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Stevie Wonder’s case against the Arbitron Portable People Meter

Among the top Federal Communications Commission-related headlines this morning is Arbitron’s insistence, yet again, that the FCC doesn’t have regulatory authority over the alleged inadequacies of its controversial Portable People Meter (or PPM as it is acronymed). And RBR/ (the “Voice of the Broadcasting Industry”) adds its growl to the chorus:

“A note to new FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski: It would not be smart to begin your tenure at the Commission by taking on a fight that you are guaranteed to lose in the federal courts. (And that’s assuming you could even persuade the Department of Justice to defend your position.) Unless and until Congress passes a law that says otherwise, broadcast ratings are not within your jurisdiction.”

Actually, the Commission has acknowledged the limits of its authority in this regard. “We do not regulate Arbitron,” former Chair Michael Copps acknowledged in his statement launching an investigation of the device earlier this year, but

“we do not regulate banks either, and yet we should—indeed, we must—take into account the difficulties of access to capital if we are going to develop effective rules. Anything that affects media diversity and minority ownership . . . affects our ability to do our job. Moreover, the Commission relies on Arbitron data to evaluate broadcast radio transactions, issue periodic industry trend reports, and conduct congressionally mandated reviews of our media ownership rules. Without confidence in the underlying data, those important functions could be undercut.”

So two block quotes later you are doubtless wondering how Stevie Wonder fits into this. His company Taxi Productions filed with the FCC last week on the Arbitron PPM. Taxi runs LA’s “Radio Free” KJLH-FM. When it comes to Arbiton, Wonder has never been a fan, his attorney wrote to the Commission on July 1. Now this:

“KJLH has an urban format, with an acclaimed public affairs component, that has been highly popular in the marketplace; yet its ratings dropped by almost two-thirds when PPM was introduced (i.e., PPM ratings are about one-third of diary ratings). This sudden and precipitous drop cannot be an accurate reflection of true audience levels, but it has threatened the survival of KJLH as a business enterprise.”

Here’s the quick tutorial on the Arbitron PPM. It is designed to replace the old diary system with a pager sized gizmo that the user wears through the day. The device literally picks up encoded signals broadcast by participating radio stations. Participants no longer have to write anything down. The machine detects whatever AM/FM radio signals are broadcasting within the vicinity of the user and adds them to the database.

Critics of the PPM—most representatives of minority broadcasters—charge that it draws its primary recruitment sample from landline households, less so from cell phone only (CPO) households which tend to represent a younger, more minority based demographic. As for the CPO base, they say that it is too small. 41 percent of all people in their late twenties live in such households. “Yet Arbitron’s sample panel currently includes only 10% cell-phone-only users,” they write. In general, Arbitron’s sample bases are “shockingly small,” the groups say:

” In Riverside-San Bernardino, Arbitron’s sample cell for Black Women Age 65+ was one woman. In Atlanta, each Black panelist is assumed to represent 10,000 others. As a result, when a Black family of PPM panelists traveled to New York over Thanksgiving weekend, Arbitron reported that 30,000 Atlantans had tuned in to a New York station—which could not be heard anywhere within a thousand miles of Atlanta—and thus the station was the 34th most popular station in Atlanta that week.”

KJLH adds its own worries. ‘Many young people who listen to KJLH use ear buds that confine the sound to their ears. If they carry a PPM device, how does it detect the station to which they are listening?” the filing rhetorically asks. The comment concedes that the FCC’s direct authority over Arbitron is unclear. But “there are things it can do that will create incentives for Arbitron to accelerate efforts to improve the system.” Specifically, the “Commission can and should stop relying in Arbitron for anything, so that no government action suggests that Arbitron’s research and decisions are valid reflections of the actual marketplace.”

So speaks Stevie Wonder, or at least the attorney for his radio station. It’s unclear what, if anything, the FCC will actually do about this. There don’t appear to be a lot of alternatives to Arbitron when it comes to radio audience data.

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