Counting People, On the Air


Pretend you’re a ratings company. Your main problem? Determining how many people are listening to a radio station in any given geographic area. This used to be done the old fashioned way, with paper diaries. Arbitron, the dominant ratings-determining company, passes out between one and four thousand paper surveys in a given market. People then judge the stations they’ve listened to recently, send their surveys back to Arbitron, and let them compile the data to send to radio stations. Stations then shell out a meager $40,000 for the complete results and use the statistical proof of their superiority as leverage with advertisers.

But all this is about to change. Arbitron is officially entering the 21st century and revolutionizing the ratings game with the introduction of a pager-like device called the Portable People Meter (PPM). The PPM supposedly “detects inaudible codes embedded in the audio portion of media and entertainment content delivered by broadcasters, content providers, and distributors.” The beeper-like devices are said to be more accurate, easier to use, and, according to the tech gurus at Time magazine, are one of the best inventions of the year.

Despite the hype, PPMs are far from a perfect system, and have more than a few flaws that cripple the data they provide. The numbers issue is the biggest concern. Paper is inexpensive, easy to distribute, and can be returned fairly easily. Diaries rely on people to remember everything they have recently listened to, but the wide sample size of the paper survey method fills in the inevitable gaps in memory.

Understandably for a recently developed device, PPM information is much costlier, and as a result, scarcer. PPMs may be able to provide more comprehensive and accurate data as far as an individual’s exposure to radio signals go, but it’s not very helpful when barely a thousand are circulating among big radio markets like New York. Radio broadcasters actually end up paying more for information that could conceivably be telling them less about their listening populations.

The small sample size creates a particular problem in measuring stations with niche audiences. A recent New York Times article reported that in New York, the ranking of stations appealing to minorities fell drastically when ratings were calculated using PPMs. This has prompted an outcry from minority groups such as the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters, and rightfully so. With such a small number of PPMs going around, Arbitron needs to make sure that a representative demographic sampling is provided.

Another problem lies in the device itself. The PPM is worn all day and then requires a nightly charging session, which is when it submits its data back to Arbitron. Simple? Maybe, but also annoying. Survey participants that were given the device often forgot to wear the pager all day, and at times forgot to even dock it for the evening. The issue is especially prevalent among younger demographics who hardly need another gadget. When you already have to worry about two cell phones, a Blackberry, and an iPod, who’s really going to give their pager throwback any attention?

But in the end, the biggest problem for radio when it comes to counting people is getting numbers that actually matter. PPMs may provide an accurate description of what a listener’s exposure to various radio stations are, but it’s attention and not exposure that’s the holy grail for stations. Thom Mocarsky, vice president of communications at Arbitron, has even stated in Media Life Magazine that “Neither the diary nor the PPM measures attentiveness.” In fact, PPM data has only reinforced how little we pay attention to the radio. Philadelphia saw nearly all of its stations roughly double in size in terms of total listenership, according to Arbitron, but listeners were also shown to be much more flippant, changing stations very frequently.

So while Arbitron’s head is certainly in the right place, the art of people-counting in radio land is a long ways from being perfected. If anything, PPMs have only confirmed our sneaking suspicions about what a mercurial bunch of radio listeners we are. Radio signals may be everywhere, but don’t seem to make a lasting impression lately. Maybe after the beeper fad passes, radio stations will take this lack of attentiveness to heart.

—Staff writer Kimberly E. Gittleson and contributing writer Evan L. Hanlon are the president and rock director of WHRB, Harvard’s student-run radio station. Gittleson can be reached at