The Arbitron ratings of Washington radio stations won't come out until later this week, but already broadcasters are arguing over what they will mean for the $75 million local radio market.
Based on advance reports, champagne is flowing and roses blooming at the NBC complex on Nebraska Avenue where WKYS-FM and WRC-AM have their studios.
WRC has jumped from 14th place to ninth in the latest ratings while sister station WKYS vaulted past long-time leader WMAL into first place.
But at the WMAL studios a few blocks away on Jenifer Street, General Manager Andy Ockershausen isn't crying in his beer.
Other stations have come in first in the quarterly ratings before, Ockershausen points out, but WMAL has won every annual ratings race for the 16 years. "One rating book does not a station make," he says.
This time, however, WMAL has slipped into third place behind both KYS and WGAY. The Arbitron advances put KYS first with 8.4 percent of the total radio audience, GAY second with 8.1 percent, and MAL third with 7.5 percent.
Considering that differences of less than half a point are hard to measure accurately by any sort of sampling system, that sounds like a three-horse race.
But when it comes to audiences and advertisers there is little direct competition between the three top outlets. WMAL is a news and talk station with some music mixed in, WGAY plays what broadcasters call "beautiful music" -- heavy on the strings, hold the rock and soul -- and WKYS is the District's most successful black-oriented radio station using a format known as "urban contemporary."
Like listeners, advertisers are much more likely to spread their broadcast budget among all three stations than to try to count on any one of them to deliver everything they want.
With 24 stations spewing out signals, the Washington radio market is a free-for-all, a demolition derby in which the winner is the one who doesn't get run off the track.
The ability of WKYS to pass WMAL is due in part to teamwork between KYS and WRC. The two stations are in the same building, but have different bosses.
General manager Bart Walsh converted KYS to its present format three years ago and began to kiss his way up the Arbitron ladder. Last December NBC lured Jerry Nachman away from CBS in New York to try to work a similar miracle on WRC.
The perennial underachiever of broadcast networks, NBC has tried to run a class-act AM station in Washington but has consistently lost money. The price of pride and professionalism was $2 million a year, according to Variety, which said Nachman's assignment was to "slice and dice" WRC -- anyway he could cut it as long as it worked.
To move into the local top 10, WRC not only had to pass head-to-head rival WTOP-AM, the only surviving all-news station in town, but also needed to take a piece of the action away from WMAL. The preliminary ratings indicate WRC poached enough listeners from MAL to enable WKYS to finish first.
WMAL's frequency-modulated sibling station WRQX -- better known as Q-107 -- meanwhile moved up from eighth place in the ratings to sixth, so the two are still the best paired property in town.
Despite its gains, WRC still is a long way from making money. Nachman says it will be "sometime next year" before that happens, figuring the station needs to increase its share of the market from the present 4.3 to a solid 5 percent to wash his costs.
But there's more to ratings than just total audience, cautions Janet Leverrier, VP and media maven for Kal Merrick & Salan, the Bethesda ad agency. The demographic details of the Arbitron rating book published this week will help her and other media buyers pick their stations.
At out-of-town ad agencies where no one ever hears the stations, ratings may determine who gets the business, she said, but "We are not a shop that buys by the numbers alone. When we see a huge jump in one station, we tend to be a little skeptical."
The biggest argument about the new ratings, however, is over how well they measure the black audience.
Arbitron rates radio stations by passing out little diaries to a sample of listeners and asking them to write down the radio stations they listen to. For their trouble, the listeners get a few bucks.
Over the years Arbitron has had trouble getting completed diaries from teenagers and blacks, particularly black males. To try to get better participation, the rating service has raised the fee it pays to black listeners and now makes calls to remind them to fill in their diaries.
The new system went into effect with the first-quarter ratings and seems to reveal a bigger black radio audience than previously measured as well as higher ratings for stations catering to black listeners.
Even the rating service admits the switch in methodology makes it difficult to compare this year's numbers with last year's. Until the new system has been in use for at least a full year, broadcasting executives are going to dispute each other's figures.
The station managers, meanwhile, aren't waiting for their next report card. Ockershausen has added an extra dash of news to WMAL's formula. Every rock music station in town hopes to steal business from WWDC, now that hot jock Howard Stern is taking his twisted turntable and torquedout tongue to New York. As they used to say on the radio, tune in tomorrow.