Arbitron Rollout Rocks Radio

If the number crunchers at Arbitron have it right, some major market radio stations that use the media research firm’s services could be changing their tunes in the near future.

It’s already happened in Philadelphia, where one station switched from a Spanish-language format to alternative last May after Arbitron’s new electronic ratings system found the city of brotherly love to be more rock friendly than previously thought, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Earlier this year, Arbitron unveiled its "passive audience measurement device" called the Portable People Meter to replace paper diaries detailing listeners’ media consumption habits.

Roughly the size of a small cell phone, "the PPM device can track when and where they watch television, listen to radio as well as how they interact with other forms of media and entertainment," the company said in a statement. It "detects inaudible codes embedded in the audio portion of media and entertainment content delivered by broadcasters, content providers and distributors."

Participants wear the device during the day and place it on a docking station at night, which transmits those inaudible codes back to Arbitron. The PPM also has a motion sensor to ensure users are wearing the device during the surveys.

After Arbitron debuted the PPMs in Philadelphia and Houston this year, survey results varied from those recorded under the old diary system.

The firm said its sample sizes increased from hundreds to more than 1,000, according to the WSJ, providing more accurate views of actual listening habits. PPM surveys also found that appealing to the employed, who often listen to radio on the way to and from work, can up a station’s ratings rather than appealing to young listeners who haven’t tracked as well.

The data is already causing changes in advertising habits with some the low-ranking stations reportedly being forced to drop rates to compete.

Still, some industry professionals say the new systems will change radio for the better.

Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, comprising 230 FM and AM stations across the U.S. as well as the ABC Radio Network, recently signed a seven-year contract to use the PPMs in 14 of its markets.

"We believe that the PPM will significantly enhance radio’s accountability and reach, ultimately resulting in increased commitments to radio by advertisers," Citadel CEO Farid Suleman said in a statement.

Arbitron will roll out the new system in New York City this fall, transitioning toward PPM usage in the top 50 radio markets over the next three years.