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DEAR ARBITRON DIARY, THANK YOU FOR THE RADIO RATINGS EXPERIENCE

In this column, on a number of occasions, I have made references to the absurdity of the outdated Arbitron radio ratings system in this and other medium to small markets. In markets lower than 52, Tucson is No. 62, the company responsible for tabulating information that guides advertisers toward their major buys is still conducted with paper and pen.

Not that this is any secret, but now I can say I've been a part of the process. Earlier this month I was asked to participate in Arbitron's ratings gathering activity, and after going through the routine for a whole week, one can see why access to the company's pager-based and electronically driven People Meter in larger markets has displayed some very different numbers in key listening formats.

But first things first. Up until recently I might have botched this opportunity. You see, while most folks have had caller ID, and well, a cell phone, since at least the onset of the century, I had neither, so if I didn't get around to answering a phone call it would just go to my answering machine. As a result, fantastic solicitation opportunities like this would be lost, because the company or computer generated call wouldn't leave a message, or they'd get frustrated by the busy signal if I was chatting with someone else.

Yes. A busy signal.

Thankfully, the cable company recently cut me a sweet deal that involved keeping my landline while adding cutting edge features like caller ID and call waiting. Caller ID was the key, because once I saw Arbitron pop up on the digital display on my phone, I felt compelled to answer.

And golly, I'm glad I did. A nice young lady named Gina—I talked to Gina a lot that week—was my radio ratings representative, and she conducted a brief interview to determine my eligibility. Now in the past, when she got to the inevitable "do you work in radio or television question," I might have been inclined to say yes, well, since I did, but now that I don't it was pretty much smooth sailing. She didn't ask about print journalism affiliations, nor was any query specifically related to "do you write a media column" included in her criteria.

So based on that introduction, I think the way to become an Arbitron candidate is have a landline and caller ID and not work in the business. Basically, utilize technology from the last century. Sort of like what Arbitron does with its rating diaries.

Anyway, a letter with instructions and a dollar arrived a few days later, and it did a fine job building the anticipation for the niftiness I was about to experience.

"Be Part of the Radio Ratings!," the letter said. "Whether you listen a little, a lot, or not at all, you are important. Yours is one of the few households in your area chosen to tell radio stations what you listen to. It's easy and fun to take part in our radio survey.

"P.S (sic) Please accept the small token of appreciation we have enclosed with this letter."

Heck yeah, I'm accepting that crisp dollar bill. Thank you very much.

A few days later the diary arrived, with two more crisp dollars. I noted those dollars had sequential numbers, thought that was kind of cool, although if this was a heist or ransom, I would have preferred non-sequential. Probably recognition from all those cop shows I've watched on TV, but since this is "do you listen to Katy Perry," and not "do you watch Kate Walsh," even though the answer to both of those questions would be no, it allowed me to experience a certain joy in the numerical sequencing without fear of repercussion.

Then again, Arbitron sort of acted as if this whole routine was like a ransom negotiation. "You have our diary. What can we do to make sure you get it back to us in one piece and on time? Perhaps sequential dollar bills?"

The diary itself is contained in self-addressed envelope form, and Gina, the Arbitron girl, who had now called me close to a half-dozen times to keep me updated on the process, or what they probably call at Arbitron "begging the participants to send diaries back," reminded me that if I returned the diary before the final day of the ratings period it would be voided. And we don't want voided diaries.

The diary itself exclaimed to me that I "count in the radio ratings!," and I thought that was pretty cool. It then asked a few demographic questions. Among them, how old are you? Well, I have a landline, so I searched out the old Luddite box and checked it, then under income, since I live in Tucson, I checked poor, which is pretty much the only one that likely applies in this market.

Then the fun began. I got to mark my radio listening habits, all of which occurred while in a moving vehicle, although I was careful not to fill out a diary while driving which would be a terrible idea and lead to the wrath of Steve Farley, who would make it his crusade to create a law specifically designed to ban diary updating while driving.

I'm now ready to get to work and "Be a part of the radio ratings!," as Arbitron has so excitedly, and repeatedly, made me aware.

Next week, details of that process, and what stations made the week's listening rotation. Perhaps there are also more sequential bills.

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