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Thursday, April 9, 2009 | Thanks to technology activated this month, San Diego radio stations will soon know more about who’s listening to them than ever before.

Some may wish they didn’t.

While some radio stations across the nation are discovering they’re more popular than they assumed, others are watching their ratings slip under the new system.

Chatterbox morning shows, already on the chopping block because they can cost millions a year, are taking big hits. Liberal talk stations and music stations that appeal to black listeners are also struggling under the new system, and public radio could face challenges of its own.

Now it’s San Diego’s turn to join the ratings revolution, and the future of every local radio personality is on the line. Ratings determine radio advertising rates, which in turn affect who’s hired and fired.

“Radio stations are inexplicably linked to these numbers,” said Denver radio consultant Mike Henry, “and they’ll find themselves weaving all over the highway as the numbers change.”

Radio stations get ratings information from the Arbitron company, which has long recruited local residents to compile diaries listing the stations they listen to. In return, participants get a small stipend.

But now, Arbitron is rolling out a ratings system based on devices called portable people meters. Arbitron began phasing the San Diego market over to the new system earlier this month, and the first reports will come out in a couple weeks.

The meters, about the size of a pager, are worn by participants and detect hidden tones in radio signals and record the stations that people are listening to. At night, users put the meters in docking machines that send the information to Arbitron.

The new system isn’t perfect. The meters will pick up radio stations in the background that people aren’t paying attention to, for example. “If someone is spending time with their wife in a Victoria’s Secret store and they’ve got on some chick station or beautiful music, a guy may not be listening to it, but it may be recorded,” said Cliff Albert, program director at news/talk station KOGO-AM.

Arbitron has also wrestled with the problem of female listeners who often don’t have a convenient place to wear the pager-like devices, unlike men who can clip them to their belts, Albert said.

But the meters clearly will provide a more accurate picture of listening habits to radio programmers and advertisers. “The meters don’t lie,” said KBZT/”FM 94/9″ program manager Garett Michaels.

In the 15 cities where the meters already in use, some stations have watched their ratings change dramatically.

While they don’t accept advertising in a traditional sense, public radio stations like KPBS-FM and jazz station KSDS-FM will be affected by the new ratings too.

Public stations set underwriting rates based on their popularity judged by ratings, and they could suffer if their ratings decline.

It’s possible that some fans of public radio stations are so devoted that they lied on diaries and reported that they listened much more than they did, said Henry, the radio consultant Henry.

“If I’m a listener to a public station and I feel like it’s very important that this station stay around, I might over-report my listening in the diary just because I can,” he said. “It’s no different than giving money to that station.” On the other hand, public radio stations in cities under the new system have learned that big news events, like the presidential inauguration, cause ratings to spike, said John Decker, program director at KPBS-FM.

The station is already paying attention to that lesson, he said. “We have to be careful not to make up news, but we can think more about special series and investigative reports, how we draw attention to the news of this town.”

Radio stations will get ratings reports every week under the new system, instead of every month, and they’ll be able to estimate how many listeners tune in on individual days. This will allow KPBS to monitor the response to pledge drives on particular days and see if specific strategies work, Decker said.

It’s unclear what the potential impact will be on conservative talk radio, perennially a ratings leader in San Diego. But consultants said “spoken word” programming tends to do well under the new system.

However, one report said liberal talk radio fared more poorly under the new ratings system. San Diego was briefly home to a liberal radio talk station, KLSD-AM, but it struggled and programmers switched the format to sports.

On the music front, stations with significant black audiences have seen their ratings fall the new system, including smooth-jazz stations, said Mark Ramsey, a Rancho Bernardo radio consultant. San Diego’s smooth-jazz station, KIFM-FM, is a perennial ratings leader.

It’s not clear why stations with large black audiences are getting lower ratings under the new system. The Washington Post reported last fall that there are “suspicions that the new system has a racial bias” and doesn’t adequately represent minority listeners.

On the other hand, the new system could help stations that lack the high profiles developed by stations that seem to have been around forever. Rock station FM 94/9, for instance, may have lost ratings points under the old system because listeners wrote down the names of stations they’re most familiar, and not necessarily the ones actually listened to earlier that day, said program director Michaels.

They might say “you know what, I’m pretty sure I listened to KGB or yeah, 91X,” the said, referring to rival rock stations. “But did they really?”

Ramsey said the new ratings from other cities suggest that listeners prefer stations that are devoted to either talk or music — not both.

“If you’re a personality on a station that’s mostly about music, your show does worse. If you’re a personality on a station that’s all about personality, your show tends to do better,” Ramsey said.

That’s a potential problem for local music stations like KMYI-FM/Star 94.1 and KGB-FM that are talk-heavy in the morning but play music the rest of the day.

Ultimately, consultant Ramsey said, the new ratings system could force music-oriented radio stations to focus even more on music at the expense of chatter.

That will save stations money. In San Diego, some morning radio hosts make seven-figure salaries.

But as stations devote themselves even more to music, they risk becoming “redundant” in a world where people can customize music feeds through their iPods and iPhones, Ramsey said.

“The question will be, ‘Why should you keep listening?’”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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