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New Arbitron system comes under fire

October 08, 2008|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

Top 40 music outlet KIIS-FM (102.7) is the top radio station in the Los Angeles-Orange County market, according to summer ratings released this week, but critics aren't just focused on the pop purveyor's ranking: They say a new rating system imperils the future of minority broadcasters.

The Arbitron radio ratings had been scheduled for release today, but the company published them two days early amid accusations that a new measurement system it has rolled out is unfair to minority stations. Last week, New York Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo threatened a lawsuit preventing Arbitron from releasing the data, alleging that it undercounted black and Latino listeners.

Arbitron officials wouldn't acknowledge that the early release was to preempt legal action from Cuomo and others. Steve Morris, Arbitron chief executive, would say only that the company was releasing the numbers for Los Angeles, Riverside-San Bernardino, San Francisco, San Jose, Chicago and New York City "in order to meet our obligations to our customers and to the radio industry." Otherwise, he said, "the industry will not have up-to-date estimates of the radio audience in the nation's largest markets."

This week's ratings in those cities represent the first official quarterly numbers using Arbitron's new Portable People Meters, or PPMs, pager-sized devices that detect and record all the radio stations that survey participants hear during the day. They're supposed to be more accurate than what they are replacing, a diary system that depended on listeners to remember and write down what they'd listened to. In Philadelphia and Houston, which have been using PPMs since last year, many minority-focused stations saw big drops in their listenership under the new methodology. Similar results appeared in July test data for Los Angeles, showing that Spanish-language stations don't dominate the market as once thought.

According to the new rating figures, measuring listening tastes from June 26 to Sept. 17, KIIS dominated the Los Angeles-Orange County market among listeners ages 12 and up, averaging a 5.8% audience share. A distant second was talk station KFI-AM (640), which took 4.4% of the summer audience, while oldies station KRTH-FM (101.1) placed third at 4.2%.

In the spring, under the old diary system, KIIS had placed second, with a 4.9% share, between Spanish-language stations KLVE-FM (107.5) at 5.6% and KSCA-FM (101.9) at 4.4%. In this week's rankings, though, KLVE placed fourth at 4.1%, while KSCA got 3.8%, tied for sixth with KCBS-FM (93.1).

Comparisons are difficult, however, because the survey methods from spring to summer are so different -- a key element of minority broadcasters' accusations.

Arbitron says the discrepancy comes, in part, from the way listeners filled out their diaries, with minority listeners often giving more weight to their favorite stations, while neglecting to record English-language stations they might have heard.

Ceril Shagrin, executive vice president for corporate research at Univision, the radio chain that owns both KLVE and KSCA, said minority broadcasters expected to see differences from the two survey methods, "but it's way beyond that." She said Univision and some other broadcast companies have expressed concerns about Arbitron's samples and the reliability of the data.

Survey results that show fewer listeners for stations will hurt the bottom line of those broadcasters, who then can't charge as much for advertising.

Once Arbitron released the data, Cuomo's office called the company "irresponsible" and said the release of what it described as "unreliable" figures "was an affront to racial and ethnic minorities in New York and around the country" that "threatens the existence of diversity in radio and muzzles the voices and viewpoints of millions of Americans."

But Arbitron countered that the latest PPM survey included 15% more blacks than its target sample, 21% more Latinos and 43% more Spanish-language-dominant Latinos.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Radio Ratings

The area's Top 25 stations and their average share of audience as measured by Arbitron for the summer months compared with the previous three-month period.

*--* Current Last Quarter 1 KIIS-FM 5.8 4.9 2 KFI-AM 4.4 4.0 3 KRTH-FM 4.2 3.1 4 KLVE-FM 4.1 5.6 5 KOST-FM 3.9 3.7 6 KCBS-FM 3.8 2.2 KSCA-FM 3.8 4.4 8 KROQ-FM 3.7 3.5 9 KLAX-FM 3.4 3.2 10 KBIG-FM 3.3 1.9 11 KRCD-FM 3.1 3.0 KBUE-FM 3.1 3.4 KTWV-FM 3.1 3.5 14 KPWR-FM 2.9 4.0 KLOS-FM 2.9 2.3 16 KHHT-FM 2.8 2.5 17 KXOL-FM 2.5 2.8 KKGO-FM 2.5 1.9 19 KYSR-FM 2.1 1.8 KABC-AM 2.1 1.7 KLYY-FM 2.1 0.9 22 KUSC-FM 2.0 N/A KFWB-AM 2.0 1.4 24 KNX-AM 1.9 1.7 25 KPCC-FM 1.8 N/A *--*

The ratings survey covers people 12 and older listening between 6 a.m. and midnight, from June 26 to Sept. 17.

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