Ratings are everything in radio. But often, to an outsider, the numbers can mean nothing.
Arbitron does the ratings, and provides figures. But as soon as they do, the spinning starts. Station executives cite whatever demographic shows them in the best light and often say they don't pay attention to seemingly relevant numbers.
Ask Clear Channel's Michael Berry or CBS's Bill Van Rysdam a simple question: How many people are listening to your station on a typical Tuesday at 5:15 p.m.? Thirty thousand? Ten thousand?
They profess not to know. "I don't look at that," Berry says.
After some digging, KBME program director Tim Collins comes up with a figure of 15,000 as an average of people listening to the show that would be on at that time, compared to 12,700 for competitor KILT. Run that by KILT program director Bill Van Rysdam, and he says he's never heard of any figures like that.
Still, the latest ratings, for the first quarter of 2007, show something for everybody to like. KILT continued to lead in all segments of the day for men aged 25–54. KBME's Charlie Pallilo beat KILT's afternoon show when the demographic was expanded to everyone aged 12 and older, and KFNC did well compared to KBME in the hours of 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Everything regarding ratings is changing, however. Houston is the second city, after Philadelphia, to be measured by what are called "people meters."
Arbitron has supplied beeper-sized gizmos to a demographically diverse test population here. Every station's signal will be encoded, so that the people meter will record anything the person wearing it hears.
This replaces the old way of measuring, listener diaries, where people were asked to write down what stations they had listened to, and for how long, that day. (Or the week before, if the person had put off the chore of filling out the diary.)
That may be one reason, some radio people say, that music stations are cutting back on the station IDs between songs they don't have to worry about reminding all-important Arbitron listeners just what station they're dialed into.
While the meters will be more accurate than the diaries, they present problems of their own. "It doesn't record what you're listening to, it records what you've been exposed to," says Mark Fratrik of BIA, which is a consultant to the radio industry.
So if the lady in the cubicle next to you has her radio on all day, you're being marked down as a dedicated listener even if you've learned how to tune out the noise. (Sunny 99 the new ratings juggernaut!)
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If you leave it at home one day and your daughter's blasting her radio down the hall, you're creating ratings for KRBE.
Still, the meters are expected to provide vastly improved information on just how long listeners stick to a particular station, what drives them away and what keeps them glued.
They won't be the "be-all and end-all of accuracy," one industry observer said, because there are always issues with the makeup of Arbitron's sample.
"But that's the standard joke in the industry," the observer said. "If you have a great ratings book, that means Arbitron did it right; if you have a bad book that means Arbitron's system is terrible."