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New ratings technology pummels local talk radio

Already battered by the advertising depression, Twin Cities talk radio faces another major threat: the Portable People Meter.

As of Thursday, stations won't sell ads via the old "diary" method, where listeners wrote down what they heard. Instead, the numbers will come from "PPMs" — pager-like devices that automatically record a tone hidden in each station's signal.

PPMs have recorded listener preferences here since April, but stations haven't been allowed to sell advertisers with those numbers. Thursday, that all changes: June's data will be released, and ad reps will have a three-month "book" to tout.

The April-May trends are clear: music's share of the audience is way up, and talk is down.

"It's all the talkers," emphasizes local CBS Radio senior V.P. Mick Anselmo, who runs WCCO-AM and JACK-FM, among others. "It doesn't matter if it's AM or FM — they all took a beating. The patterns are logical — you can trace them from the earliest PPM markets, like Houston."

The numbers
I'll have more details later today, including an analysis of public radio, which for the first time will be included in the public rankings. For now, here are some winners and losers:

* In the ad-favored 25-to-54-year-old demographic, automated music station JACK has nearly doubled its 6 a.m.-midnight share since last spring. Meanwhile KS95, K102 and B96 have all seen share gains of 30 percent or more. Ratings monster KQRS and top-tier Cities97 have basically held steady.

* On the flip side, KFAN has seen its all-day share shrink by 20 percent, including the 6-10 a.m. block ("The Power Trip" and an hour of Paul Allen) and 3-7 p.m. (mostly Dan Barreiro). Woman-talker FM107 is down by a third.

* Barreiro can consider himself lucky compared to Joe Soucheray; AM1500's 3-7 p.m. share among men 25-54 been cut in half, plunging from number three in the market a year ago to 11th in April (with a dead-cat bounce to ninth in May). Sooch, whose 2-5:30 p.m. show covers about 60 percent of the time period, might also blame the struggling Twins, who often fill out the balance of the slot.

So what's going on?
"It's a change in technology," explains Anselmo. "We're going from a flawed and archaic system to a panel of 1,150 people who carry electronic devices that automatically pick up a digital watermark of whatever's on where they are."

Clear Channel Minneapolis operations manager Gregg Swedberg, whose stable includes K102, KFAN, and conservative talker KTLK, says the PPM sample is larger, and at least theoretically, the technology is better. Listeners carry the pager, and must regularly put it in a charging cradle, which transmits the data to Arbitron. The panel changes less regularly — some people can be on it for up to two years — and their fidelity to the process can be checked via the charging reports.

Diaries relied on recall — but missed a lot of background listening. If you wandered into a Subway for lunch, you might not remember what you were humming to while waiting for a sandwich, but PPMs won't forget.

Dave Bestler, KS95's vice-president and general manager, calls talk-radio "foreground" listening — something you tune in to pay attention to — while music is "background." Those background qualities (and FM's ability to penetrate buildings) mean non-threatening, JACK-style music is on more often at places such as offices and stores, raising its share in the PPM era.

The "foreground" factor could have also biased listeners toward certain shows. It's not hard to imagine one of Soucheray's Garage Logicians, or another talk-radio devotee, drawing a line across his diary for the entire week, even if the listener often flipped the dial to music.

Bestler notes diary-writers reported listening to an average of 2.5 stations, "but with the meters, it's four stations." Anselmo says "cume" — the number of people listening to a given station — has soared for FMs, though Bestler adds that "time spent listening," or TSL, has fallen for most.

In other words, the talk audience listens to radio like they watch TV: they're channel flippers.

"TSL, for everybody, is down a lot," Bestler notes. "For most stations, the gain in cume hasn't outdone the loss in TSL."

That means that overall, PPMs likely show fewer people listening to radio at any given moment — amplifying the medium's well-chronicled losses to mp3s, satellite and ennui. That will hurt all but music's biggest share gainers, and magnifies talk's share plunge.

How to respond?
Despite Anselmo's observation of a consistent PPM pattern, he says "Let's not write talk's epitaph."

Even PPMs show talk with 20-30 percent of the local audience, both 25-54 and 12-plus. (By the way, PPMs allow listeners as young as 6 to be polled. I'm not sure I trust adults to carry around a gizmo all the time, much less first-graders.)

The four station managers I spoke with all said it is too early to make drastic programming changes. Even in the diary era, share often fluctuated by double-digit percentages between three-month books; Bestler notes that monthly variations could be even bigger. Advertisers often rely on a year's worth of data to smooth out the bumps, and we're only two months into the PPM era.

If change is inevitable, AM is in a box; music doesn't really work there. If the audience drop is permanent, I suspect you'll see even fewer bucks spent on the talk side — continuing a trend — with more cheap, nationally syndicated shows, especially in non-drive-time periods. (Anselmo's recent inking of Michele Tafoya for a WCCO mid-day afternoon drive gig is a counterexample.)

On the FM dial, Anselmo sees more competition for hot music formats such as adult contemporary. Given the rise of JACK-type robo-stations and several decades of marketplace trends, this sounds like another nail in the coffin of adventurous radio — especially if managers have fewer bucks to throw at human talent. Say what you will about talk's faults, it's quirkier than most playlists today.

Selling ads in the new world
Of course, when numbers slide, station managers switch their pitch to "relationships." Sure, it's a rationalization, but not baseless. After all, the bottom line for advertisers is moving product. The numbers are a powerful proxy for big companies and stations, but if a talk host who gives good "foreground" excels at selling, revenues can rise above what the numbers predict.

This may explain why Soucheray recently started pitching hardware and flat-screen TVs. Sooch may have fewer listeners, but if more respond to his personal come-ons, he can help cover his hefty salary. (KSTP officials did not return a call for comment.)

"The good news is that we haven't sold ratings since the early '90s," says Anselmo — whose WCCO has lost about 10 percent of its share in the past year among listeners 12-plus (the 25-54 share has held steady). "We have lots of foundational partners, long relationships with big brands."

On-air promotion will also change, execs say. With diaries' demise, you'll likely hear a station's call letters less often; such alphabetic Tourette's helped diary-writers remember what to record. Instead, you'll hear more teasers for "what's coming up next" — a form of "don't touch that dial" to raise "time spent listening" number.

PPM complaints
There's been a lot of controversy in early-adopting markets about PPMs under-representing minorities (also a diary criticism). In markets such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, urban contemporary stations have taken Soucheray-like tumbles.

Last fall, attorneys general in at least two states (New York and New Jersey) filed suit to stop Arbitron from releasing PPM data to advertisers and the public. In January, Arbitron agreed to several methodology changes, including recruiting more cellphone users.

So far, the PPM numbers here don't show a dramatic decline in minority listenership on stations like KMOJ and Radio Rey. Hip-hop station B96, with lots of minority listeners in the mix, has more than doubled its morning- and afternoon-drive shares since last spring.

Alberto Monserrate, whose Latino Communications Network owns "La Invasora" stations KMNV and KMNQ, says diary and PPM samples are too small to pick up relatively light Twin Cities listenership.

"The biggest criticism you hear nationally is training — teaching Spanish-speaking people how to use it," he notes. "But I have heard in some markets like ours, PPM has benefited" minority stations.

Critics also ding PPMs for going live before they've been accredited by the Media Rating Council. However, Bestler notes that when Nielsen Media unleashed its now-ubiquitous set-top boxes (which replaced TV diaries), that technology was unaccredited.

(Of course, you don't have to carry around a set-top box like a PPM pager.)

"The bottom line is that this is where the industry had to go," Bestler says. "The ad agencies love electronic measurement, and we have to stay with the times."

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Comments (2)

I was once chosen as a Nielsen family. Truth was, I was busy and watched little TV. I still wrote my favorite programs in the diary-- at the time, The Simpsons and Twins baseball (pre-Bremer). I suspect that my example shows what has happened with talk radio diaries, and why the meters show something different. If you have a certain political bent, you want Limbaugh to have high ratings, but that does not mean you have time to listen to him.

I get how a diary makes sense, but not monitoring. I have a radio in my cell phone, most rooms of my house, both cars, and I even still use a Walkman sometimes. And that's over the air. What about web streams and archives? I usually listen to podcasts or web archives rather than live. So what is being measured?