Obama weighs in on Arbitron

by Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune

As all-consuming as the nation's financial crisis would seem to be, to say nothing of the demands of his run for the White House, Sen. Barack Obama nonetheless found time this week to worry about the accuracy of radio ratings.

Talk about all things considered.

Arbitron on Oct. 8 plans to make its long-anticipated switch in Chicago and seven other markets to electronic eavesdropping devices known as portable people meters to track radio audiences, rather than the hand-scrawled diaries it has relied upon for decades.

Arbitron's ratings are used by stations to help set ad rates and by marketers to determine ad buys. PPMs supposedly will deliver a more reliable measurement of what people actually hear.

But for that change to be credible, Arbitron not only has to select sample audiences that accurately reflect their communities, as it always has, but it also has to make sure those listeners use the devices properly so there's enough data to paint a full picture of a market's radio consumption.

"Everybody knows that electronic measurement makes more sense theoretically," said Jim Winston, executive director of the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters. "But it's garbage in, garbage out. … They're basing too much money in this industry on too few people. It's damaging everybody coast to coast, and it's damaging African-American and Hispanic stations more than anybody else."

That's where Obama and his fellow Illinois senator, Dick Durbin, come in.

Ten days after Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairmen of the Senate Judiciary and Commerce Committees, respectively, complained that PPMs threaten broadcast diversity, the Illinois pair called on Steve Morris, Arbitron's chairman and chief executive, to hold off on expanding PPM use.

Obama and Durbin, in their letter to Morris, urged Arbitron to wait until the third-party Media Research Council accredits the new system. Without the council's OK, they wrote, "We can only conclude that [PPM data] does not accurately reflect the behavior of all consumers, including minorities … and the implications of poor implementation of a new PPM system for the public interest are too serious to ignore."

Morris issued a statement noting the company's support for the council's accreditation process and its ongoing efforts to gain accreditation in all markets.

"But," he said, "the radio industry should not wait any longer for electronic audience measurement. Broadcasters, agencies and advertisers in radio's top markets have long called for the adoption of a more precise and credible audience-measurement tool."

Paula Hambrick, president of Orland Park-based media buyer Hambrick and Associates, believes there's little chance Arbitron will delay the PPM rollout here, which was scheduled for the beginning of the year. The lack of accreditation, she said, is more of a technicality than anything else."

"Two months ago I probably would have had been having group therapy for radio salespeople about how to deal with PPMs. We're so far beyond that," she said. "They're hoping they still have jobs. I'm hoping I have a client to buy for."

Melody Spann-Cooper, president and general manager of WVON-AM 1690, said her urban-talk station hasn't been hurt by PPMs in preliminary figures, but she is "ecstatic that the two senators got together and spoke up on it" for the sake of others.

"You don't know if they have this sample up to speed yet," Hambrick said. "There's going to be some changing going on for a while. But the volatility of the PPM world is nothing compared to Wall Street, so what is everybody complaining about?"

article originally published at http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/chi-wed_rosenthal1001.1oct01,0....

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