Thursday, August 14, 2008

KIIS-FM rises to No. 1 over KFI-AM in first metered Arbitron radio ratings for L.A. area

Arbitron's switch to electronic devices for listeners scrambles the rankings for July.

By Steve Carney, Special to The Times
August 14, 2008

Spanish-language stations don't dominate the Los Angeles-Orange County market as once thought, while oldies and Top 40 stations are even more popular than believed -- at least according to figures from a new radio rating system released Wednesday.

Arbitron, the rating service, released the first figures for the local area using its new electronic method of measuring listeners, while phasing out its decades-old diary system. The new method surveyed listeners in July, compared with the spring diary, which measured audience habits from April to June.

In July, Top 40 station KIIS-FM (102.7) ran far ahead of the field, snagging an average of 5.8% of the audience ages 12 and older, while second-place KFI-AM (640), the talk station, garnered 4.4%. In the prior rating period, KIIS was second with a 4.9% share and KFI was tied for fourth with 4%.Meanwhile, Spanish-language pop station KLVE-FM (107.5) fell out of the top spot it held in the spring, when it captured 5.6% of the local audience, finishing in sixth place with 4%. Its sister station, regional Mexican music outlet KSCA-FM (101.9), fell from third in the spring, at 4.4%, to seventh in July, at 3.7%, where it tied with adult-contemporary KOST-FM (103.5).

The news wasn't all bad for Spanish-language broadcasters, however: Regional Mexican music station KLAX-FM (97.9) rose from 10th to ninth, increasing its audience share from 3.2% to 3.6%.

Arbitron's new system for calculating the ratings uses Portable People Meters, or PPMs, pager-sized devices that listeners wear all day and that keep track of what stations they hear and for how long. The company says they're more accurate than the diary system, in which survey participants wrote down their radio consumption for the week, usually relying on memory for what they'd listened to each day.

Arbitron has been testing the system here and in other markets; the PPMs have been in official use in Philadelphia and Houston since last year. In both of those cities, the results startled many broadcasters: The meters showed, in many cases, that broadcasters had many more listeners than the diaries gave them credit for, and shuffled the previous station rankings like a deck of cards.

The meters appear to have done the same in Los Angeles. According to the July PPM figures, oldies station KRTH-FM (101.1) took third place with 4.3% of the audience, compared with its 11th-place showing in the spring, at 3.1%. Alternative rocker KROQ-FM (106.7) took fourth with 4.2%, compared to seventh place and 3.5% in the spring, and rock station KCBS-FM (93.1) rounded out the top five with 4.1% -- quite a change from its 2.2% and 16th-place showing in the spring.

Hip-hop KPWR-FM (105.9), on the other hand, fell from a tie for fourth in the spring, at 4%, to a tie for 14th in July, at 2.9%.

Spanish-language stations showed declines in Houston, and that was repeated in many instances here. Univision, which owns outlets in both markets, already has raised questions about whether Arbitron's new group of rating subjects is an accurate demographic reflection of the population.

But the rating numbers don't necessarily indicate that any of the stations are suddenly more or less popular than they were in the spring -- the changes could be just a function of the differences in the survey methods.

In the diaries, listeners often marked down that they stayed tuned to their favorite stations for long blocks of time, either forgetting or not bothering to mention that they switched around here and there. That discrepancy inflated some stations' audience-share figures while undercutting others. But the increased accuracy of the Portable People Meters reveals listeners' tendency to flip around the dial, thus undercutting the audience-share claims of some stations.

The PPM statistics for July also showed huge increases in stations' raw audience numbers -- in some cases doubling them, a phenomenon seen in the other markets where the PPMs had been introduced. In the spring Arbitron diary, for example, KIIS averaged just under 2 million listeners a week. The July PPM put that figure at 3.48 million. KRTH grew from 1.19 million to 2.46 million.

Even KLVE, despite its tumble from first to sixth, had more listeners than previously thought. Its cumulative weekly audience appeared to increase from just over 1 million, according to the spring diary, to 2.06 million, according to the July PPM.

But even with that rise, the loss of diarists who over-reported the amount of time spent listening may have cost the station the audience percentages it once enjoyed.

Greg Strassell, senior vice president of programming for CBS Radio, which in Los Angeles owns KROQ, KCBS, KRTH and four other stations, said the numbers from Portable People Meters are a testament to the overall health of the radio industry. "It's been a very positive lesson: We really reach more people than we thought," he said.

The new ratings still won't be official, though, until October. Then Arbitron will allow stations to combine the figures from July, August and September, and use those quarterly rankings in their pitches to advertisers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Radio will get meter readings

Rankings may see a shake-up as the data-gathering service shifts from diaries to wearable signal meters.

By Steve Carney, Special to The Times
August 12, 2008

A multimillion-dollar industry that relied on the honor system to determine its income will turn a page this week.

On Wednesday, radio stations in Los Angeles and Orange County will get their ratings for the first time from a new electronic monitoring system, replacing the decades-old method in which listeners scribbled in a diary what they'd been tuning in to.

"Sometimes what you listen to isn't always what you recall three days later," said Greg Strassell, senior vice president of programming for CBS Radio, which owns KROQ-FM (106.7), KCBS-FM (93.1) and five other stations in the L.A area. "Rather than guessing how listeners were listening, this is actual info we can use. This is why program directors are very excited."

That excitement is mixed with unease, though, as stations in other markets where the methodology switch already has been made saw dramatic shifts in their rankings, and in the number of listeners they thought they had.

Replacing the diaries are new measuring devices called Portable People Meters, or PPMs, pager-sized units that survey participants wear throughout the day. They record inaudible signals that identify what radio station the person is listening to, when and for how long. Now every station he or she hears will get credit, including whatever is blaring from a neighbor's car stereo at the stoplight or the background soundtrack at the hair salon.

"With electronic measurement, you take away the burden of someone having to remember every time they're in contact with a radio station," said John Snyder, vice president of Portable People Meter sales for Arbitron, the ratings service. "You definitely remember your two or three favorite stations. With PPM, you also get four, five and six."

The ad-dollar base

The ratings are no mere popularity contest. The stations use those audience figures to determine what to charge advertisers. And there's no place where those calculations are more important than in the Los Angeles-Orange County market, home to the top two money-making radio stations in the country. KROQ took in $67.6 million last year, and KIIS-FM (102.7) $65.9 million, according to the trade journal Radio & Records. In fact, L.A. boasted five of the top seven, with KFI-AM (640) ranking fourth, and KCBS and KOST-FM (103.5) finishing sixth and seventh.

But for years those millions in income, based on precious tenths of ratings points, rose and fell based on the diary entries of a few thousand survey participants, relying on memory and honesty to mark what stations they listened to and when. And stations played to that, pumping money into contests or promotions, if they needed a ratings boost, to grab the attention of listeners, hoping that memory would stick come diary time.

"The old system was archaic," said Greg Ashlock, L.A.-area president of Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio chain, which owns KIIS, KFI, KOST and five other stations in the market. Any anxiety over this new way to measure something so vital is balanced by the enthusiasm "that we know what we have is more accurate," he said.

Snyder said one problem with the diaries is the tendency of listeners to round up. They write that they tuned in from 9 a.m. to 9:30 or 10, instead of reflecting that they actually listened to a station from 9:07 to 9:25, then switched when a commercial came on, tuned back at 9:37, but tuned out again when that song they hated started playing.

The PPM will capture all that activity. Strassell said it provides "real feedback -- minute by minute, almost -- as to what works and what doesn't."

Arbitron started developing the PPMs in 1992 and hopes to have them in the top 50 markets by 2010. The service is already being used in Philadelphia and Houston, and results from those cities and preliminary data from Los Angeles have given broadcasters some surprises.

According to spring 2008 ratings for Los Angeles, the last using the diary method, KIIS had a weekly audience of about 2 million. A June PPM demonstration put that figure at nearly 3.5 million. And while the diaries credited KOST and KRTH-FM (101.1) with weekly audiences of more than 1 million each, PPM showed they each had more than 2.5 million listeners.

"By and large, it's a more accurate way of monitoring how people truly do listen to the radio," said Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which operates KPCC-FM (89.3). "The overall audience is actually much larger, but time spent listening is going to be less. People change the channel a lot more frequently than they did in the paper diaries."

But not everyone is welcoming the new system or taking for granted its accuracy. In Houston, for example, the meters were particularly hard on Spanish-language stations.

KLTN-FM, a Univision-owned outlet for regional Mexican music, ranged from second to fourth place in the diary-based ratings in 2006 and 2007. In the first survey using PPMs, KLTN plunged to 13th. Other Spanish-language stations saw similar drops.

"It's not that I didn't expect to see those differences, but it's way beyond that," said Ceril Shagrin, Univision's executive vice president for corporate research. "We continue to be very, very concerned about Arbitron's samples and the reliability of the data."

Univision has much at stake in Los Angeles, home of the nation's largest pool of Latino listeners, where it owns the No. 1 and No. 3 stations in the market -- KLVE-FM (107.5) and KSCA-FM (101.9) -- according to the spring ratings.

Shagrin questioned whether Arbitron's pool of PPM wearers is truly mirroring the demographics of the markets they're surveying. Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky said the declines merely reflect the differences between the diaries and the PPMs.

"Spanish-speaking Hispanics spend more time with radio than other groups," he said. "And the rounding effect on the diary occurs more with people who listen more."

Stations react to data

Another difference between the methods is the number of people involved. On any given day during the spring survey, an average of 595 people were filling out diaries in the L.A. market. With the PPMs, Arbitron expects a daily average of about 2,750 people. At the end of each day, they plug the unit into a modem, which uploads the data to Arbitron.

Anticipating what Ashlock called "the PPM world," Clear Channel took the initiative and changed some of its formats earlier this year. "Based on the results from Houston, there was a little bit more male listening than the diaries were giving credit for, so we decided to shift one of our stations a little more male," he said.

So KYSR-FM (98.7) dropped its "Star" moniker, shipped female-friendly artists, such as Jewel and John Mayer, to sister station KBIG-FM (104.3) and adopted a more aggressive persona and playlist. On Wednesday, the station will find out if its male audience is actually out there.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

War of the Worlds

The story of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast -- which panicked a nation jittery in the run-up to World War II -- has always been one of my favorite radio stories, and I got to write about it back in 2003, on the 65th anniversary of the broadcast. That column also turned out to be the penultimate "Around the Dial" for the Times, as the paper canceled the feature the following week. Here's the link.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Michael Jackson seeks to reclaim his place in L.A.'s talk radio

A longtime force is 'nervous and excited' over his return today at KGIL-AM, which is retooling with a talk/news format.
By Steve Carney, Special to The Times
October 29, 2007

Today, Michael Jackson, the onetime stalwart of Los Angeles talk radio, begins what he hopes will be his last job. Before this, though, he wondered if he'd already worked his last job.

At 9 a.m., his new two-hour program debuts on KGIL-AM (1260), five years after he signed off his last talk show, ending a run that began with his arrival on Los Angeles airwaves in 1963 and included a landmark three-decade stint at KABC-AM (790).

"I'm usually just excited," said the wry and erudite Briton. "Now I'm nervous and excited. I've been off for a while."

His is the marquee name on the news/talk station being launched by radio entrepreneur Saul Levine, replacing the classical music on what had been KMZT-AM ("K-Mozart") since February. The weekday lineup begins at 6 a.m. with "Larry King Live," followed at 7 a.m. by the two-hour newsmagazine "The Wall Street Journal This Morning." Libertarian host Neal Boortz will air from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by radio psychologist Joy Browne from 2 to 5 p.m. Jackson's show will air live from 9 to 11 a.m., with a replay from 5 to 7 p.m.

"Michael Jackson remains one of the best-known brands in Los Angeles talk radio and, as a result, will bring interest, credibility and notoriety to this new talk format," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the industry trade journal. "He's legendary. That's what a station like that can use."

From 1966 to 1998, Jackson held court at KABC with collegial, noncombative interviews of politicians, celebrities, authors and more ordinary Angelenos with a story to tell. He dominated his morning time slot and pushed KABC to the top of the local ratings, until Rush Limbaugh debuted at rival KFI-AM (640) and, with his brash style and zealous partisanship, began his ascendancy over a new brand of talk radio.

Moving around the dial

Citing the drop in listeners, KABC exiled Jackson to weekends for his last year at the station. He left for weekdays at KRLA-AM, then at 1110 on the dial, but a format change forced him off the air in 2000. He landed at KLAC-AM (570) but lost his show again when that station switched to music in 2002.

News station KNX-AM (1070) hired Jackson in 2004 to record interviews with newsmakers, which were played in snippets throughout the day. But he grew frustrated, he said, when 45-minute talks with Hillary Clinton or John McCain turned into three or four minutes on the air. When his contract expired in May 2006, the station didn't renew.

"I think each of us in our careers have been rejected, and felt if you weren't wanted today, there's even less reason to want you tomorrow," Jackson, 73, said in an interview last week. "Over time, I became less convinced there'd be another opportunity."

Then Levine called, saying he was starting a news/talk station that he wanted to be balanced, between the fringe commentary on the left and right of talk radio, and that he wanted Jackson to work weekday mornings.

"It's everything I dreamed of," Jackson said.

He said he's already lined up appearances by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. Police Chief William Bratton, California's U.S. senators -- Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Admittedly left of center in his worldview, Jackson said, "I have views and I'll express them, but if you want to contest them I'll welcome that. I don't have to win every exchange."

"My job is to get guests on to say everything they want to say, and then a little more," Jackson said. He also promised to be more focused on L.A. and California than syndicated hosts from the East Coast, such as Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

News on the menu

Erik Braverman, operations director at KABC, said a Jackson-style show "is a forum for big-name guests or politicians to get on the air and talk about the issues of the day. Today's talk radio is a little more host-driven, a little more personality-driven."

Jackson, he said, has "a friendlier sound than what talk radio has become. There's clearly room for that. [National Public Radio] does a similar thing. Is there room for it to garner a large audience? I don't know."

Saying he's dissatisfied with the shrinking amount of news on the air, Levine will also offer world, national and local news, and traffic, from Associated Press and Metro Networks.

"The biggest complaint from everyone I know is the lack of news on the radio. If you want a cooking show or a computer show, you can hear it," Levine joked. "It's not worth my time" to wait for news.

Weekday evenings, the station will play adult standards from 7 p.m. until King's show at 6 a.m. The music of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald will fill weekends too.

Levine knows he has a reputation for changing formats -- since he bought the station in 1993, the 1260 frequency has aired standards, all Beatles, news, traffic, show tunes, jazz, country and classical -- but he said he's committed to the news/talk format, at least for the next one to two years. He said it could take at least six months before the new KGIL gains traction, but he's hopeful for an eventual 1% to 2% share of the local audience.

That rating would land it in competition with 17th-place KABC, which garnered 2% of listeners age 12 and older in the summer Arbitron ratings, the most recent available, as well as with conservative talk station KRLA-AM (870), at 1.1%, and left-leaning talker KTLK-AM (1150), which tied for 30th place at 0.8%. Also in that neighborhood are the all-news stations Levine hopes to compete with: KNX at 1.7% and KFWB-AM (980) at 1.3%.

KTLK program director Don Martin said that if the battle ends up between his station on the left, KRLA on the right and KGIL in the center, "that means there's three talk stations fishing in a very small pond."

"What we all have to figure out: Is there enough room?" said Martin, who added that listeners on the left and right are loyal and will be hard to peel off.

The entire group lags far behind spoken-word leader KFI, the L.A. venue for Limbaugh and outlet for locals Bill Handel and "The John & Ken Show," with John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. That station placed third in the market during the summer, with a 4.5% share of the audience.

Jackson said he's relishing a ratings fight with Limbaugh and with O'Reilly on KABC, who share his time slot.

"I think people are looking for something new," Jackson said, "and maybe it's old."

Friday, October 31, 2003

65 years later, invasion continues

Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre troupe broadcast 'War of the Worlds' in 1938 as a prank, illustrating the medium's influence.

Steve Carney
Special to The Times

31 October 2003
Los Angeles Times

Fiendish pranks by mischievous youths are to be expected on Devil's Night, Halloween Eve. But 65 years ago today, the nation awoke with a hangover from the massive practical joke orchestrated the night before by one brilliant 23-year-old.

As Orson Welles said at the end of his classic "War of the Worlds" broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, "We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the CBS. You'll be relieved, I hope, to learn we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business."

What started as an adaptation of the classic science-fiction novel by H.G. Wells ended as perhaps the most famous radio broadcast in history. The story of a Martian invasion at Grover's Mill, N.J., which spurred panic among thousands who believed it was real, dramatized the potential of the relatively new medium -- both as innovative entertainer and powerful persuader.

"It's amazing how many people know about it, even though it's been 65 years since it happened," said Alex Lubertozzi, co-editor of "The Complete War of the Worlds" (Sourcebooks, 2001), which examines the broadcast and its aftermath. "Most people have never even heard it, but they know about it."

Continuing a three-decade tradition, KNX-AM (1070) will air the broadcast tonight at 9 as part of its nightly "KNX Drama Hour."

In planning for the original broadcast, Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air wanted to use radio to its fullest, assimilating the sounds and style of breaking news coverage to their entertainment offering.

"He used that technique, and I think it really took people off-guard," as such a manipulation had never been done before, Lubertozzi said. "Orson Welles, he made it seem realistic and used the technology as best he could."

For example, the actor who played the on-the-scene reporter, Frank Readick, studied the broadcast from the previous year of the Hindenburg airship disaster, to give his own description of the Martian attack urgency and verisimilitude. Welles thought some people might be fooled but didn't expect the widespread panic that ensued.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air had been on the air only three months, and its presentations of literary classics such as "Treasure Isand" and "A Tale of Two Cities" were continually drubbed in the ratings by the troupe's competitors on NBC, ventriloquist Edger Bergen and his dapper dummy Charlie McCarthy.

That show owned about 35% of the national audience, compared to 4% for the Mercury Theatre, according to the ratings. But on that particular Sunday night, after Bergen and McCarthy finished their preliminary jokes and crooner Nelson Eddy launched into song, an estimated 4 million listeners began channel surfing and landed on the CBS broadcast -- what sounded like a reporter doing a live remote at the scene of a strange meteor crash. These folks had tuned in too late to hear Welles' introduction of "The War of the Worlds," and by the first station break, 40 minutes into the hourlong broadcast, many had fled in terror and missed the reiteration that the show was merely a radio play.

Of the program's nationwide audience of 6 million people, about 1.2 million panicked, believing the invasion was true, according to a study published in 1940 by Princeton University professor Hadley Cantril.

"They had no reason to suspect it wasn't real," Lubertozzi said. "They sort of just believed it: 'CBS wouldn't report this if it really wasn't happening.' "

So listeners, particularly in the New Jersey and New York area, ran into the streets and jammed police switchboards, asking for evacuation advice or insisting they could see the blanket of poison gas being unleashed. Others gathered in churches to pray and await the end of the world. Callers outside the affected area asked local authorities for casualty lists, to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. And thousands more around the country wondered when the invasion force would reach them.

It's easy, with 21st century hindsight, to dismiss the fear that Welles wrought as the hysterical reaction of rubes and dolts. Even people at the time ridiculed the panic-stricken. But the terror was genuine among those who believed the broadcast, and it was fueled by both current events and the quality of the performance.

Even now, 65 years after the Mercury players first sent their words and sounds out over the airwaves, the screeching of the Martian heat ray as it immolated the crowd around the spaceship, the shrieks of the victims, the horror in the commentator's voice, and the sudden dead air of his silenced microphone, can still elicit chills.

"They heard it, and they got scared," Lubertozzi said. "It seemed real to them."

More than a few people at the time believed life could exist on Mars, a theory popularized by distinguished American astronomer Percival Lowell, who helped discover Pluto and, who in 1908, wrote "Mars as the Abode of Life."

Inventors and radio pioneers Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi each claimed to have intercepted transmissions they believed came from the red planet. And in 1922 and again in 1924, during periods when Mars passed relatively close to the Earth, the U.S. government suspended its own radio broadcasts to listen for extraterrestrial signals.

"You have to think what it was like back then. Everybody was uptight about a lot of things," said Kay Reed, retired tax collector for New Jersey's West Windsor Township -- the community that includes Grover's Mill -- and an unofficial historian of the broadcast and the phenomenon it created.

"War of the Worlds" aired after a monthlong war scare, in which continual radio reports from Munich kept Americans on edge, wondering whether they'd be drawn into the conflict between Hitler and the European leaders opposing his takeover of Czechoslovakia. Listeners had grown used to hearing their programs interrupted by bulletins, so the news flashes during the Welles broadcast bore the ring of truth.

The day after the broadcast, an irate Sen. Clyde L. Herring (D-Iowa) said the program and its aftermath were proof that radio needed "control by the government" and promised to introduce a bill letting the Federal Communications Commission screen and veto any program before it aired, according to a study of radio hoaxes by Justin Levine in the Federal Communications Law Journal. Herring never introduced the bill, however, and most newspaper editorials at the time decried such a heavy-handed approach, instead advocating self-restraint by the broadcasters themselves. The New York Daily News, for example, criticized Herring's opportunism and said, "We hope the next Congress ... will smack flat all radio censorship bills with the avalanche of 'NOs' they deserve in a free-speech, free-press, free-religion, free-assemblage country."

"Most people looked at it as a great practical joke," Lubertozzi said. "Nobody actually got killed, nobody died. There was a big furor at first, but it died down.

"In some ways, it was the end of innocence with the media. People are much more skeptical about what they see and hear. I think we did learn a lesson: You need to pay attention to what you're hearing and not take it at face value."

Reed said her own father-in-law merely looked out the back window to see if the invasion was real. Convinced when he saw no mayhem, he went back inside. But she said other residents of the Grover's Mill area "became very embarrassed about being taken in."

The embarrassment seems to have eased over the years, though, as the community has erected a commemorative plaque at the "invasion site" and hosted anniversary celebrations. Saturday night, the David Sarnoff Library near Grover's Mill is hosting a stage version of the radio play and a costume contest, both to commemorate the broadcast and to create a museum exhibit about the event, at the library devoted to the broadcast pioneer and former RCA chairman.

"This history needs to be preserved somewhere," Reed said. "It's a neat thing, and to think, he had everybody in the United States believing it."

And tonight -- even though Mars this year made its closest pass to Earth in 60,000 years -- remember Welles' admonition: "That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian. It's Halloween."