Pretty soon you may be hearing a lot more rock music on the radio, less hip-hop, and fewer plugs for the station you're listening to. Those are some of the theories thrown out by consultants studying the effects of radio's new ratings measuring system, which begins next week in the Bay Area. Some 2,100 local radioheads representing the area's 5.9 million listeners will begin wearing beeperlike monitors called Portable People Meters (PPMs) to track what stations they are tuned to. Arbitron, the company that specializes in radio ratings, is launching the new technology in the Bay Area and the other top seven markets in the country this summer.
You probably haven't heard much about the new system, but those in what is still the most pervasive medium (with an estimated 575 million radios in the U.S.) are braced for major changes — they just aren't sure yet what they will be. "It really will change our world," says Greg Nemitz, the general manager of Alice 97.3 FM.
The meters will replace the crude system radio stations have used since the days before Elvis had his first hit. For decades, paid listeners have kept diaries about what stations they tuned into throughout the day, and Arbitron has ranked the stations from those. But broadcasters and advertisers have long disputed the accuracy of the diary-driven ratings.
Consider: Diaries are virtually impossible to keep if you are driving and flipping through channels every time you hear something you don't like. How would you recollect all the button pushing at the end of a day, or week, when you sit down to fill out the diary? That won't be a problem with the new electronic meters, which will constantly track subsonic signals from each station.
A common complaint about the diary system was that many people voted for their favorite stations without listening to them as much as they claimed. "A lot of stations get more credit than they deserve," Nemitz says. "When I was in college, if someone asked what I listened to, I'd tell them KDFC to seem smarter. I wouldn't tell them I was listening to some loud rock."
Nemitz, who is also in charge of sales at all the local CBS stations, including news CBS-AM and alternative rock Live 105, says his company has embraced the new technology and thinks programming will improve as a result of the direct feedback. Another benefit he foresees: Stations will no longer have to constantly remind listeners what they are listening to; in the past, they often did so to make sure the call letters track with the diary keepers.
But experts say the meters aren't perfect. Charlie Sislen, who tracks radio listening for Research Director Inc. in Washington, D.C., worries that people's routines won't readily incorporate them. For example, if someone wakes up to a clock radio and goes downstairs for breakfast, he or she is unlikely to carry the meter. "Until we have implants at birth, it's not infallible," he says.
Many broadcasters who cater to minority audiences aren't at all happy either. Philadelphia, which served as one of two early testing grounds for the meters last year, saw a big drop in hip-hop listeners (KMEL, take note). Some say that was because the monitors weren't a fashion statement; others say young fans often forgot to wear them. Spanish-language stations also saw their ratings drop in Philly. Spanish broadcasters have even formed an association to lobby against the new ratings method, saying that they fear illegal immigrants, already afraid of the government, are unlikely to wear the monitors. Spanish and African-American broadcasters have asked that their numbers be weighted because of what they perceive as the shortcomings of Arbitron's new method.
Who are the big winners in all of this? So far, white boys who like rock 'n' roll. For whatever reason, white male rockers didn't track their listening habits very well in their diaries. Then when the meters were first rolled out, programmers suddenly realized that white boys were listening to radio, and specifically rock. Stations in New York and Los Angeles have started to rock out more as a result.
The first ratings results for the Bay Area will be released in September.