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Scanning the Airwaves

A new system can monitor what station a car radio is tuned to, giving programmers instant feedback.


Big Brother is listening to you.

Well, not exactly. But someone will soon be "listening" to what you're tuning in on your car radio.

Receivers that can read what radio station you're tuned to as you drive by are now being placed on strategically selected utility poles in several dozen key traffic locations. And starting sometime in September, the data collected will be made available to radio broadcasters, giving them what the system's overseers claim is virtually instant, highly accurate feedback on the effectiveness of specific programming.

"It's the first time we have a measuring service that doesn't rely on what people say they do, but electronically reports what people actually do," says Lucious Stone, director of sales and marketing for Mobiltrak, the Toronto-based operation behind the service that has thus far been rolled out in that Canadian city and in Phoenix. "And it's immediate, because it's electronic, and it can do huge sample sizes."

Currently, the industry's ratings standards come largely from Arbitron, which collects data from logs that select groups of people are asked to fill out following their radio listening. These ratings are what radio stations use to set their advertising rates and to show advertisers how many people they are reaching. But the results of the polling are released at three-month intervals. And they do not allow for assessment of any given day or hour of programming, but rather time-period performance throughout the three-month period. Mobiltrak, Stone says, can pinpoint peaks and valleys of listenership down to the minute.

Bob Case, general manager for two stations in Phoenix, is an unabashed fan. One of his stations, KHOT-FM, instituted a new format similar to L.A.'s Latino-skewed oldies Mega 100 (KCMG-FM 100.3) nine months ago. So far, impact in Arbitron has been slow, with the station ranking 19th in the market. On Mobiltrak, the station ranks fourth among people listening in cars, a development Case says has already paid off in increased advertising.

And with his other station, alternative-rock KEDJ-FM, he's been able to monitor programming alterations and specials effectively.

"Pearl Jam was in town, and as a post-concert special we played all Pearl Jam for an hour and the [Mobiltrak] numbers exploded, while our competition went down quite a bit," he says. "We have Howard Stern on in the morning, and when he goes on vacation for a week, it drops dramatically. We've used this to help us adjust programming for six weeks, and listenership is up, and it stays there."

Ron Rodrigues, editor in chief of the weekly Radio & Records trade publication, says such instant readings and wide sampling techniques have long been called for by the radio industry. But he wonders how many broadcasters will be willing to pay for the data, given the financial constraints brought about by the huge cash investments being made in radio, especially given a key element that Arbitron provides that Mobiltrak cannot.

"There is a wide perception that this will be comparable to or compete with Arbitron, which it can't," Rodrigues says. "The reason is you don't know who's driving the car. So it can't do what advertisers want more and more of today, which is tell who is the listener, the demographics. It's a severe limitation."

Stone readily acknowledges this and insists this is not meant to supplant Arbitron data but to complement it, though he notes that Mobiltrak can pinpoint some demographic data based on location of monitors.

Another intriguing side to the innovation is potential applications for retail businesses. A monitor can be placed in the parking lot of a grocery store, for example, and provide information about what stations people coming to the store favor, which can be used to determine the stations in which to buy advertising. Several Phoenix and Toronto store chains are already using that.

"Radio's only getting about 7% of the advertising pie now," Stone says. "If we can take this to someone who doesn't use radio, we can show them proof that [radio advertising] works and a station can practically guarantee them results."

Pasadena Politics: An upheaval in upper management of Pasadena City College's KPCC-FM (89.3) will not have any bearing on the public station's programming, says college spokesman Mark Wallace.

The decision to relieve General Manager Rod Foster and Assistant General Manager Larry Shirk of their longtime posts was due to consistent budget shortfalls at the outlet, which, though boasting the strongest, most wide-reaching single signal of any Southern California college frequency, has never been able to compete with rivals KCRW-FM (89.9) and KUSC-FM (91.5).

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