Radio K loses federal funding over low ratings

Station staff said Arbitron’s ratings measurement methods are potentially unreliable.

by Raghav Mehta

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has cut $50,000 in federal funding from Radio K after reports of low ratings.
Radio K made the announcement, which coincides with its annual pledge drive, via Twitter on Friday.
While the station receives about five times that sum in funding from student services fees, Radio K marketing director Alex Gaterud didnâÄôt downplay the significance of the loss.
âÄúIn any public radio or public broadcasting setting, thatâÄôs a huge hit,âÄù Gaterud said. âÄúWeâÄôre confident we can deliver [an] excellent product continuously, but weâÄôre still looking to fill that gap.âÄù
The ratings were measured by Arbitron, a radio and media research firm that distributes cell phone-sized devices called personal people meters (PPM) that pick up nearby radio signals. In order to monitor listening habits, Arbitron assigns the meters to a panel of participants and uses the results to estimate a stationâÄôs audience size.
Due to Radio KâÄôs relatively low ratings compared to more prominent stations such as Cities 97 and The Current, Arbitron doesnâÄôt report its numbers.
Gaterud said ArbitronâÄôs PPM system has potential to be technologically unreliable because the devices may not detect faint signals or may only pick up something âÄúfleetingly.âÄù
Previously, ratings were determined by a diary system where representative participants would manually record the amount of time they listened to a particular radio station.
President and CEO of Minnesota Broadcasters Association Jim du Bois explained how advertising agencies were wary of the diary system and felt it âÄúleft something to be desired.âÄù
âÄúAs far as radio stations, it depended on how good the ratings were âÄî if they were good it was the greatest method in the world, if they were poor it was a flawed method,âÄù du Bois said.
But with the new system in place, Gaterud isnâÄôt ArbitronâÄôs sole critic. Arbitron has faced a series of lawsuits lambasting its PPM system and its alleged inefficiency.
In January 2009 Arbitron settled a three-month lawsuit with attorneys general in New York and New Jersey after citing âÄúdesign flawsâÄù in ArbitronâÄôs measurement system and that not enough PPMs were being distributed to minority listeners, according to The New York Times.
Arbitron ended up paying nearly $400,000 to New York and New Jeresy, as well as $100,000 toward a trade group associated with minority listeners. They were also required to âÄúsubstantially improveâÄù their measurement system, according to the Times.
Gaterud claimed Radio K listeners are not the type of demographic that would normally receive PPMs.
While itâÄôs too early to tell where the station will have to make cuts, Gaterud expressed interest in expanding Radio KâÄôs presence on the Internet. The outpour from local listeners despite reports of cuts and low ratings has been reassuring, he added.
âÄúThe pledge drive has been pretty much historic in terms of the number of people on the Internet, on the phone [and] on the air,âÄù Gaterud said.