City council wants PPM investigation


The Speaker and six other members of the New York City Council have introduced a resolution calling on Arbitron to hold up PPM deployment and for the FCC to investigate whether there is ethnic or racial bias in the ratings system. One problem. It’s not clear that the FCC has any authority to do such an investigation.

The resolution states that Oldies and Top 40 stations have benefited from PPM measurement at the expense of Black and Latino stations in markets where it has been deployed. So, the council members worry that minority-focused stations could suffer ratings and revenue losses under PPM, and that “the loss of urban and ethnic radio programming in New York City would further disenfranchise groups are already being underrepresented in many other areas.” The proposed resolution has been referred to two committees of the City Council: one on Consumer Affairs and the other on Civil Rights.

Arbitron responded with a statement that it does not believe the FCC has any authority to make such an investigation, but that the company is committed to working with the FCC and the New York City Council to address any concerns.

Read the resolution below, along with the full Arbitron response.

RBR/TVBR observation: Even if you assume that the FCC does have the authority to investigate the PPM methodology, we would question whether it has the expertise. Congress urged creation of the Media Rating Council (MRC) in the 1960s specifically to ensure accuracy and reliability in ratings services for radio, television and other media. The MRC’s processes may be frustratingly slow, but it does have the expertise and experience to determine whether a ratings system is up to snuff. The FCC does not.

Proposed New York City Council resolution:

[RBR/TVBR note: The resolution states incorrectly in the 3rd to last paragraph that the FCC has voted to investigate PPM. That vote was actually by an advisory committee to the FCC.]

Res. No. 1583
Resolution calling on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Arbitron’s Personal People Meter system and its potential effect on the diversity of radio.
By Council Members Seabrook, Comrie, Dickens, Jackson, Arroyo, Mark-Viverito and the Speaker (Council Member Quinn).
Whereas, Radio broadcasts have been a fixture in American life since the early part of the 20th century, serving as an important source for news, commentary, music and other forms of entertainment; and
Whereas, Home to one of the most ethnically and racially diverse populations in the United States, New York City broadcasts an equally varied array of radio stations, most of which play an important role in providing news coverage and viewpoints that may not be available in the mainstream media; and
Whereas, In addition to providing culturally-relevant information and entertainment, these radio stations also serve as an important source of news for audiences for whom English is not the primary language; and

Whereas, Because radio broadcasts are accessed for free over the airwaves, most broadcasting companies generate revenue from the advertising they sell through their radio stations; and

Whereas, Arbitron Inc. (“Arbitron”), one of the country’s leading marketing and media research firms, has measured listener data on radio audiences using a Radio Listening Diary (“RLD”) for the past thirty years; and

Whereas, The RLD consists of a small journal in which randomly-selected participants keep an account of the radio stations, satellite radio channels and Internet stations they listen to over the span of seven days, as well as the time and location of each listening experience; and

Whereas, In order to more accurately identify the listenership, the RLD also solicits basic demographic information such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, income level and household size; and

Whereas, Arbitron itself states in its own publication on the RLD that no commercially available research methodology is as dependable, referring to the RLD as “the most comprehensive and effective method for recording radio listening behavior”; and

Whereas, After over thirty years of reliable data collection, Arbitron is now replacing its diaries with Portable People Meters (“PPMs”), which are electronic devices worn by participants that detect and record radio signals and transmit the data to Arbitron, ostensibly providing accurate, real-time records of radio audience behavior; and

Whereas, Critics of the PPM claim that it picks up every radio signal in its environs, thus compromising the accuracy of its readings; and

Whereas, In February 2008, Arbitron failed to receive an endorsement from the Media Rating Council for its PPM service in New York;

Whereas, Arbitron has been recording and publishing its PPM ratings in New York on an unofficial basis for the past year and a half; and

Whereas, Arbitron plans to officially discontinue diary-based radio ratings and officially launch its PPM service in New York on October 8, 2008; and

Whereas, Since Arbitron began publishing its unofficial PPM ratings last year, it has shown a significant decrease in ratings for New York City’s urban and ethnic radio stations; and

Whereas, The PPM  method has been criticized for disproportionately benefiting “Oldies” and “Top-40” radio stations at the expense of Black and Latino stations, whose audiences are smaller but who remain tuned in for longer periods of time; and

Whereas, The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (“NABOB”) has stated that the PPM ratings are of limited use to advertisers because the devices simply measure exposure to radio signals and fail to take listener engagement into account; and

Whereas, NABOB has also raised concerns about the underrepresentation of minority audiences in the PPM’s participant pool, a problem that occurred in Houston and Philadelphia after the PPM system became the official standard in those two cities; and

Whereas, Use of the PPM rating system could put the livelihood of New York City’s  urban and ethnic radio stations in jeopardy if they experience a significant decrease in ratings, which would inevitably result in a decrease in revenue; and

Whereas, The loss of urban and ethnic radio programming in New York City would further disenfranchise groups are already being underrepresented in many other areas; and

Whereas, Despite the fact that the PPM system is not yet official, several New York City-based radio stations have already altered their content in ways they anticipate will improve their performance on the PPM ratings system; and

Whereas, The Federal Communications Commission recently voted in the affirmative on a resolution to investigate the suggestion that the PPM ratings system might be inherently biased against racial and ethnic radio stations; and

Whereas, While increasing accuracy in measuring radio stations’ ratings is a laudable goal, it is imperative that the process is applied as fairly as possible; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the Council of the City of New York calls on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Arbitron’s Personal People Meter system and its potential effect on the diversity of radio.

Here is the statement from Arbitron:

Arbitron has great respect and appreciation for the work of the New York City Council and for the critical and unique role that Black-owned and Spanish-language radio plays as voices for the diverse communities of New York and of other cities across the country. For those reasons, we have had a long-term commitment to working with the City Council and with minority broadcasters in a collaborative and supportive manner.

We regret that the New York City Council was not able  to accept our offer to meet them this summer. A great deal has changed since last November when we last had an opportunity to review in depth the facts about enhancements in sample quality and the success that minority broadcasters have had in using PPM to better program their stations and build their audience.

While Arbitron does not believe that the FCC has jurisdiction over the Company or its operations and assets and consequently lacks the authority to commence a Section 403 investigation, it is important to note that the FCC has not determined that it will undertake such an investigation. However, we are committed to continue our voluntary discussions with the FCC as well as with the New York City Council and with Black-owned and Spanish-language radio to explain fully the Portable People Meter system.

We are confident that a full understanding of the PPM system will demonstrate that it produces objective, unbiased audience estimates. The PPM is a more reliable survey instrument than the paper and pencil diary, which relies heavily on memory and recall.  

Our PPM samples effectively represent the diversity of the New York radio marketplace and of all the markets we measure in terms of age, sex, race, ethnicity and Spanish-language preference.  Overall, Hispanics and African Americans have the highest listening levels in the PPM system.  Broadcasters that serve ethnic audiences and who have embraced PPM are succeeding with the timely and detailed data that only PPM can deliver.

Arbitron’s role as an independent research company is to provide stations and advertisers with information that is based on the actual behavior of radio audiences. That is what PPM delivers today.

It is also critical to note that the radio industry is anxiously awaiting the arrival of PPM data, so that they can compete effectively with other media who have more accountable forms of measurement.