FCC Reviewing Arbitron's New Radio Ratings Device

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday launched a review into whether a Columbia-based broadcast research firm undercounts minority radio listeners.

In a notice of inquiry, the FCC said broadcasters and media organizations have raised concerns that Arbitron does not include enough minorities in its sample groups, which are used to determine radio audience ratings. The FCC said it is also looking into complaints that Arbitron does not distribute enough of its measuring devices in African American and Hispanic communities. As a result, critics say, minority audiences are undercounted and the stations they listen to most frequently have a harder time competing for advertisers.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps said in a statement that the FCC launched the review of Arbitron's radio measuring technology, called Portable People Meter, based on complaints from broadcasters and because the agency relies on Arbitron's data for its own analyses.

Broadcasters have said that Arbitron's metering device "has a devastating effect on their ability to compete," Copps said in a statement. "If our renewed commitment to promote minority broadcast ownership is to succeed, we must understand the ecosystem in which minority owners operate."

Arbitron's PPM devices are the size of a cellphone and are worn by consumers throughout the day. The device automatically detects the radio stations they listen to. The technology replaces the paper diaries that consumers used to record the stations they listened to throughout the day.

Officials said the new technology is a more reliable way to track the station choices of radio listeners.

Arbitron called the review an "opportunity to better educate all parties about our Portable People Meter service and its advantages over the diary-based system." The company also noted that the review differs from a formal investigation that its opponents, including Univision, the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and the Spanish Radio Association, had pushed for.

The broadcasters have called Arbitron's methodology flawed, saying the company uses a sample group that largely overlooks homes with only cellphone service. Nearly two in 10 African American and Hispanic homes are cellphone-only, the FCC stated in its notice of inquiry.

Broadcasters also complained that Arbitron's metering device uses a smaller sample audience than those the company tracked when using paper diaries.

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