Radio ratings: Arbitron under fire over slip in returns

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In an unusual public squabble, the National Association of Broadcasters warned Arbitron, the industry's primary source of radio ratings, that its method for assuring consumer diaries are returned is sorely lacking.

Expressing what it called "serious concern" about the dropping return rates-34.5% of people in initial samples returned last fall's books-NAB's Committee on Local Radio Management last week demanded Arbitron come up with a plan to boost returns by March.

"Their response rates are declining and we have worked with them, but the rate of decline has increased dramatically over the last year and a half," said Charlotte Lawyer, director-sales research for Susquehanna Radio, and chairman of the committee. "We are not seeing any improvement. We believe that they could be doing more and we are very concerned."

Broadcasters aren't yet worried the dropping returns are affecting the accuracy of ratings results, but Ms. Lawyer said they are concerned that Arbitron isn't acting strongly enough to deal with the problem. "The committee would like to see a new aggressive goal established as a benchmark to strive for. In addition, we want a timetable as to when new response-rate initiatives will be tested and implemented," she said in an e-mail.

Arbitron acknowledges response rates have dropped. As recently as fall 1998, more than 40% of its sample base returned diaries. Since then, the number of people returning books has dropped, to 38.3% in 1999, 39.6% in 2000 and 36% in 2001.

The company, however, said it isn't alone among media-research firms in having problems and it blamed a large part of the problem on the difficulty of getting consumers to take the random phone calls asking them to join the survey.

hang-ups

Thom Mocarsky, VP-communications, said consumers angry at telemarketers' calls are hurting market researchers who aren't trying to sell anything. Arbitron has found more consumers are blocking calls or using answering machines-and those that do answer hang up before they can be asked to participate. The hang-ups are problematic because Arbitron uses random phone calls as a method of determining its sample.

"Response rates are a top priority for Arbitron. We are spending more as an organization to maintain or to deal with the consequences of declines than we ever have," he said. "Declining response rates costs us more money."

The number of dropped calls is starting to raise questions about the continued viability of using random calls to select a sample, he said, but the company will continue to work with the committee to try to increase return rates.

The committee meets again in Washington, D.C., March 19 and wants Arbitron to have a plan to improve response rates, Ms. Lawyer said.

While of concern to broadcasters, one top radio media buyer said the issue isn't yet a big one with buyers. "We are keeping an eye on it, but there are other issues more top of mind," said Matt Feinberg, senior VP-manager of radio, Zenith Optimedia Group, pointing to issues about station compliance and accountability for making sure media buys are correctly trafficked.

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