Radio Ratings Service Again Under Fire for Methodology
By DARRELL SATZMAN
Ratings company Arbitron Inc. is at the center of a growing dispute between local Spanish-language radio stations and their English-language counterparts over the methodology used to measure listening levels.
Following gains by Hispanic broadcasters in the most recent survey period, some of the area's largest English-language radio companies are protesting changes that they say skewed results in favor of Spanish-language stations.
The differences are subtle and their impact open to interpretation, but with millions of advertising dollars at stake, pressure is being placed on Arbitron by both sides to take steps to improve the reliability of its local ratings system.
"Every one-tenth of a rating point in this town is worth $1 million. So you can see how important it is to get that percentage to fall in your favor," said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association.
In the fall survey period, the three stations with the biggest ratings increases were Spanish-language. KSCA-FM (101.9) had the biggest jump, garnering a 3.9 rating, vs. a 3.2 in the summer period. The regional Mexican music simulcast on KBUA/KBUE (94.3 and 105.5) increased by 0.6 ratings points to 3.5, and KLVE-FM (107.5) rose to a 3.4 rating from a 3.0 in the summer period.
The dispute centers on incentives Arbitron offered in Los Angeles to Hispanic and black listeners, groups that along with young males traditionally return fewer surveys than the population at large. Before the fall 2002 period, Arbitron made those incentives more attractive offering $10 for each completed weekly diary from listeners in those groups, compared to the $2 other listeners receive. Those listeners were already offered higher pay than listeners in other demographic groups, but Arbitron simplified the process and made it easier for them to collect.
It worked. Although overall response rates continued to drop to near record lows in Los Angeles, the percentage of black and Hispanic listeners taking part in the survey increased between September and December.
"The net result was blacks and Hispanics were slightly over-represented," said Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky. "It's an ongoing process. In the future we will ratchet it back."
But some general market broadcasters insist the new incentives, and the manner in which the Arbitron crunches the data it receives, are working to their detriment in the ratings race.
"It boils down to fairness. All companies should have to play by the same rules," said Erik Braverman, program director for KABC-AM (790) and KSPN-AM (710), part of Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC Radio Networks. "Who's to say if you would have offered $10 per respondent in other demos it wouldn't have changed the numbers?"
Hispanic broadcasters say such complaints are sour grapes. They are still steamed about changes to Arbitron's sampling methodology prior to the summer 2002 survey period that they say diminished the number of Spanish-dominant listeners being polled.
Adding to their frustration was Arbitron's announcement last month that a major overhaul of its survey in which the precise habits of bilingual listeners would be factored into the methodology would not be ready until 2006.
"The root of the problem is sampling. It's a question of inconsistency," said David Haymore, vice president and general manager of Santa Monica-based Entravision Communication Corp.'s six local Spanish-language radio stations. "We're talking about a number of changes taking place that have caused the wobble we have seen in the ratings."
Several Spanish stations, including some of those that gained in the fall, had steep ratings drops between the spring and summer 2002.
The Los Angeles market has 10.4 million listeners over the age of 12, second to New York. But it is by far the largest Hispanic radio market, and spending and listenership are tops here because of the inordinate amount of time people spend in their cars.
"We are the umpire. Everyone counts on us to be objective and reliable," Mocarsky said. "Hispanic broadcasters see Hispanic weighting and the incentives as a way to increase their ratings, but the general market companies are saying don't go so fast."
The one issue on which both sides agree is that Arbitron is doing a poor job collecting listener diaries in Los Angeles.
In the fall survey period, 7,266 diaries were collected in California out of an initial pool of 26,382 individuals, the lowest number of responses in three years.
Earlier this month, locally based Network Radio Research Council, which represents ABC Radio, Premiere Radio Networks (owned by Clear Channel Inc.) and several other national radio companies, demanded improvements in Arbitron survey responses.
"We have all been troubled for a long while over the impact that sagging response rates have had on Arbitron's nationwide and local market products," said Len Klatt, director of research for Premiere Radio Networks.
Arbitron Inc. has changed its tactics for soliciting weekly diaries.
- Black, Hispanic and male listeners aged 18-24 are offered between $5 and $10 for each completed survey.
- All other listeners receive $1 - $2 for each completed survey.
Total surveys: 7,549 Return rate: 27 percent
- Black and Hispanic listeners are offered $2 to fill out surveys and $10 for each completed survey. Male listeners 18-24 earn between $5 and $10 per survey.
- All other listeners receive $1-$2 for each completed survey.
Total surveys: 7,266 Response rate: 27.5 percent
Source: Arbitron Inc.
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