The national ratings service, which counts radio's unseen audience by mailing out weekly diaries, has been the industry standard for decades. Arbitron's numbers--500 to 600 diaries are collected every month to measure this market of roughly 2.5 million potential listeners--are used to set advertising rates, the medium's lifeblood. And almost nobody in the medium loves what Arbitron does to the blood. The very testing methodology is flawed, critics say. Who has time to fill out a diary? (The service sends diary keepers $1 or so at the end of their week's work.) Who has time to fill out a diary accurately? Who listens to radio closely enough to get all the call letters right? How can the information collected from such dweebs be translated into the listening habits of the population at large? And could there be a worse system for measuring the classic rock n' roll demographic--young dudes riding around in cars? Even Arbitron says probably not. "There are more difficult age groups to get to participate, and young males is one of them," says Jay Guyther, vice president of sales and marketing for Arbitron. "Asking someone to do this for a week is a little bit of a chore. If they're not avid radio listeners, they're not going to." Successful stations tend to be less critical of the service, which, they say, is most valuable as a way to measure general listening habits over long periods of time. Successful stations also spend a lot of money doing their own back-up polling.
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."
Other radio people see drawbacks, too. Trendata can't yet measure AM listenership (Baldwin says he's got research that shows that 76 percent of radio listeners are FM people, anyway), and it can't measure much of anything in Scottsdale, because of interference from the traffic-control tower at the Scottsdale airport. And some wonder if a sneaky station could fix Trendata results by, say, having the sales staff drive past a monitor all day. Well, says Baldwin, the secret monitor locations are moved frequently, and computer analysis of results can spot the kind of gross abnormalities caused by purposeful overloading. One such glitch did show up early on, Baldwin says, when a meter showed a huge jump in listenership for a particular station. It was caused, Trendata believes, by the radio in a street sweeper cleaning the parking lot where the meter was stationed. In the near future, the Trendata technology will be able to read that street sweeper's listening habits even more closely. Worthy says the day will come when the service will help program directors test the radio audience in increments of an hour or less. Steve Smith, program director for urban-contemporary leader KKFR-FM, is already getting almost daily numbers from Trendata, which he is using to evaluate new morning host Bruce Kelly (new to that station, at least; Kelly has been all over the local dial). So far Smith likes what he sees. According to Trendata, KKFR and Kelly lead all but KNIX-FM and KMLE-FM, and clobber their rock, Top 40, urban contemporary and oldies competition--at least on local roads. And Kelly's ratings are rising. "It's instant information," says Smith. "And it's information about active people. Arbitron measures passive people with time on their hands. Trendata measures people in cars on their way to do something.