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Don’t touch that radio dial — Arbitron is listening

Three years ago, radio stations in Los Angeles and Orange County thought they knew who was listening to them, and where they stood in the horse race among their competitors. They found out differently.

In August 2008, the Arbitron radio ratings service published numbers for this market from a new survey method, ditching a decades-old diary system that relied on participants recalling from memory what stations they had listened to, and for how long, over the previous week. In its place came Portable People Meters, or PPMs, pager-sized devices that automatically registered everything the wearer heard — whether it was a favorite station they listened to in the car, the radio blaring at the corner café or a broadcast streamed over the Internet at work.

Since then, the new, theoretically more objective measurements have made broadcasters question some long-held ideas and have led to changes in what their audiences hear.

“Overall, it’s probably created better programming for the listeners,” said Greg Ashlock, who oversees the eight Los Angeles properties owned by Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio chain; they include the market’s top three rated stations: pop outlet KIIS-FM (102.7), talk station KFI-AM (640) and the adult-contemporary KOST-FM (103.5).

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Now, Ashlock argues, programmers are more concerned with what will make listeners stick with a station in the moment, rather than with what stuck in their minds at the end of the week when they used to fill out ratings diaries.

PPM thus made obsolete many broadcasters’ ancient rituals: Incessant repetition of the station call letters, so Arbitron listeners couldn’t possibly forget where their dials were tuned. Or starting a contest at 7:25 a.m., so the station would get credit in the diary for both the 7:15 and the 7:30 quarter-hours. Or having promotions reach a crescendo toward the end of the survey week — which ran from Thursday to Wednesday — knowing that many diary keepers would procrastinate until then to fill out all their entries.

“People were programming for Arbitron, and for diary recall,” said Mary Beth Garber, executive vice president of radio analysis and insights at the Katz Radio Group, a media marketer. “It’s good to have a measurement where you’re not relying on what people perceive.”

Under the diary system, the survey panel changed weekly, and Arbitron averaged three months’ data into a quarterly report — which meant long waits for radio stations to see how they were doing. With the People Meters, the calendar (and survey groups) is divided into 13 four-week periods, one for each month plus a year-end “holiday” segment. And the turnaround is much faster, as data from the meters are uploaded to Arbitron every night.

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The People Meters debuted in Philadelphia and Houston in 2007; the following year, the system expanded to Los Angeles and other markets. Based on the early results from those initial cities, which showed that more men were listening to radio than previously thought, Clear Channel decided to give KYSR-FM (98.7) a makeover in 2008. The onetime Star 98.7, with its soft rock hits aimed at a predominantly female audience, was transformed into a harder-edged alternative station aimed at guys, not their girlfriends. The result: By July 2010, it was a top 5 station, having increased its average weekly audience from 2.01 million people to 2.35 million in two years.

The station slipped a little in the most recent survey, for July 2011, when it garnered a 2.2% share of the audience ages 6 and older, dropping it into a tie for 18th place. But its average weekly audience remained at 2.1 million, besting its rival alternative rock station, the venerable KROQ-FM (106.7), at 1.95 million.

“It was the best move for us to make,” Ashlock said. “It was wildly successful. It absolutely attracted the male listeners.”

Some formats with the most fiercely loyal listeners — urban, country and Spanish-language — suffered in the switch from diaries to PPMs. Arbitron attributed the change to fans having over-reported their time spent listening to those stations in the diaries.

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The new figures also showed that most radio listening wasn’t in weekday mornings (6-10 a.m.), as had been thought, but midday (10 a.m.-3 p.m.): There was more at-work listening than previously reported. And there wasn’t much drop-off at other times, or on weekends.

“It shows you have to have a balanced station,” Ashlock said, rather than pouring talent, promotion and other resources into just one part of the schedule.

Kevin Weatherly, program director at KROQ and senior vice president of programming for the CBS Radio chain, said he has implemented other PPM lessons: Eliminate clutter, cut down on DJ patter and be judicious with new music. A loyal KROQ listener might have neglected to mention it in an Arbitron diary, but the People Meter reveals every time he switches away upon hearing the first notes of a song he can’t abide.

The ratings aren’t calculated merely for bragging rights, of course — they affect what stations can charge advertisers. The most popular stations with listeners are, naturally, the most popular with advertisers too, especially when desirable demographics are factored into the equation. That’s why KIIS was the nation’s second-highest billing station in 2010, with $54 million in advertising revenue. KFI placed fourth, at $46 million, and KROQ was 10th, earning $39 million, according to media research firm BIA/Kelsey.

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“It’s hard to believe so much business is based on this ratings system. But it’s the only game in town,” said Jeffery Liberman, president of Entravision Radio, which operates regional Mexican music station KDLD/KDLE-FM (103.1), Spanish pop station KSSE/KSSD/KSSC-FM (107.1) and the Spanish adult-contemporary KLYY-FM (97.5). “A small amount of people can still decide a large revenue swing in the marketplace.”

He refers to the primary complaint in the industry, that Arbitron’s survey sample isn’t large enough. In any given month, about 2,800 people are asked to carry the meters and represent the 11 million residents in the Los Angeles-Orange County market — a difficult task, especially considering the region’s diversity.

Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which operates Pasadena’s KPCC-FM (89.3), called PPM “a significant improvement in measuring the radio audience. But it still has a considerable way to go in terms of sample size.” For example, he said he has seen his station’s Latino audience estimate fluctuate by as much as 50% in a given month; another time, Orange County listenership dropped in half — a dubious figure not supported by other data, such as fund-raising pledges, Davis said.

Liberman said he’d like to see as many as 30 times the number of people in the survey, but footing the bill for additional panelists and meters is something not enough broadcasters are willing to do. Arbitron says the system is here to stay.

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“It’s definitely a big improvement in the way we measure radio listening,” Weatherly said. “Any methodology is going to have its critics. At least this measures actual listening.”

calendar@latimes.com


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