I Am ‘Tron II

Austin is reportedly one of the cities to get Arbitron’s “new, improved” PPM (“portable people meter”) this summer, but what is that going to mean, changing from the diary system? For one thing, a completely different set of numbers, as shown in cities that have already made the switch. So which set of bad numbers are the suits (or is the suit at KUT) going to believe? Because in Austin, Arbitron is what the Hawk bases all his conclusions on, justifying it as “giving the people what they want” — which, in this case, he deems it as turning Austin’s public radio into another AAA station and unceremoniously dumping longtime employees and installing playlists.

But look at the demographics of public radio, as shown in this 2009 Jacobs Media study:

The demographic always attached to KUT — 35 to 64 — represents 66% of public-radio listeners, and if you add in older listeners, you’re talking about 90% of all listeners. The younger folks, 18 to 34, are seen as much more tech savvy, attuned to new technologies and delivery methods such as iPods and web streaming and listening less to FM radio. (In iTunes alone —a freebie easily downloaded — you can access hundreds and hundreds of radio stations of all genres.) The average age, then, of the public radio listener is 54, with 90% over age 35. Walrus Research, which tracks this sort of thing, calls public radio listeners “highly educated, affluent, and beyond middle age.”

When citing the vaunted AQHs from Arbitron reports, Hawk uses as KUT’s demographic 25 to 54, adding in the 25 to 34 demographic that shows up in this chart as only 9% of public radio listeners — and skewing the results. This had the effect of dropping some of the shows that KUT “dumped,” as Hawk so daintily said in one of the open-records memos about Paul Ray’s Jazz and Phil Music, from possibly a top-three finish (when the traditional, older demographic is used) down towards the bottom of the Austin ratings — when compared, of course, with commercial stations. This, according to Arbitron. This drastic of an effect only illustrates the small size of the sample from which these numbers are drawn, a major criticism also of Arbitron diary methods. (Conversely, what size of a sampling of KUT donors — the small fraction of listeners who actually donate — who oppose the radical changes made in Austin’s public radio station would be large enough to influence management decisions?) The inclusion of the 25-34 demographic makes sense in Hawk-speak if you consider one key factor: The 25-54 demographic is considered the prime group in the ad-buying segment of the public.

But among the conclusions of the Jacobs study were the following:

  • AAA fans are younger, less “into” Public Radio exclusively & far more tech-active. They are more apt to own iPods, download podcasts, stream audio and video, text, and participate in social networking sites.
  • Classical devotees are older, less enamored by technology. But they are the heaviest radio listeners.
  • Clearly, there’s a division within the Public Radio audience that transcends format. The younger and emerging demographics profile quite differently from the 55+ core (which still makes up more than half this sample).
  • Stop worrying about satellite radio. Interest is waning and of the many different media/gadget options, it is well down the list.
  • HD Radio is challenged. Adoption rates are low & satisfaction trails even satellite radio.

Also, in the past year, Arbitron has been furiously changing its PPM to mollify critics — and survive lawsuits in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and others — who charge, among other things, that minorities are grossly underrepresented in its sampling (which tends to be rather skimpy as it is, witness the 5,000-person sample for a city the size of New York). It also has been adjusting its sample to include the growing number of homes that have only a cell phone or predominantly use cell phone over a land line.

So how will this all affect local public radio stations? Well, the cell-phone-only households tend to be the younger and poorer folks — who don’t really listen to public radio. And how about the increased number of minorities added to the sample? Well, 90% of listeners of public radio are white. So if anything, the new demographic represented in the “new, improved” Arbitron sample presumably will listen less to public radio.

Keep in mind, though, that the Arbitron PPM system itself carries this disclaimer: “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.” Yet this does not keep station management in places like Austin from basing their entire business strategy on these numbers — which may mean, when the new system kicks out its numbers, that stations like KUT will likely see a further sag in their ratings. And what will become of the business strategy? Well, don’t be surprised if the Hawk, with his typical aplomb, declares that “we tried music” and people didn’t like it (“our hands are tied”) — ushering in a change to all talk.


One Response

  1. […] Station execs, of course, see it as good word-of-mouth and increasing news coverage — but still say that ratings are so volatile as to not be totally reliable. But, as the quote suggests, just two new PPM users can cause the ratings to shift. See this post. […]

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