Nothing but static

Broadcast Data Systems listens to the radio so you don't have to

Billboard and Broadcast Data Systems joined forces in 1991. BDS had already been bought by Billboard parent company BPI Communications, so the staff at Billboard could see BDS' new technology as it was being developed. In 1990, the two companies began overhauling Billboard's country chart, which at the time was a complete mess: One year, there was a different artist at the top of the chart 50 out of the 51 weeks the magazine was published. With BDS' help, Billboard changed its country chart to radio airplay-only and used only data gleaned from BDS, a move that eliminated some of the games that were being played with the chart's figures. Soon after, Billboard turned all of its radio airplay tracking responsibilities to Uhlmann and BDS, making the charts more relevant than they'd ever been.

Uhlmann's system eliminated the middle man: BDS, using computer listening technology created by the defense industry during the Vietnam War, listens to selected stations in each market, tracking each song using a digital fingerprint. Before a new song is released, the record labels send BDS a copy of the master recording so the computers can listen to it and remember it when--or if--it shows up on the radio. In the early-morning hours of each day, the results are tabulated, ready for use by industry executives, programming directors, managers, even the bands themselves. More so than ever, the data shows what songs are actually being played the most.

But is BDS' information really all that accurate? After all, it doesn't listen to every station in every market. The company decides which stations to follow based on Arbitron's quarterly ratings books, as well as certain other demographic factors, coming up with a list of stations that mirrors the local population and its tastes. In Dallas-Fort Worth, among the stations BDS tracks are KDGE-FM, KRBV-FM, KDMX-FM (102.9), KEGL-FM (97.1), KKZN-FM (93.3), KHKS-FM (106.1), KYNG-FM (105.3), and KESS-AM (1270).

BDS may not be completely thorough, but Kristin Clark, director of media operations at BDS, insists the company's statistics are as accurate as possible.

"I mean, we have to keep some things in mind," Clark says. "We go with the top ratings books. We also do some other tracking for other purposes other than charts. Sometimes we'll get a request from Coca-Cola or someone to do some additional stations in the market, and if we have room, we'll add them. We try to get as many as we can. But ratings are basically the first consideration. First of all, we have to think about the charts and how many they need in each panel, especially with all the format changes that have taken place just in the last few weeks and the first part of the year. So we get information for them [Billboard] based on what they request."

Billboard, in fact, recently revamped its Hot 100 Singles chart to give more weight to BDS' findings. Previously, the Hot 100 Singles chart was based 60 percent on information from BDS, and 40 percent on SoundScan figures. The trade magazine decided to tinker with the formula to reflect the decreasing number of singles customers, unveiling the new version of the chart in December. Now, the ratios have changed to 75 percent BDS and 25 percent SoundScan to emphasize radio airplay and Billboard's belief in BDS' accuracy.

"There are still problems that happen from time to time in terms of missing detections, but we have experience now, they have experience, [and] our chart managers have experience in keeping track of these kinds of things," Mayfield says. "Most important, the record companies keep us honest. If they have reason to believe that they got more plays on a certain station than the BDS report says, then that gets investigated immediately. I would say most times--a very high percentage, over 90 percent of the time--if there is a discrepancy, we get it taken care of before a chart gets published.

"It takes the fudge factor out of it, just as using SoundScan information takes the fudge factor out of the sales information," Mayfield continues. "We were aware [of inaccuracies], and there really wasn't much you could do about it. You try, but it's very difficult to police it. When you're aware that the record companies are calling radio stations or calling retailers and trying to influence what they're going to report, it becomes very difficult to find out how accurate or fuzzy the information is. It's a much cleaner deal now. It's not the only reason for these systems. It's the biggest reason for Billboard to be interested in them."

With BDS' support, in the last decade Billboard has significantly cleaned up its charts. BPI Communications--the company that owns Billboard and BDS--is itself owned by VNU, a Dutch publishing company that also owns SoundScan. Together, the triumvirate of Billboard, SoundScan, and BDS is like a three-headed monster, the eyes and ears of the industry, the ultimate bottom line when it comes to what's hot and what's not.

SoundScan knows what's being purchased (except at smaller, independent record stores), BDS knows what's being played (on the top stations in each market), and Billboard knows how to combine the two into an easily digestible chart. They are the "record companies' Big Brother," as KKZN-FM's assistant program director Abby Goldstein calls the trio, telling program directors what they are playing and what they should be playing. They almost function as a program director's program director, the all-time quarterback of radio.

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