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KCRW’s People Meter problem

Listening to velvet-voiced Jason Bentley the other day on the radio pitching KCRW’s first-ever Halloween masquerade ball at the fabulous old Park Plaza hotel, my mind began to drift.

I would jettison my news-dweeb persona on that day, not so far off, and disappear into the writhing dance crowd, losing myself in Bentley’s grooves. Techno. Trip-hop. (If only I knew what that was.)

That fantasy would have to go on hold, though, as I had decided it was time to call Bentley’s bosses with more prosaic concerns -- like what’s happening to public radio in L.A. and could your audience be in danger of slipping away?

The question had been raised for some time, most pointedly when last month’s Arbitron ratings showed three Los Angeles public radio stations -- KUSC-FM (91.5), KPCC-FM (89.3) and KKJZ-FM (88.1) -- substantially ahead of the once preeminent KCRW-FM (89.9).

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The numbers, and the “Portable People Meter” (PPM) the ratings outfit uses to collect them, have been the subject of furious debate nationally among radio programmers for more than a year. Suffice it to say that the bosses at KCRW believe theirs is one of the stations whose listenership is being grossly undercounted.

I won’t claim to have nearly enough expertise to settle the technical arguments about Arbitron’s new audience estimates. And surely ratings can be overplayed. But the numbers give at least a hint at the shifting balance of power in Los Angeles public radio.

For at least a few years now, more listeners have been moving steadily toward stations with consistent formats -- like KPCC’s news and talk and KUSC’s classical music, a niche it holds almost alone after other stations dropped the format.

KCRW proudly and somewhat defiantly maintains its eclectic brand, carrying everything from National Public Radio’s news programs to unique home-grown shows on food, books, public affairs and more.

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If you measure by its growing Web audience, stronger than its competitors’, and its list of subscribers, large and robust, KCRW has much to celebrate and little to fear.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if those ratings numbers weren’t cause for some worry.

“This has been a growing concern over the last several months, since we started seeing the new numbers,” said one member of the KCRW foundation board, who asked not to be named for fear of angering station management. “You can quibble with the numbers. But even if they are just true relatively speaking, then we should be asking what they mean.”

Another board member shared similar feelings -- though both of them, and a third board member I spoke to, stressed that they think the station has no cause for alarm or a hasty change in direction.

“To me the great achievement of KCRW is to remain eclectic when so much of media is going to narrower and narrower niches,” said Steve Lavine, president of California Institute for the Arts and a board member at the station. “That unlikely mix of cutting- edge music and news and information and cultural commentary is what’s so valuable.”

Even so, it did not go unnoticed anywhere in local radio last month when Arbitron (relying on the new PPM devices) showed KUSC with a total of 737,000 listeners per week, tops on public radio’s airwaves not only locally but across the nation.

Pasadena-based KPCC ranked fifth nationally with a “cume” of 549,000, and jazz-oriented KKJZ came in at 317,000. KCRW trailed at 289,000 weekly listeners.

When I asked about the numbers, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour made me feel a little like that fat PC guy in the Apple computer ads, his mind rooted in hopeless convention while arty Appleman scans the vast horizon.

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“I hate these stories,” Seymour said, adding that “Arbitron has devised a marvelous system to measure radio in the 20th century.”

Seymour, to be sure, is not alone in arguing that the measuring system is flawed. Of particular concern: The People Meters don’t record all the people who listen to the news and music programs that KCRW transmits via online “streams” distinct from its main programming. Arbitron also doesn’t report listening by people out of town and overseas, where the station’s music, in particular, has a big following.

Joanne Church interprets ratings data for public radio stations as president of the Radio Research Consortium.

She agrees that KCRW gets shortchanged, to a degree, by the failure to fully measure online and out-of-town audiences.

But Church also believes that the new Arbitron ratings are “at least as reliable” as the old system, in which a sample of listeners kept diaries of the programs they followed.

Yet the shift from the old to the new rating system has cost KCRW more than any other public radio station -- dropping to an estimated 289,000 listeners a week from the 539,000 that Arbitron reported in spring 2008.

Longtime KCRW consultant Will Lewis has filed a complaint with the FCC about the new measurements. One of the station’s theories is that its listeners are too young and mobile to agree to toting around the bothersome People Meter.

“You think our audience, going to the gym with their iPods and Nanos, want to take along this extra, cumbersome device they have to attach?” Seymour asked incredulously.

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A less pleasant prospect for the station, suggested by Church, is that KCRW might have benefited in past ratings from a “halo” effect.

“They have such a strong brand that people wanted to report listening to them,” Church said. “The diary was very forgiving that way and the meter is not.”

Said Lavine, who stressed he was not speaking for the KCRW board: “None of us, no matter what field we are in, like to have our audience become smaller.”

But he added that the Arbitron figures don’t give a full picture, noting that the station is outstripping most others with its growing Web presence and myriad podcasts and archived programs.

Alexa.com, indeed, showed KCRW with a larger online audience than other local public radio stations. Nielsen Net Ratings recorded 97,000 unique visitors to kcrw.com for August.

Making all the number-crunching somewhat academic, at least for now, is the station’s other bottom line. It has lost little, if any, appeal with subscribers, counting more than 50,000 of them. With corporate underwriting thrown in, the station raised a total of $12.5 million in the most recent fiscal year.

The key challenge will be similar to the one facing many media, including newspapers, Lavine said. That is: finding ways to make money off the Internet audience.

Steve Behrens, editor of Current.org, which closely follows public broadcasting, cautioned in the meantime against “media writers’ obsessions with ratings and box office.”

Who wouldn’t, after all, want to support the station that brought the world comedian Harry Shearer’s biting, hilarious “Le Show” and Warren Olney’s trenchant public affairs programs, along with the latest dance beats from Lagos?

I hope the dwindling numbers are based on flawed methodology. I hope I’m just another media writer with a petty obsession.

If not, KCRW might have reason to wonder about its future in the long term. Audience drives subscriptions and subscriptions create revenue.

If the cash goes away, I have to wonder, who’s going to school me about trip-hop?

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james.rainey@latimes.com

Follow Rainey on Twitter at latimesrainey.


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