At the beginning of this year, a rash of stories popped up in liberal media, promising that the death of conservative talk radio was imminent – and this time, the critics of hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage insisted, they had the hard numbers to prove it.
The critics had latched onto a story that appeared in Crain’s New York Business (a subscription-only newsletter), which announced: “A new Arbitron report shows Rush Limbaugh’s ratings down 33 percent from a year ago and Sean Hannity down 28 percent over the same time period.”
“Is right-wing talk dying?” John Avlon asked hopefully at The Daily Beast.
“Are we sick of Rush Limbaugh yet”? Alex Pareene asked at Salon.com, adding gleefully, “We might be!”
But how exactly did Rush Limbaugh lose one-third of his audience over 12 months?
According to Pareene and others, the answer was a 2008 change in how ratings-tracker Arbitron determines listenership, away from the survey system to the Portable People Meter.
The survey system worked like this: At the end of each day, a small number of designated “diarists” wrote down which shows they’d listened to. Listeners sent those diaries to Arbitron, where numbers were crunched and ratings revealed.
A few years ago, Arbitron began phasing out diaries and brought in the Portable People Meters, or PPMs. These pager-sized devices automatically record whatever their wearers hear as they go about their day. No need to rely upon fallible human memories, or worry about diarists “fudging” their feedback or forgetting to send it in.
The PPM sounded like the accurate, scientific ratings system sponsors and programmers always hoped would be invented.
Until the first batch of ratings came in, showing conservative talk going strong and certain, urban and minority programs far lower than ever calculated before.
Faced with the new numbers, community leaders suddenly turned on the PPMs, blasting the new system as “racist.”
Or at least they were, until Arbitron was pressured by powerful political forces to “fix” its new ratings system.
Here’s what happened: Right after PPM was launched, according to an investigation by former Reagan aide Jeffrey Lord , “The ratings for talk radio exploded. What took a dive in listenership ratings were urban” – that is, African-American – “and Hispanic formats.”
Minority station owners immediately complained. Attorneys general of New York, New Jersey and Maryland filed suits, and Congressmen Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., and John Conyers, D-Mich., called for investigations into Arbitron, charging that the PPM system was discriminating against minorities.
Arbitron moved quickly to placate minority owned stations, their listeners and sponsors. Precisely what the ratings-tracker did remains a trade secret, but Jeffrey Lord’s investigation led him to the following conclusion: that Arbitron raised its payouts to PPM participants from $50 a month to as high as $200 (at least according to an industry insider who spoke to Lord anonymously) in order to incentivize lower-income, and thus more minority, participation.
Shortly thereafter, the Arbitron ratings of Hispanic and urban radio stations returned to pre-PPM heights, while talk radio ratings showed those precipitous drops that led to so much crowing in the liberal commentariat earlier this year.
Who’s slanting the ratings again?
Randall Bloomquist, a veteran talk radio programmer and journalist who is often called upon to comment when his industry makes news, dismisses talk of “conspiracy theories” when it comes to Arbitron’s PPM troubles.
“Conservative hosts have seen ratings go down under PPM because they are such memorable characters,” Bloomquist told WND. “[Under the survey system] you were supposed to write down what you listened to. But a Rush [Limbaugh] fan would put down that he listened to the show, even if he didn’t.
“This is known as ‘voting,'” Bloomquist continued. “Obviously it isn’t accurate. You’re telling Arbitron what you ‘like,’ not what you really listen to. You ‘meant’ to listen, but didn’t.”
One leading industry insider, however, told WND the survey system already had weights in place benefiting urban radio, and the original PPM – before it was “fixed” – only revealed reality.
“PPM first came out in an uproar because some ratings went to the basement,” the insider – who requested his name be withheld – told WND. “But we all knew that those were the real numbers.”
Everyone in broadcasting had known all along that old diary method was inaccurate – for reasons few wish to admit, he said.
“White women filled [their Arbitron diaries] out, because they are the most responsible,” the industry leader told WND. “An 18-year-old black kid is not as responsible. Hispanics wouldn’t turn them in because they were afraid, because they were illegal [immigrants.] And white males are too busy.
“So we did something called ‘weighing'” – inventing rough formulas to calculate the real ratings, figuring that, for example, Arbitron received 10 carefully completed diaries from a suburban housewife for every one that came in from an African-American teenager who had other priorities.
“And the formulas were always in favor of the minority stations,” he said.
Then “coincidentally,” the industry leader continued, “when Obama becomes president, and PPM comes out, those [minority] ratings go into the basement. Maybe there was a tacit threat? A suggestion from someone in the administration, who hinted ‘we’d like them to do better.'”
Whatever happened, eventually the “problem” with low ratings for minority-owned stations was “fixed,” while the same formulations suddenly showed a drop in conservative talk listenership.
“By falsifying numbers this way,” the industry leader said, “liberals can kill talk radio.”
Ratings, of course, equal revenue. Sponsors won’t buy air time for commercials few people will hear. Even a fractional dip in ratings can lead to big losses, not to mention firings and cancellations.
The insider also said that every ad agency has a “no-buy list,” that is, specific instructions not to buy air time on particular shows, often conservative ones, even if those shows have high ratings.
“It’s all about content and controversy,” the industry leader explains. “It’s a double whammy.”
Ratings, however, may no longer be king
The industry leader who spoke with WND insists that while “the entire industry is frustrated” over Arbitron’s questionable methods in the past few years, all is not lost, especially if radio can re-focus on revenue and relationships instead of increasingly dubious ratings, and get their clients to do likewise:
“We have to tell our advertising clients, ‘Invest in us, and we’ll work even harder for you.’ Hosts have to tell their listeners, ‘Support our sponsors,'” he said.
Lord believes that the radio business is changing, and that, ironically, the biggest loser may turn out to be Arbitron itself.
“This business is no longer the relatively simple – and increasingly old-fashioned – business of one man behind a microphone being beamed throughout the land on AM radio,” Lord told WND. “We’re talking the increasing use of FM, iPods, iPads, this and that app, streaming over the computer – all kinds of very 21st century technology that simply is not measured by Arbitron.
“So the only real way to measure is profits,” Lord continued, “and that, I know from several excellent sources in the business, is absolutely in great shape, the arrow going up, not down.”
Asked about these changes in listener habits, Bloomquist was somewhat dismissive.
“That is all around the fringe, around the edges,” he said, when asked about Lord’s theory of radio’s technological “evolution.”
“Even if you are a premium listener, you still want to listen in your car or if you’re a housewife, on the kitchen radio,” Bloomquist insisted.
Lord respectfully disagrees, and voices even stronger disagreement with those gloating over Arbitron’s ratings for conservative talk.
“Rush has never – not once – had a down year,” Lord pointed out in an American Spectator column. “Limbaugh has already, in the first five months of 2011, enjoyed a 10-percent boost over 2010 in gross revenues, radio advertising, web subs and more.”
“I do think Arbitron is flawed,” Lord told WND. “This is a new world technologically, and certainly Arbitron has been targeted by liberal politicians who appeared to want to alter the results. In that kind of atmosphere, the best measurement is the bottom line. And that line is decidedly in the black.”