From: C.Leander <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [Stubblefield] Arbitron's flawed ratings hurt minority radio
To: email@example.com, GRC <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Stubblefield <
Arbitron's flawed ratings hurt minority radio
By Ceril Shagrin and Charles M. Warfield Jr. - 10/01/09 05:40 PM ET
Even in an age of media fragmentation, free, over-the-air radio remains a
vital source of news, information and entertainment for millions of
Americans. Arbitron, the company that provides radio ratings data, plays a
critical role. Its data are used to determine the price broadcasters fetch
for advertising, which directly impacts the content that is available on the
dial. Arbitron's responsibility is heightened by the fact that it is the
dominant radio ratings firm and is unregulated by government.
Recently, Arbitron has introduced a new rating system called the Portable
People Meter (PPM) that requires participants to carry a cell phone-sized
device that picks up radio signals. Since its introduction, minority
broadcasters have demonstrated that this system undercounts African American
and Hispanic listeners. Recognizing the public interest at stake, both
Congress and the Federal Communications Commission launched investigations.
This past week, the House Committee for Oversight and Government Reform,
under the leadership of Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), released information
that demonstrates the depth of the problem.
The Media Ratings Council (MRC), the independent industry body that
accredits media ratings systems, turned over its audits of the PPM system to
the oversight committee under subpoena. The committee put out a statement to
inform the public of the serious flaws in the PPM system that these audits
According to the statement put out by the committee, the MRC's documents
indicated "persistent problems" with Arbitron's minority sample audiences.
For example, the committee reported that subpoenaed documents showed that a
relatively small subset of individuals is providing usable data. In New York
City, Arbitron recruited a sample audience of 5,400 people. But only 2,700
persons — half of the sample — provided data. The committee reports that
"the radio listening habits of over four million ethnic minorities are
represented by only 500 Arbitron recruits." This paltry sampling is being
repeated in cities nationwide, impacting the content available to tens of
millions of Americans. This is only one example of the concerns raised by
It is hard to overstate the magnitude of Arbitron's dereliction of duty.
Americans are now painfully aware of the price paid when financial ratings
agencies fail to provide accurate information for the investment world.
Arbitron plays just as important a role in the media world. It is no
exaggeration to say that unless Arbitron acts in a principled fashion, it
has the power to upend the radio marketplace.
That is exactly what is happening today. Since the rollout of the PPM
system, Spanish-language and urban-formatted radio stations have seen their
ratings plummet. The industry faces the real possibility that these stations
will go under and the dial will become even more homogeneous — all because
the data that drive the system are simply wrong.
This scathing congressional report should have provided Arbitron with a
Instead, it seems Arbitron is intent on hitting the snooze button.
Arbitron's response lashes out at the committee for reaching "erroneous
conclusions." The allegation is farcical.
Indeed, the committee offered no conclusions — it simply reported the facts
it had uncovered in the MRC documents.
Moreover, Arbitron claimed that it has been "open and forthcoming" with
Congress. If so, why did the committee have to subpoena the MRC records?
Surely, Arbitron could have turned them over voluntarily. The only
conclusion is that Arbitron knew those documents contained irrefutable
evidence that the PPM system is flawed.
It is time for Arbitron to stop playing games. A critical part of our
nation's media and cultural landscape is at stake. Millions of Americans are
counting on them to get this right, so that they don't lose the radio
content upon which they rely. It is not too much to ask the ratings provider
to deliver reliable data. It is simply a question of doing its job. That is
a message Arbitron must heed.
*Shagrin is the executive vice president of research for Univision
Communications. Warfield is the president and COO of ICBC Broadcast Holdings
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