By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 11, 2008
A little black box no bigger than a cigarette pack is at the heart of a multibillion-dollar dispute in the radio business. The box, some fear, could alter long-held notions about what's popular on the radio -- and hence who profits from it.
The box is a new electronic audience-ratings device called a portable people meter. When people who are recruited by Arbitron Inc. -- which is to radio ratings what Nielsen is to TV ratings -- carry the box on a belt or in a handbag, it automatically records which radio station they're listening to. The listenership numbers -- crunched at Arbitron's technology center in Columbia -- then are assembled into the audience rankings used by advertisers to buy airtime.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work.
Ever since last year, when Arbitron began to replace its system (in which survey participants filled out weekly diaries), radio companies that seek African American and Latino listeners have raised questions about the new system's accuracy. They contend that listeners who are ethnic or racial minorities -- particularly those who are young -- are systematically under-represented in Arbitron's people-meter surveys, leading to underestimates of the audience for their stations. The result, they say, will be a massive loss of advertising dollars for stations that have large minority audiences.
"It's not accurate and it's not reliable," says Jeffery Lieberman, president of the radio division of Entravision Communications, a California-based company that owns 48 Spanish-language stations nationwide. "It's a flawed system."
This week, just as Arbitron has begun to use the meters in the Washington area, the issue has mushroomed. It has even turned into a minor issue on the campaign trail.
Yesterday brought a crossfire of lawsuits. Attorneys general in New York and New Jersey filed suits to stop Arbitron from making its people-meter data available to stations and advertisers in the New York area, which is the nation's largest radio market. Later yesterday, Arbitron responded by filing countersuits against the attorneys general to prevent them from blocking the data; the company denied the attorneys general's allegations that its electronic system is "fraudulent."
On another front, Entravision and a coalition of minority broadcasters late last month petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to stop Arbitron from using the meters until the government studies the system's reliability.
Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has weighed in on behalf of the minority stations. "Delay is in the best interest of consumers, broadcasters and advertisers," he wrote last month in a letter to Arbitron President Steve Morris. The letter, which was co-signed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a fellow Democrat from Illinois, urged the company to seek accreditation from an independent research panel before introducing the meters to new markets, including Washington.
Arbitron has repeatedly defended its sampling methods and meters against all of these criticisms. It says the new system produces far more accurate results than its decades-old diary method, which relied on respondents to remember what they listened to during the week. "The quality of the product is solid," Morris recently told a conference of African American radio executives in Washington.
There's no dispute about one aspect of the new ratings. Early results from Houston and Philadelphia -- which last year became the first cities to get the meters -- have challenged some basic assumptions about radio-listening habits. Among other things, the electronic data indicate that people listen to more stations -- and spend less time listening to them -- than the diaries have shown for decades.
But other findings have generated controversy. Under the new method, for example, ratings for rock stations have generally grown, while those for minority-oriented stations have fluctuated wildly. In Chicago, ratings released Monday showed that WGCI-FM, an urban-contemporary station, fell to No. 14 among local stations; WGCI had been No. 2 during the last survey period, when diaries were used. Another music station with a large African American audience, WBBM-FM, tumbled from seventh to 20th.
The people-meter issue has particular relevance in the Washington area because of the popularity of minority-oriented stations. For many years, local ratings have been dominated by four black-oriented music stations -- WPGC-FM, WHUR-FM, WKYS-FM and WMMJ-FM. In the past two years, a new Spanish-language pop station, WLZL-FM -- has cracked the top 10, as well (the first metered ratings for Washington stations will appear at the end of December).
The chief problem, critics says, is that Arbitron recruits an insufficient number of survey participants in person, as well as an inadequate number of those who use only cellphones at home. That allegedly biases the survey results against stations that appeal to younger and poorer households. The data are also unreliable, critics contend, because the company doesn't adequately inform panelists about how to use the meters.
Some station executives defend the system, however, maintaining that Arbitron is working the bugs out. "Anytime you adopt a new technology, there are always short-term dislocations," said Alfred C. Liggins III, chief executive of Radio One Inc., the Lanham-based company that owns 53 stations -- including WMMJ and WKYS -- that seek African American listeners. "There's going to be a learning curve. . . . But [electronic measurement] is reality. I'd much rather get reality on the road then delay, delay, delay."
Liggins said that Radio One's stations in Houston and Philadelphia initially saw a steep drop in their ratings when the meters were introduced months ago but that they have since recovered to roughly the same ranking in the market.
Because the meters tell broadcasters who's listening to what within just a few days (compared with weeks under the diary method), stations can quickly "fine-tune" their promotions, commercial breaks and even on-air personalities, he said. In Philadelphia, for instance, Radio One removed a DJ from the air after just a few weeks when his ratings sagged; a similar personnel decision might have taken 18 months with diaries.
"If you're really brilliant and funny, you can keep talking," Liggins said. But as it turns out, "the number of people who really have that ability are few and far between."