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Lawmakers Question Arbitron's Data on Minority Radio Listeners

Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, voices concern about use of Portable People Meter.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, voices concern about use of Portable People Meter. (By Joshua Roberts -- Bloomberg News)
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A congressional committee has launched an inquiry into a local company's new system for gauging listenership of radio stations and whether it leaves out minority households.

Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said some radio companies are complaining that a high-tech approach used by Columbia-based ratings company Arbitron to measure the size and demographics of listenership, does not adequately represent minority listeners.

During the past two years, Arbitron has switched how it measures listenership. Where survey participants once wrote down their radio-listening habits in paper journals, they now carry an electronic device, called the Portable People Meter, to do it automatically.

The new system has caused turmoil in the radio industry; many stations that were popular under the former system have seen their ratings plummet under the new one. Arbitron says the devices give advertisers a more accurate and detailed look at a radio station's audience size, but some radio companies are complaining that the PPM service fails to include minority listeners.

"The increased used of the PPM may unfairly threaten the financial viability of minority-targeted radio stations whose advertising revenues depend on the size of their rated audience," Towns said.

In a letter to interim Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael J. Copps, Towns voiced some radio industry complaints that Arbitron fails to sufficiently train non-English-speaking households in how to properly use the device. Towns also wrote that Arbitron doesn't recruit from cellphone-only households, a methodology that may leave out minorities.

Arbitron maintains that the system is an accurate gauge of radio listenership. "Arbitron welcomes any opportunity to discuss the importance of electronic measurement," Arbitron president and chief executive Michael Skarzynski said in a statement.

This is not the first time the PPM system has come under scrutiny. In May, the FCC initiated an inquiry, inviting comments and complaints about the new ratings system. The deadline for submitting comments is today; as of yesterday afternoon, 54 comments had been filed.

One typical comment, from attorneys for organizations such as the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, accused Arbitron of using "smoke and mirror figures" to determine how to best represent the sizes of various demographic markets.

"Minority broadcasters cannot survive with such precipitous declines in their audience measurement," the letter concluded.

With paper journals, participants in Arbitron surveys tended to round their listening times up or down, and they tended to favor their preferred stations, Arbitron spokeswoman Jessica Benbow said yesterday.

The PPM device, which picks up inaudible signals transmitted by each radio station for use by Arbitron, has shown that people don't listen to their favorite radio stations for as long as they think they do, and they're also hearing more stations than they realize.

"The information you get in a PPM is much more granular than what you'd get in a paper diary," Benbow said.

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