Black radio was once among the most influential engines of political and economic power for African Americans. Today it remains an important source of news and inspiration for black audiences. But thanks to new ratings technology being introduced this week, black-owned radio may be embarking on a fierce fight for its very survival.
For decades, Arbitron, the sole provider of audience measurement ratings for the radio industry, has used a fairly low-tech way to measure audiences. It calculated ratings in part by recruiting volunteers to write a diary or log of what they listen to. Advertisers used the Arbitron ratings to decide whereto buy airtime and how much to pay for it.
This Wednesday, Arbitron will officially begin using a new system called the Portable People Meter (PPM), a cell phone-like device worn by participants to measure their listening habits. The initial rollout is expected to take place in eight cities, including Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
But African-American and Hispanic station owners have argued that the new system will dramatically undercount listeners, particularly minority youth, because of low sample sizes, faulty recruiting and flawed methodology. In New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, initial Portable People Meter results show a striking reduction in audiences, from 30 percent to as much as 70 percent. Critics of the system say that system will result in lower ratings, diminishing revenues and eventual extinction.
While acknowledging problems with the system, Arbitron executives maintain that the Portable People Meter is more efficient than the written diaries. (The diaries will continue to be used in the majority of markets for now.) President and CEO Stephen Morris recently told black radio executives that the company had plans to recruit sample participants "at a more grass-roots level." Over time, he said, the meter system would become "an even more fine-tuned product" For now, however, "the quality of the product is solid."
Al Ward, vice president and national sales manager for KJLH-FM, an independently operated Los Angeles radio station owned by music legend Stevie Wonder, said the preliminary Portable People Meter results for his city show his station losing 82 percent of its audience. "It's not right. People have put years and years into the industry," he said. "We did it by hand. And now we're out here dying on the vine."
The new meter system "could be very valuable," said Frank Flores, market manager for Spanish Broadcasting Systems in New York, whose group was one of first companies to sign up. "But not in its present state."
Tensions ran high at the annual conference for the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters last month in Washington, D.C. Deon Levingston, vice president and general manager of Inner City Broadcasting stations WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM, in New York tried to rally the audience for the fight by reminding them that this was not the first time black radio has had to confront Arbitron. He related a controversial data collection squabble in 1972. Back then, Levingston said, his voice sometimes rising to a shout, Arbitron officials skewed data by calling black listeners to help them fill out their diaries, ostensibly because they believed blacks were not astute enough to properly complete the survey information on their own.
"Lo and behold, as you got deeper into it, there were problems," Levingtston said, passionately. "We've been here ya'll. We been here 40 years ago."
Morris, the Arbitron CEO, told the executives that the company planned to move forward with the change even though the voluntary Media Rating Council had not approved the new meter system.
Last month, both the New York and New Jersey attorney general's offices opened investigations into the matter. In his letter to Arbitron, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said that the state was "gravely concerned" that the new meter system is "neither reliable, nor fair." Sens. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have also expressed concern about the meter system's potential threat to media diversity. Their voices were recently joined by that of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, who told Broadcasting & Cable that the rollout should be delayed, pending accreditation by the Media Rating Council.
The Federal Communications Commission has concluded its public comment period on the matter, and replies from station owners are due today.
For sure, Arbitron is not black radio's only problem. Ethnic Minorities today own just 7.7 percent of radio stations, no. Tough economic times and changing advertising models, have left many owners to worry about that small share falling in coming years. The Portable People Meter may just speed up the process.
Kristal Brent Zook is the author of I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radioand an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University.