By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
Recently, a Mesa-based company began offering heartsick radio managers a partial angina remedy--a ratings service that draws its statistical conclusions from a much larger field of listeners. Trendata, in business since last fall, can now provide stations and advertisers with polling information about radio listenership in vehicles--by tracking the listening choices in 100,000 cars and trucks every month. It's done by setting up secret, strategic monitoring stations around town on weekdays, and near shopping malls on weekends. The computer-driven monitors can tell which FM stations adjacent drivers are tuned to, seemingly via invisible airwaves magic.
"Every station leaks an oscillating signal 10.7 megahertz above the frequency," explains Earl Baldwin, Trendata's marketing director and a former local talk-radio personality. Trendata's monitors capture that leaked signal and record the corresponding station. The 10.7-megahertz trick isn't new. Broadcasters have known about the thrown-off waves for years. Trendata's breakthrough has been to computerize the process.
The beauty of Trendata's results, say Trendata spokespersons, is that they don't require drivers to recall their listening habits days after the fact. Drivers don't, in fact, even have to know they're being polled. "It's a completely passive system," says Trendata executive Dave Worthy, "something the industry has always dreamed about." Worthy says the idea for the car monitors came to him a few years ago, when he noticed the Arbitron-related agonies of a friend working in the radio business. He also took note of the diary system's many weaknesses.
"Then I asked the price for Arbitron," says Worthy, the company's electronics ace, "and immediately decided I'm in the wrong business." Arbitron's fee tops $100,000 annually for some stations. Last fall, four years after Worthy's electronics epiphany, Trendata was born. Some of the Trendata data gathered so far has been eye-opening. One example: The monitors show that KUPD-FM is stronger among west-side listeners than rock rival KDKB-FM, with listener allegiances reversed in East Valley suburbs. No surprises there. But Trendata also shows that classic rocker KSLX-FM consistently matches or outperforms both of its competitors all over town, and generally finishes in the Top Five of all local FM stations. Arbitron's last-quarter book placed the station tenth among FM outlets. "Arbitron does a good job of determining who listens at home and who listens at work," says Baldwin, "but we don't think they have a clue who listens in the car."
Another example: Trendata monitors placed in the Ahwatukee Foothills area south of South Mountain show sharply different listening habits on weekdays compared with weekends. Country rules on weekdays in that part of town, a growing residential area, but yuppie-rock stations like KVRY-FM surge on weekends. Baldwin hypothesizes that construction trucks heading for home sites account for the high country count during the week; adult contemporary's takeover is a result of the area's contemporary adults tooling around their new neighborhoods on Saturdays and Sundays. Despite such cool stuff, acceptance for Trendata in the Valley hasn't been exactly overwhelming (expansion into Southern California is being discussed, nonetheless). Though more than 30 radio advertisers or ad agencies have signed on, only about a half-dozen radio stations now subscribe. The cost for the service is about $15,000 a year--cheap when compared to Big Daddy Arbitron. "Our problem is, stations we show doing better than Arbitron obviously like us," says Baldwin. "Stations we don't want us to go away." Says Chuck Artigue, KDKB's general manager, who is not yet a Trendata subscriber, "We've had some presentations. I'm not sure I find it any more believable or less believable than Arbitron. . . . It's another thing to look at."
Artigue adds that he still doesn't see how his station could turn the service into increased sales revenues. Another failing, he says, is the service's absence of demographic info. Trendata's monitors test only a car's radio and learn nothing about the driver. "If I could go to the bank on it, I'd have some serious interest," says Artigue. "I think when you can't measure the composite of the audience, it has some serious drawbacks."