Arbitron just sent me a dollar..?
June 19, 2001 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Arbitron just sent me a dollar..? I've been invited to participate in a once (sometimes occasionally twice) in a lifetime opportunity. No wonder our radio waves are so screwed up. Station owners think they learn what the public wants through a short-sighted random process, which obviously doesn't work. What's most amusing to me is they're buying my opinion for a buck. Even jury duty was kind enough to pay me six!
posted by ZachsMind (25 comments total)
And no. You can't sign up. You have to be randomly selected. They ask you to call a toll-free number, you answer a few questions, and they send you this diary in the mail, within which you keep track of one week of radio listening. This tells them nothing pertinent, but gives the illusion that it does. Did you even know they do this? Do you care? Haven't you wondered why all radio is starting to sound the same? This is part of the puzzle. This process of relegating public opinion to the equivalent of a gallup poll. This is like, my vote in the music industry, and it holds even less sway than my choosing the president of this country, which holds no sway whatsoever. If these bozos really wanted my opinion, they'd take me out to a power lunch, or hire me to be a program director. They don't want my opinion. They want me to tell them what they want to hear.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:33 PM on June 19, 2001

Arbitron books are more about determining advertising rates for upcoming quarters, than about what you want to hear. Did you ever think that the reason radio sucks is because some people "like" some of the crap on the radio? Someone must, or else their ratings would be in the shitter and they wouldn't be able to charge much for advertising, and they would either change or go out of business.

I may not like n'sync, brittney, etc.. but its painfully obvious that millions of people do. Why? dunno.
posted by jbelshaw at 8:13 PM on June 19, 2001

I can tell you that by the end of the experience, you'll get a few more of those crisp dollar bills, at least. I think I wound up with eight.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:18 PM on June 19, 2001

*Shudders, resumes paused James Brown mp3*
posted by dong_resin at 8:47 PM on June 19, 2001

Zach, why don't you post the phone number and all the pertinent details so we can all sign up. Who wants to join me in making Daler Mehndi the next big pop radio music star?

Let's get a MeFi mob doing some good in this world.
posted by mathowie at 9:18 PM on June 19, 2001

This is like, my vote in the music industry...

No it isn't. It's your vote in the RADIO industry. And if your diary tells them you spent your entire week listening to news, talk radio and NPR, then they're going to get the hint that at least somebody out there is turning all that corporate titty/booty music off. No, they're not going to take you out for a personal lunch; they are broadcasters after all, who have to try to please a measureable market segment to remain profitable. But it counts for something, which is a hell of a lot more of a voice than you've had up till now.

And if they were only being told what they want to hear, there wouldn't be so many format changes every season as one radio stations gains huge percentage shares and others fall into the dumper.

which obviously doesn't work

It does work, actually, though lately it has been teetering on the edge of not working. Arbitron aims for a miminum 40% response rate, but in some markets it's dropped like a rock to the mid-20s. In the last ratings book alone it's dropped 4%. They're going to have to figure out something else pretty damn soon.
posted by aaron at 9:25 PM on June 19, 2001

They sent me a dollar in 1984. I didn't notice that I was able to effect any change.
posted by rushmc at 9:33 PM on June 19, 2001

P.S. I'm with you all the way, mathowie...I'm totally addicted to Daler, thanks to whomever posted that video here some time back!
posted by rushmc at 9:34 PM on June 19, 2001

Who wants to join me in making Daler Mehndi the next big pop radio music star?

Unless you know of an all-Mehndi station in Zach's town, we wouldn't be able to do much good. They don't ask you what songs you listen to; they only ask what stations you listen to, in 15-minute intervals. WHTZ noon-12:45, Hot 97 12:45-2:00, etc.

And even if there were an all-Mehndi station, it still wouldn't work, because they immediately toss out all diaries they consider to be statistically unlikely ... like, say, the one from the guy that says he listens to nothing but Daler Mehndi 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
posted by aaron at 10:04 PM on June 19, 2001

Who wants to join me in making Daler Mehndi the next big pop radio music star?

Unfortunately it doesn't work that way... the Arbitron diary only wants to know what stations you listen to, when, and for how long. They don't care what the station is actually playing.

What is probably more responsible for the bad (imho) music saturating the airwaves are the focus groups that radio programmers conduct. They gather groups of random people in a room and play unidentified chunks (15 or 20 seconds) of various new songs and ask you if you like it. Naturally, under those circumstances, people like what they recognize, and don't like what is unfamiliar -- effectively shutting out in a systematic manner anything that sounds new, challenging, different or unusual. The reason why this process is good enough for the programmers is this: they don't care what music you like, they just want to keep you from punching the button and switching to another station, so they don't play anything that "doesn't test well" with the focus groups.

And don't even get me started on the whole Payola thing...
posted by spilon at 10:07 PM on June 19, 2001

Matt asked: "Zach, why don't you post the phone number and all the pertinent details..."

...uhm... how do I say this without sounding like an ass? ...I already did. uhm... Sir. =)

Everything I know about this thing is at that website, including the phone number to call, not that it will do you any good unfortunately. They make it clear it's only for people randomly selected. If you do call, they'll probably be real nice to you but say in no uncertain terms that they can't take your opinion. It's one of the MANY things I don't like about this system. You can't talk to the radio stations directly. I've tried. They don't listen. And I happen to know they don't really listen to Arbitron.

I do have this form letter, allegedly signed by the president of Arbitron himself (yay), which is sitting at home next to the dollar bill, but there's nothing in that form letter of any pertinence to this that I didn't see repeated at the website. I'm debating whether to call them tomorrow morning. I probably will, but I'm just frustrated by all this. I've been bitching about this for years, most recently at DFW Scene but also at my own website and elsewhere (long story that last link but this thing's already too long). After all my bitching, the best I can do is this Arbitron thing?

Why do I know radio stations don't listen to Arbitron? I briefly worked in radio about a decade ago. I was there the day the latest Arbitron came out, and all that happened was the Sales department flipped to "THE LIST." There's other stuff in this big book called the Arbitron Report, but all anyone looked at was "THE LIST" which basically showed that the station I was working for was third from the bottom. Yet the sales department played with the numbers and their personal rhetoric until they spinned it in a positive way for potential advertisers. Beyond that, it was business as usual. The station I worked for doesn't exist anymore by the way. And a decade later, stations still come and go here in Dallas worse than dotcoms do on the NASDEC.

Granted, Arbitron is the way it is for a reason. They don't want to be inundated with people who wanna metaphorically stuff the ballot box. Imagine if a radio station could have a phone number to ask their fans to call and affect the Arbitron ratings. Or if a band could do the same with its fans. So Arbitron only accepts people randomly. It's set up vaguely like the draft, or jury duty, and I do suppose since I feel strongly about how music and radio works, it's my duty as a music lover to do my part. I'm just frustrated that it's such a small part.

I would listen to the radio if they'd play what I wanted to hear, but it's not just radio station programmers. It's station owners. Conglomerates like Clear Channel. Even the government, which suppresses and affects how radio is used through the FCC and other organizations.

Ever tried to set up an Internet radio station? I was gonna make my own radio station for the Internet until I saw that there's a bunch of stupid rules intended to make it fair, and some of the ideas are good ones, but the end result is restricting creativity and interactivity. And you're just setting yourself up for a lawsuit without even realizing you're doing something wrong. The laws are so convoluted. For example, you can't do immediate listener requests. You have to wait at least an hour, for internet radio. So why even listen to Internet radio when you can just play your own music whenever you want to on your own personal sound system? I'm assuming the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other laws make things even more restrictive for conventional commercial radio stations.

Spilon said: "And don't even get me started on the whole Payola thing..."

No kidding. This whole system is so pathetically corrupt. The concern of the consumer is nonexistent, because there are millions out there who would listen to 24 hours of fart jokes if that's all that was provided. The Fix Is In and I feel like David facing Goliath, holding an empty sling.
posted by ZachsMind at 10:30 PM on June 19, 2001

My roommate and I did the Arbitrons a few months ago. It was a fairly boring process and, in the end, I really didn't see how anything (musically) good could come of it. Anyway, I made a small site about it over the course of the week we were involved. (Sorry for the self-link.)
posted by mrbula at 11:07 PM on June 19, 2001

I was gonna make my own radio station for the Internet until I saw that there's a bunch of stupid rules intended to make it fair...

So don't use Live365. Find another way.
posted by aaron at 11:10 PM on June 19, 2001

"So don't use Live365. Find another way." The laws are still in effect, Aaron. It's not Live365 that's enforcing them. It's the government. Were I not to follow the law, I would only be safe so long as my 'station' never got popular. The second it did, you'd better believe the law would come down on me like an anvil.

Thanks mrbula for the link. One of the many reasons I brought this up in MeFi was to see if others have had similar experiences and what they thought about it. =)
posted by ZachsMind at 11:39 PM on June 19, 2001

took my dollar, bought ice cold sprite beverage and didnt fill out the ratings diary. thank you arbitron.
posted by c at 12:01 AM on June 20, 2001

I've lived for extended periods of time in LA and NYC and hands down the best radio station for non-commercial new music is KCRW 89.9 in the LA area. The two shows on weekday nights (Metropolis and Chocolate City) are amazing, and the weekends have phenomenal world music shows and other great stuff. Highly recommended especially if you like electronic music.
posted by gen at 4:19 AM on June 20, 2001

Well this is... interesting. Am I the only one who can see two different arbitron ratings websites? is not the one I saw yesterday. is the one I was talking about before. Are these the same people?

That's weird. I smell something fishy.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:56 AM on June 20, 2001

I agree with you about the state of radio presently. Its cookie cutter everywhere you go. From the music to the playlists, to the personalities of the dj's. The radio station owners aren't involved with Arbitron (as far as I know, correct me if i'm mistaken), they are an independent company, similar to nielsen.
But it seems that the bigger issue at hand here is the DMCA. I would suggest that at the moment, the best way to get the DMCA overturned would be to support EFF and Professor Felton's case against the RIAA.
posted by jbelshaw at 6:41 AM on June 20, 2001

I'm perfectly okay with cookie cutter radio, if it's what the majority of the people want? No biggie. That's the whole idea of a broad medium and not to promote obscure public radio stuff.

What is weird is how radio personalities are prohibited from saying anything about the arbitron process. If you ever listen to a talk show and someone asks about arbitron, they'll shut 'em up real quick.
posted by owillis at 6:53 AM on June 20, 2001

What is probably more responsible for the bad (imho) music saturating the airwaves are the focus groups that radio programmers conduct

But the focus groups pay a lot better. Zach only got a buck to participate in a ratings book; the last time I did a radio focus group, I got $50 and a free can of Diet Coke.

There's other stuff in this big book called the Arbitron Report, but all anyone looked at was "THE LIST" which basically showed that the station I was working for was third from the bottom

Nobody bothers to read all the raw data in an ARB or Nielsen report, they just care about the overall placement of their station. The rest of the data is only really useful to the cellar-dwellers in a market who might hope to convince a particular advertiser that a given daypart is more valuable, or that they get a particular demographic group.

Zach, I'm surprised that you don't know how the ratings systems really work if you ever had any exposure to working in a radio station. In the 70 years or so that broadcast ratings surveys have been conducted, they've never asked for opinions about anything. They just want to know what station you're listening to/watching and what time.
posted by briank at 7:09 AM on June 20, 2001

Just think of Arbitron as the Nielson ratings of radio. We used Arbitron to gauge listenership when I was working for a syndicator to see if they "we worthy enough" for show X.

But Arbitron a scam? Doubt it. They're a private company that isn't suppossed to hold any stake in stations or labels. And from what they charge folks to get their data - they're doing just fine on their own.

Just use it to give the stations you really dig some credit.

Then wish ass herpes on me for working for a company that put Rick Dees on 300 stations. I deserve it.
posted by mecawilson at 7:31 AM on June 20, 2001

I went ahead and called. My radio diary will be coming in the mail with another small token of their appreciation (wish I could afford to just throw dollar bills at people in the mail with wanton abandon). My week under their microscope starts on July 5th.

Owillis: "I'm perfectly okay with cookie cutter radio, if it's what the majority of the people want? No biggie. That's the whole idea of a broad medium and not to promote obscure public radio stuff."

You disappoint me, Owillis. But again we all have a right to our opinion. Mine happens to be exactly opposite. Yes I acknowledge that in order to be successful, a radio station must give the audience what it wants. Yet still, "obscure public radio stuff" should not be dismissed entirely and left where it's never heard. There should be more room to introduce people to music they might not have otherwise considered. Broadening the medium diminishes its potential to expose audiences to a wider variety of entertainment.

Top40 radio has been one of the most damaging ideas to modern music in recent memory. If a tree falls in a forest and no one's around to hear it, it doesn't make a sound. The definition of sound as a noun, requires not only a source, but also a medium, and most importantly, a reciever. If a band is never heard, it cannot become successful. Same concept. So much for philosophy.

As a metaphorical example, I've learned over the years that even though I don't like chick flicks, they're not all that bad. And chicks dig it if you can appreciate it with them. I could just close my mind and insist we only watch what I want, but then I wouldn't get as many dates, and I woulda missed out on movies like What Women Want, Sliding Doors and When Harry Met Sally. It didn't kill me to be exposed to things I wouldn't normally have considered. =)

I question whether radio stations are really listening to what the public wants by listening to something like Arbitron. One week's diary of listening from each participant is like taking a pint of blood from someone, and asking a doctor to glean information from the donor based solely on the blood as evidence. Sure, the doctor can learn some stuff, but not enough to even get a picture of the donor. It's simply not enough information to go on.

BrianK: "..I'm surprised that you don't know how the ratings systems really work.."

Oh but I do! That's my point. My frustration is that they don't listen to opinion. They're only interested in vague data. They don't even want facts. They don't want the truth. They want informatioin that they can interpret to suit the plans they've already made.

They will continue to broadcast the phlegm that is in their best interests while dismissing a wealth of great stuff that should be heard. My voice in Arbitron isn't going to make a difference. So why am I doing it? I'm still trying to figure that out. When I called this morning, the woman made a point to remind me, as the website does, that men in my age bracket don't often send back the diaries. Perhaps that's a saving grace? If I'm of a small percentage of people in my area who complete this thing and send it back, does that make my voice louder from a percentage standpoint? Or is that wishful thinking?

Perhaps the real question is, am I the kinda guy who buys a product based on a commercial? I am not. I buy things when I feel I need them, or when I personally want them, not when I'm told on the radio that something's new and improved or the latest thing so maybe I'm not supposed to show up on their radar screens. I don't support a program by buying the products that are advertised on it. And as a consumer, that's probably the only real way to vote in the radio industry, or any other for that matter.

Oh.. And MecaWilson, I wouldn't wish ass herpes on a stray dog, but if you were in a position to keep Rick Dees from being on even one station, you would deserve it. =) However, I know how hard it is to stand up and be counted in the radio industry. It's so easy to find one's own job on the line when your convictions differ from your boss. It is ultimately why I'm no longer in the radio industry. ...I have a big mouth.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:21 AM on June 20, 2001

It looks like none of you realize public radio falls under the Arbitron "microscope" too. Indeed, it does, and the books get analyzed in detail. Public radio station WXXX sounds a lot more like all the other public radio stations out there than it did 10 years ago. Haven't you noticed the encroaching homogeneity? You try to create something new on the public airwaves, and somebody smacks a book down in front of you and tells you if it's in the numbers or not. You'd like to think public radio would be exempt, but then it IS "public" -- and isn't that who fills in the Arbitron diaries? The public?
posted by Dzolali at 10:18 AM on June 20, 2001

It looks like none of you realize public radio falls under the Arbitron "microscope" too

I did know that, but usually the ratings for public radio are so abysmal that they barely register. However, you're right in that many public radio stations have begun the process of copying the stations that have had success with particular formats in the hopes of luring listeners -- not to score ratings but to score fundraising dollars at pledge time.

Zach -- the only thing the radio/TV stations, and thus the ratings services, care about is how many people are tuned in. Programming is just the filler in between commercials. Always has been, probably always will be. Have fun filling out the diaries!
posted by briank at 12:03 PM on June 20, 2001

Also worth noting -- when you do this, you're more then welcome to note that you listened to radio-over-the-internet if you can provide a city and call letters; neither the number-two and -three radio stations I listened to during my Arbitron week (WFMU and KALX, if anyone cares) are near me.
posted by snarkout at 1:31 PM on June 20, 2001

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