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Originally published June 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 1, 2009 at 3:47 PM

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Seattle radio rankings shaken up: Star 101.5 on top

In Seattle, Arbitron's new ratings system means a shift in radio-station rankings. The company is using new "Portable People Meters" rather than listeners' memories and written diaries.

Seattle Times staff reporter

When it comes to listening to the radio, it turns out that Seattle is a pop-music-and-love-song kind of city.

Sure, we still like Jimi, Kurt and Eddie, with some Toby Keith thrown in, but think more Elton, Sting and Beyoncé as our favorites.

News and talk?

Nowhere to be found in the top-rated stations in ratings released last week.

Rush Limbaugh's local affiliate? A precipitous drop. Talk radio here is more Delilah, the Seattle-based personality who dispenses love songs and relationship stuff on the now-No. 3-rated KRWM-FM, 106.9.

So what changed?

Arbitron, the nationwide firm that measures radio listenership, on May 21 introduced a radically different way of counting the Seattle audience, and there's far more at stake than bragging rights over personal taste in music.

Portable People Meters

The Seattle-Tacoma radio market — the 13th largest in the country — is crowded with some 57 stations. And those stations use Arbitron ratings to lay claim to shares of more than $203 million in annual advertising money.

So those in the Seattle radio industry were anxiously sitting in front of their computers May 21, waiting for the noontime hour, when Arbitron released the new results, from April, on its client Web site.

"A lot of us had drinks beforehand," said one program director, presumably joking.

In the past, Arbitron compiled ratings through a panel of participants who would rely on their memories and keep a diary to report what they listened to each day. But they now wear cellphone-sized Portable People Meters (PPM) that automatically report to Arbitron inaudible codes embedded in a broadcast signal.

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"If you can hear the broadcast, then the device has been coded to hear the signal," said Jessica Benbow, spokeswoman for Arbitron.

This new way of measuring is going through a two-month transition period, and these first ratings are not "currency," meaning they can't be used to sell and buy ads, Benbow said. The first PPM ratings that will officially count will be for June, released July 18.

In the meantime, local radio executives are waiting for further results.

"Any new system will have some wild fluctuations," said Carey Curelop, program director for three radio stations, KZOK, KJAQ and KPTK. "I want to look this over three months, six months, even nine months from now."

Some win, some lose

PPM, as it is called in the industry, provides a snapshot of Seattle radio tastes that differs greatly from the most recent "diary" ratings.

KPLZ-FM (also known as Star 101.5, "The Best Mix of Everything") with local personalities and pop music aimed at women, had good reason to be very, very happy.

The station showed up at No. 1 not only in the advertiser-coveted demographic age group of 25-54 (figures used in this story are for that age group), but across the board in all groups.

When Kent Phillips, program director for STAR 101.5 and one of its morning personalities, saw his station at No. 1, he said, "I think it was more shock and relief. ... None of us had a clue as to what would happen." The station was at No. 5 in the winter diary-based ratings, the previous published figures.

At KIRO-AM and KIRO-FM, well, it was time to be philosophical about the quake that had just gone through the market.

The two stations had been simulcasting a news/talk format, but on April 6 split into two formats. The news/talk shows, featuring Dave Ross, Dori Monson, Ron & Don, and Luke Burbank, were shifted to FM only. The AM station, which for more than eight decades had been known for news/talk, became 710 ESPN, a sports/talk station.

The initial results of that change were not pretty.

Ross and Monson and the rest of the gang had sunk from No. 3 in the winter 2009 book (which used the diary format) to No. 19 in the PPM rankings.

The new 710 ESPN format didn't show much better, coming in at No. 17. (Sports/talk never has been big in this market, and the competing sports station, KJR-AM, was only a few rankings above 710 ESPN.)

"We expected to see some changes in the initial evaluation. We aren't surprised by this," said Rod Arquette, KIRO-FM program director.

Any second thoughts about moving the talkers to the FM side?

"None whatsoever," Arquette said. "I think the stations are well-branded stations, well-executed in their formats. They're positioned to do extremely well down the road. There will be a settling period."

And for fans of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck on 770 KTTH (billed as "The Truth"), maybe Seattle isn't too keen on conservative talk radio. "The Truth" has gone from being in the top 10 to No. 21. Liberal talk radio fared even worse, however, with KPTK-AM 1090 ("Progressive Radio") a couple of notches below.

In winter 2009, when diaries were used, the top four radio stations were, in order, KZOK ("Seattle's ONLY classic rock station!"), KISW ("Active rock"), KIRO-AM-FM (news/talk) and KMPS ("Today's country").

In the April ratings, using PPM, the top four radio stations were, in order, KPLZ, KJAQ (Jack FM, "Playing what we want"), KRWM ("Today's soft favorites") and KJR-FM ("Classic hits").

At or tied for No. 5 in both was KCMS ("Spirit 105.3"), which features "hot adult contemporary" Christian music in an area supposedly with one of the lowest church attendances in the country.

Not perfect

Arbitron first developed the PPM device in 1993, said Benbow, and then tested it for eight years.

It's now being used in 15 markets, she said, and will be "live" in 34 markets by the end of the year.

Benbow said participants to represent various demographics in a market are chosen the same way they were for diaries — by random calls to land lines and cellphones.

This market has 1,754 participants, Benbow said.

The PPM includes a motion sensor. So participants can't set it in front of a radio to cheat.

Although PPM is becoming the industry standard, it's not without criticism.

On May 18, the Federal Communications Commission released a "notice of inquiry," seeking comments on the "potential impact on audience ratings of stations that air programming targeted to minority audiences" after groups of minority broadcasters complained that the PPM ratings undercounted their audiences.

"People who listen to talk or some Hispanic formats, some urban formats, are very loyal listeners," Benbow said.

In a diary, she said, they might write down they listened to a station all day long, from 9 to 5, "rounding off the numbers."

In reality, Benbow said, they might take a break for coffee, have a meeting and so on. PPM registers when they're not in signal reach of that station.

Ken Moultry, of The New Broadcast Partners in Seattle and a longtime radio-industry consultant, said any ratings numbers need to be looked at with caution.

"If you don't celebrate too much when they're really good," he said, "then you don't have to explain too much when they're not."

Who's on top now
Arbitron has a new way of measuring radio-station audiences. Instead of relying on diaries kept by listeners, it issues Portable People Meters (PPMs) that automatically detect radio signals.
TOP 5 PPM: THE NEW RATINGS REPORTING SYSTEM
April 2009
PPM (vs. Diary) Station Format
1. (was 5) KPLZ-FM 101.5 Adult contemporary
2. (was 8) KJAQ-FM 96.5 Adult contemporary
3. (was 10) KRWM-FM 106.9 Soft rock
4. (was 5, tie) KJR-FM 95.7 Classic rock
5. (was 5, tie) KCMS-FM 105.3 Christian
TOP 5 DIARY: THE OLD RATINGS REPORTING SYSTEM
December 2008-February 2009
Diary (vs. PPM) Station Format
1. (now 7) KZOK-FM 102.5 Classic rock
2. (now 6) KISW-FM 99.9 Rock
3. (now 17) KIRO-AM* 710, KIRO-FM 97.3 News / talk
4. (now 8) KMPS-FM 94.1 Country
5. (now 5) KCMS-FM 105.3 Christian
5. (now 1) KPLZ-FM, 101.5 Adult contemporary
5. (now 4) KJR-FM 95.7 Classic rock
* AM station changed to ESPN sports April 6.

Other notable changes

KTTH-AM 770, conservative talk, dropped from 9 in old system to 21 in PPM.

KIRO-FM 97.3, news/talk, former 710-AM programming, is now 19 using PPM.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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