at Clear Channel Detroit and WMXD, says Arbitron has moved in the right direction.

Executives there expected a drop for “The Mix,” but WMXD continues to hover around seventh place in local ratings. Arbitron has worked with stations to interpret the ratings in order to make changes to improve stations’ numbers, Holiday adds.

“Arbitron’s been doing a good job of fixing it, but it’s still a work in progress,” he says. “We still need the watchdogs to keep an eye on the situation to make sure we’re counting all of the community.”



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