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The radio-ratings turmoil caused by the portable people meter

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Fascinating article by Joanne Ostrow in today's Denver Post about the portable people meter, a pager-like radio-ratings device that picks up signals from stations that sound in the vicinity of a person wearing or carrying it. The results are supposed to provide more precise audience estimates than the sort of diaries that have been used in the past, but there's debate about that, particularly from representatives of stations such as KOA and The Fox, whose numbers have plummeted on certain prominent shows in the brief time since PPMs started to be phased in. No complaints, though, from The Mountain and KOSI. Their listenership suddenly looks much larger than before.

Predictably, the Ostrow report has been a big topic of conversation for users of the indispensable DenverRadio.net "Comments and Rumors" board, with one commenter disputing Ostrow's claim that PPMs shut off after an hour if they're motionless to avoid crediting a station with big numbers if, for instance, someone put the device on a table and left the room. His evidence: a "Frequently Asked Questions" document about the PPM produced by Arbitron, which says that although a green light will begin flashing after twenty minutes of stasis, "the meter is always capturing listening exposure."

This explanation implies that stations like easy-listening KOSI, which tend to be played in the background in offices, doctors' waiting rooms and other work environments, will continue to do well even if people hearing them aren't fully aware the radio's playing. As such, expect a greater emphasis in advertisements about dialing to a certain outlet on the job. Because stations will get credit, and earn ratings, whether a PPM wearer is paying attention or not.

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