We can ignore this no more: the Portable People Meter is about to be launched in the Seattle market, and several readers have written to say they've received a letter and a $10 bill from Arbitron President Steve Morris with this glad announcement:
Your household has been selected to be part of the Arbitron TV and Radio Ratings. This is your chance to count in the ratings! We select only a few households to be part of the Ratings. Your home represents many other households in your area. That's why you are so important to Arbitron.
The PPM is an electronic audience-ratings device to measure how many people are listening (or are, at least exposed) to individual radio and television stations, including cable.
It's worn like a pager, or carried in a handbag detects hidden audio tones in a station or network's audio stream, and automatically logs each time it finds such a signal.
The PPM carrier puts the device in a charger at bedtime, and the day's numbers are transmitted to Columbia, MD to be crunched into a nutritious, yet delicious breakfast food or used by advertisers to buy airtime.
(Family members can earn up to $15 a month by remembering to keep the meter with them. $50 will be given as a bonus for completing 90 days and NOT throwing the damn thing out the car window).
It's obviously more accurate than the decades-old handwritten diaries or hard-wired meters; plus it's immune to forgetful or lazy test subjects.
PPM gives more detailed, hour-by-hour tracking of a station's audience, and the results are delivered to the subscribing stations on a monthly and weekly basis instead of quarterly.
The old diaries were only as good as the user's memory, honesty or work ethic.
After all, ost of us can't remember which stations we punched up in the car and exactly how long we listened before punching up another one... the PPM takes all the guesswork out of that.
Many diarists toted up their listening habits at the end of the period, a situation ripe for error and revisionism.
A diarist might be working in a car repair where the boss had Rush Limbaugh on all morning, but go home at night and write down that he was listening to Air America. A bank teller might be listening to the goozy, overhead strains of KWRM through the day, but write in the diary she was listening to KEXP.
"The People Meter is showing that if time spent listening (tsl) is less than it's ever been," radio consultant Jeff Pollack told the LA Times, "then you better deliver -- you better deliver on personality, deliver on something that's going to be better than the song I just heard."
Promos and ad spot-loads are being examined: PPM is motivating people to clean up the unnecessary intrusions on the radio that make listeners posh the buttons.
Arbitron's transition to the new tech has been controversial.
Stations that target minorities -- particularly Latinos and African-Americans contend those groups are systematically under-represented in Arbitron's PPM surveys which, they say, underestimates audiences for their stations, and will result in major losses of ad dollars for stations with mainly minority audiences.
Early results from Houston and Philadelphia, the first cities to get the meters showed basic assumptions about radio-listening habits to be erroneous. Among other things, the meters have shown that people listen to more stations than shown by the diaries, but spend less time listening to them.
But courts in New York and New Jersey, Illinois, where suits were filed from all sides have cleared PPMs for action and the conversion continues, as planned.
The last diary ratings for Seattle will be the Winter Book. Meters will be strapped on the bodies of the surveyors in April and will be reporting in full by June.
There might be some big surprises with the new reporting: stay tuned.