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RADIO | Around the Dial

Ratings Get Fuzzy Reception

Some station managers unsure what to make of reconfigured Arbitron survey.

April 29, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER and JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Last week's release of the quarterly Arbitron survey of radio listening in the Los Angeles-Orange County market produced a little celebrating, a little hand-wringing and a great deal of confusion up and down the dial.

"We don't know what happened. We're still trying to figure it out," said a baffled Jeff Williams, director of research for Heftel Broadcasting, whose three Spanish-language stations all lost audience.

"We think we're onto something," countered Andy Mars, general manager for Liberman Broadcasting, which saw two of its Spanish-language stations--KKHJ-AM (930) and KBUA-FM (94.3)--soar in the ratings. "We're very excited about it. I think we've laid the groundwork for success today and success tomorrow."

But what the ratings book for the first three months of 1999 didn't do, agree the winners, losers and even those on the sidelines, was produce any permanent changes. In fact, whether this was the start of a trend--as Mars hopes--or simply an aberration--as Williams prays it was--won't be known for some time.

"Realistically, if you want to look at reports, you have to wait for four [quarterly] books," says radio analyst Allen Klein of Media Research Graphics in Encino. "Most people don't do that."

Last fall, Arbitron, the company that tracks radio listenership, divided the L.A.-Orange County market into six zones. Each zone was to be surveyed and weighed based on its percentage of the overall market population. Arbitron argued that the new system would make its research more accurate and would better reflect the market's growing ethnic diversity by providing six opportunities for balancing the results according to known demographic figures.

Station managers were less convinced--and with reason--based on the ratings book for the final three months of 1998, the first survey using the new system. Spanish-language listening, for example, was way up, with market leader KSCA-FM (101.9) and runner-up KLVE-FM (107.5) climbing nearly a full share point each. But in last week's survey, while both stations remained atop the ratings, they saw those share figures fall dramatically. And several English-language music stations registered big gains.

"The problem is, we're in the very early days of a whole new way of counting," Williams says. "Was the fall right and the winter's wrong? Or was the fall wrong and the winter right? Maybe this is true. Maybe this is what's really going on in Los Angeles radio.

"We just don't know enough yet."

A likely scenario is that Spanish-language listening simply returned to normal. In the previous survey, Spanish-language stations that placed among the top 45 in the market combined to draw more than 24% of the audience, 2% higher than normal.

Laura Marella of Irvine-based Casanova Pendrill, the nation's largest independent Hispanic advertising agency, isn't concerned.

"Audiences ebb and flow," she says, "and we try not to have knee-jerk reactions to the audience numbers as they come out. On a relative scale, it's not that dramatic a difference.

"Independent of one particular book, the share of Spanish-language radio has exceeded 20 share points, cumulatively, over a long period. So it's not causing us to shift our overall ad spending."

*

In local English-language talk radio, winners of this quarter's Arbitron sweepstakes were Larry Elder, the afternoon-drive guy on KABC-AM (790); veteran Michael Jackson, centerpiece of the new talk lineup on KRLA-AM (1110); and CBS-owned KRLA itself.

Even a 1% showing, which KRLA got, is a victory for the first time out of the talk box, considering that the station had 0.6% share of audience under the old music-oldies format--a rise of 66%. By contrast, KIEV-AM (870), which has been at the talk game much longer and revamped its lineup last August, garnered only a 0.6% share in the latest ratings.

Jackson, the former KABC host who moved to KRLA in January, got a 2.7% share among listeners 12 and older in his first survey, beating KABC's Dennis Prager (2.1%) in their weekday 9 a.m.-noon slot. Prager, however, had more than twice Jackson's share among 25- to 54-year-olds, the group most advertisers target.

But then, Rush Limbaugh on KFI-AM (640) attracted more than both of them combined, with a 5.6% share in overall audience.

KRLA Program Director Ron Escarsega, indicating that Jackson's showing clearly helped the station, said: "I predicted a 1.5 [share] with Michael [in the 12-and-older ratings], and I had no idea he'd crack a 2 share. We're very excited."

Among the losers were CBS-owned KLSX-FM (97.1) and its morning host Howard Stern, who plummeted from 4.7% to 3.6% in overall audience share. The station itself fell a half-percentage point to a 1.9% share. Sources close to KLSX suggested that Stern may be overexposed with his daily radio show, a weeknight TV show on E! Entertainment and another TV program Saturday nights on CBS.

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