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Feature: The Numbers Game - Or Cooking the Book

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7/8/99

It's no surprise that since the radio industry underwent massive consolidation, the Arbitron ratings system - called "the Book" by those in the business - has come up with numerous ways to "help" broadcasters tout their supposed success.

Have you ever noticed that multiple stations in a market will call themselves "Number One?" How do they do that? It's easy. Not everyone uses the same ratings.

But if they're all coming from Arbitron, how can that be? Even easier: you cook "the Book."

Allow me to quote from the Arbitron's own description of the service it can provide to a radio station:

"(Arbitron's ratings service) allows stations and agencies to customize survey areas, dayparts, demographics and time periods to support target marketing strategies."

Effectively, for paying a fee, you can have Arbitron make its ratings reflect the numbers a station wants to see - giving numbers it can sell.

Case in point: many years ago, I worked at a commercial station in Indiana. Located just outside the Chicago metropolitan area, it often billed itself "Number One." This was only marginally true, thanks to a special customized read of the Arbitron ratings.

The station was only number one among a specific audience demographic, and only within the county where the station is located (although its coverage area included six counties).

Looking at the overall ratings for the entire coverage area (and for every person above the age of 12, which is the youngest listener Arbitron counts), the station got its butt kicked by several stations out of Chicago. Making the top 10 on that rankings list was considered a feat.

Yet, plastered on billboards throughout the region was the station's logo, with "#1" next to it. On the air, the station ran promos proclaiming itself on the top of the heap.

There lies the kicker - if a station is ranked number one among, say, males between the ages of 18 and 34, it can then go out and tell its audience (and potential advertisers) that it is the "number one station." Or, if a station covers multiple population centers, but does terribly in some of them, Arbitron will cut out the bad news and deliver the good - for a fee.

Even with all that smoke and mirrors, the overall ratings themselves might not be all that accurate - Arbitron ratings are based on a compilation of "listener diaries" mailed out to "randomly selected" people who then are supposed to fill out each block and blank.

Arbitron admits that of the two million people it attempts to survey, it only gets diaries back from half of them. When you consider that there are approximately 230 million people in the United States over the age of 12, and that (supposedly) 76 percent of them listen to the radio every day, the sampling used to calculate the overall ratings does not represent of the population as a whole.

What does free radio do to the numbers game? It throws the equation off - and that makes manipulation hard. In fact, some pirates have only gotten busted after they've affected local Arbitron ratings! Take Tampa's Party Pirate, for example, who was raided by a SWAT team only after mysteriously appearing in the diaries of too many area listeners. The station never made the official Arbitron ratings for the Tampa metro area, but its exclusion from the numbers affected the numbers left.

If low-power radio was legal, it would screw up the ability to cook "the Book." How can you call yourself number one if your butt is being kicked by a couple of grizzled people with a 10-watt soapbox?  Especially when the "numbers" are there to prove it?

Beware a station's claims of popularity; you're probably being fed a line of highly selective mathematics. In the current state of the broadcast industry, this numbers game brings in the dollars - and those you can count.