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San Diego’s first batches of high-tech radio ratings are out, and they’re giving a giant boost to local music stations that are seeing their audience shares skyrocket.

The ratings for conservative-minded talk stations were flat, however, and the top country station may want to go cry in its beer.

Until last spring, a national company called Arbitron compiled local radio ratings by asking volunteers to write down what they listened to in diaries. Now, Arbitron is relying on pager-like devices called Personal People Meters that automatically record the stations that people listen to by detecting hidden tones.

Last week, Arbitron publicly released local ratings using the new system. The ratings covered the months April, May and June.

I wrote about the new system a few months ago, and radio gurus thought it might help boost music stations. In general, that’s what happened.

The two top-rated stations in June, KHTS/”Channel 933″ (Top 40), and XHRM-FM/”Magic 92.5,” (soul/R&B) saw their average audience jump by about 30-50 percent compared to last winter’s ratings. They both attracted about six percent of the local audience in June among listeners age 6 and up.

Talk stations KOGO-AM and KFMB-AM, both perennially high rated, got no boost from the new system. KOGO, tied for first place with a soft-jazz station last winter, fell to a tie for seventh place in June.

High ratings allow stations to command higher rates for advertising and keep their formats and personalities on the air. A low-rated station is more likely to dump its staff and switch to another kind of music or talk format.

The overall ratings can be misleading, however. Stations and advertisers are most interested in ratings among specific demographic groups, such as women or young men.

In the past, Arbitron surveyed people age 12 and up. Now they start at age 6.

“They’re grouping a 6-year-old with an 80-year-old and calling it a sample,” said Mark Ramsey, a Rancho Bernardo radio consultant. “It’s really difficult to know how to interpret all this.”

The ratings released to the public included non-commercial radio stations for the first time. KPBS-FM ranked 11th of all stations overall with less than 4 percent of the radio audience in June.

The total number of people who listened to KPBS-FM in June — about 293,000 — was smaller than 17 other stations. But its listeners tune in longer and almost 50 percent of them consider KPBS-FM to be their favorite station, said program director John Decker.


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