A Little Device Could Have a Major Impact on DFW's Radio Ratings

The Portable People Meter is listening to everything you listen to. So, like, beware?

For years, this is how Arbitron measured radio ratings rather crudely, but also quite simply: Participants, selected at random, would fill out diaries in which they listed what they were listening to and when for a single week. Easy. And now there's something easier: the Portable People Meter. It looks like a pager and is meant to be worn as one; that way, the PPM can vacuum up the signal of whichever station you're listening to and report back to Arbitron HQ.

Problem is, since you're wearing the device, it gathers all the signals of all the stations to which you're exposed, intentionally or accidentally, throughout the day. Very quietly, it debuted in the Dallas-Fort Worth market two weeks ago; the first ratings book using the PPM is due in December. But as it rolls out, there's concern among so-called "ethnic stations" that the device won't accurately measure their audience's listening habits as they find themselves exposed to other radio stations during the day.

Already, the device has been blamed for format changes in some cities in which the PPM been used for at least a year -- and prompted government inquiries in such cities as New York and New Jersey. Arbitron attempted last week to allay their fears during a conference in L.A., which was attended by several programming directors from Spanish-language stations in Dallas.

But marketers and programmers love the PPM -- as evidenced by a study in Houston, where it was determined that country radio audiences love up-tempo songs by artists with which they're familiar, shocking. But that audience was willing to give new songs a try: At least they didn't change the dial within first 60 seconds, which is the kind of detailed data the PPM can gather.

Still, there's the question: What happens to the Ticket listener who's trapped in a WRR zone for two hours, or vice-versa? And keep this in mind: Ratings in Houston and Philly dropped considerably last year, upon the PPM's introduction to those markets. Come December, the radio books could look very, very different. --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky