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Power to the People Meter

Pencil and paper have provided the tracking method since the advent of the Arbitron radio-ratings system, the entity that tallies listening habits and can play havoc on the success and failure of formats--and the livelihoods of the employees who cash paychecks in a nomadic profession.

Arbitron is hoping to improve its accuracy with the Portable People Meter, a pager-like device designed to constantly track the number of radio signals to which a listener is exposed.

The Tucson market has endured more than its share of uncommon ratings fluctuations. In larger markets, stations tend to make gradual ratings moves; in Tucson, some stations have ratings charts that bounce like bungee cords.

The greatest example of Arbitron's inconsistency occurred in April for KEVT AM 1210, a Spanish-language station.

"To show you how one household can influence radio listening, KEVT went from a .9 to a 7 or 8 share," said Ken Kowalcek, general manager of Citadel Tucson (the company that gives me a check for work I do on KCUB AM 1290). "They had four diary keepers; three of them were in one household. Of that household, of the 504 available quarter hours, (KEVT) accounted for 475 quarter hours. All three people in the household basically said they listened to that station for the entire week they were being rated."

One of the concerns with the diary system is procrastination. Diary keepers are asked to fill out radio-listening habits per quarter hour, and turn in the book after a week--but what happens when the book just sits there? Recognizable stations are likely to benefit.

"The (current) system is based on who has the best brand, who has done the best marketing, who has the best contest going on. (Those stations are) more than likely to be written down," Kowalcek said. "With this new system, it's showing greater exposure."

There are flaws. People Meter cannot gauge listener preference; it simply registers frequency.

"No matter where you go and what you're doing, it's recording what you're listening to," Kowalcek said. "If you go into a Circle K, and they've got (KHYT) Rock 107.5 on, it says you're listening to Rock 107.5. You may not think that KIIM-FM (99.5) is the best station in the world, but if you're sitting at Famous Sam's, and they're playing KIIM-FM, I get credit for you listening to KIIM-FM."

Nonetheless, Kowalcek says the radio industry seems pleased with what the early results suggest.

"Since 99 percent of households and 94 percent of vehicles on the road have a radio, you would think, with only 23 radio stations in the market, and a million people, quite a few people are listening to radio," Kowalcek said. "What they're finding is the amount of people listening to radio is significantly greater, and the amount of stations they're exposed to is significantly different in this system."

Philadelphia was the first city to use the People Meter. It's slated to break into the Phoenix market in early 2009. Kowalcek figures it might be 2011 before the technology makes its way to Tucson.

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