A Volume Adjustment for Minority Stations

Arbitron's people meters replaced a decades-old diary system.
Arbitron's people meters replaced a decades-old diary system. (Arbitron)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 7, 2008

Until this week, four radio stations that attract largely minority audiences were perennial ratings powerhouses. Now, thanks to an electronic meter no larger than a cellphone, they're suddenly also-rans.

Radio stations such as WHUR (96.3 FM) and WMMJ (102.3 FM) -- which have predominantly African American followings -- and Spanish-language El Zol (99.1 FM) appear to be the biggest losers in the switch to a controversial new radio ratings system, which is based on portable "people" meters. The stations' listenership fell precipitously last month as the system went into effect.

At the same time, stations that traditionally appeal to white audiences -- contemporary-music outlets such as Hot 99.5 and WASH (97.1 FM) -- grew substantially, renewing suspicions that the new system has a racial bias.

October was the first month in which Arbitron, the radio ratings company, began measuring audiences with the meters, which are small enough for listeners to carry around. The meters replaced a cumbersome, decades-old system that required listeners to remember what they heard and to record it later in weekly diaries. Arbitron says the new system is more accurate, and has staunchly defended it since the company began rolling it out in other cities last year. At stake are millions of dollars, because ad rates are based on the Arbitron numbers.

The meters record what a respondent is listening to and send the information to Arbitron's data center in Columbia, where it is compiled into rankings of station popularity. At the end of the year, stations and advertisers in Washington will start using these ratings to determine the cost of airtime.

Across the nation, the new method has drawn fire from executives whose stations seek minority listeners. Their concern isn't the meters themselves, but rather the underlying sample of listeners. In particular, they contend that Arbitron underrepresents African Americans and Latinos in its surveys -- particularly young members of those groups -- leading to lower ratings for minority-oriented stations. For example, the sample may not include enough people aged 18-24 or 25-34 to give an accurate count.

Last month, the controversy escalated into lawsuits filed by attorneys general in New York and New Jersey. The officials have sued to stop Arbitron from introducing the system until an independent panel certifies that it is reliable.

"Arbitron has shown no willingness to fix the problems," said Jim Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters, a Washington-based minority-station group. If the current system continues, he said, "the economic effect could be disastrous for these stations. This is a matter of survival for some of them."

The new electronic ratings for Washington area stations certainly look very different from the ratings derived from the last diary survey, completed over the summer.

WHUR, which has a talk and urban music format popular among African Americans, was the region's top-rated station this past summer, but fell to fifth in October under the metered system.

WMMJ, another urban-contemporary outlet, tumbled from third to a tie for 10th. WPGC (95.5 FM), which plays R&B and hip-hop, tumbled from fourth to seventh. El Zol, which plays Spanish-language pop, dropped from 10th to 20th.

Despite that, CBS Radio executive Sam Rogers, who manages El Zol and WPGC, said the new system is superior to the outmoded diaries. "We haven't had a change in [ratings methods] since disco," he said. "We have to have this kind of accountability for our advertisers. At the end of the day, it's legit."

Some radio executives, in fact, say the meters have exposed flaws in how ratings were collected for years. Minority stations often received higher ratings under the diary method because of the "strong emotional ties" between the stations and their listeners, said Jim Farley, vice president of programming at all-news WTOP. That loyalty might have led minority listeners to overstate how often they listened to their favorite station in the diaries. The meters, which are passive and automatic, are simply exposing these self-reporting errors, he said.

WTOP, which typically does well in the ratings, was the top-ranked station in the October meter survey, garnering an average of 9.3 percent of the audience.

One major surprise was who moved up to second: noncommercial WAMU (88.5 FM), with 8.5 percent. The news and talk station, which features National Public Radio programming, had never finished higher than fifth, said Kay Summers, a WAMU spokeswoman.

WASH (6.3 percent) and Hot 99.5 (6.2) were third and fourth, respectively.

Another surprise was the relative strength of two Christian-music stations. WGTS (91.9 FM), a noncommercial station owned by Columbia Union College in Takoma Park that plays contemporary Christian music, ranked No. 12 (4.1 percent) in the people-meter survey. WPRS (104.1 FM), which plays contemporary gospel, was No. 13 (3.7 percent).

Between them, those two stations collectively attracted the third-largest share of the audience in the area.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company