Basking in the glow of the Steelers sixth Super Bowl title and the Penguins’ march to their first Stanley Cup since 1992, Pittsburgh natives were brimming with civic pride this spring. That glow dulled ever so slightly on May 15, when Steel City residents learned they were about to lose a local institution that some cherished as much as the city’s illustrious professional sports franchises.
WAMO 106.7 FM, Pittsburgh’s only hip-hop radio station, had unexpectedly been sold to a Catholic organization. Founded in 1948 by a white Navy cadet who dreamed of providing a voice for all of the city’s races and ethnicities, WAMO was to be rededicated to religious programming by its new owners.
But why, many asked, would a radio station that had so ably filled a niche in Pittsburgh for more than half a century suddenly decide to give up on itself and its listeners and cash out for a modest $8.9 million?
The answer was just as mysterious: according to WAMO management, a cell phone-sized device known as the Portable People Meter (PPM) was mostly to blame for the station’s demise. Although many listeners had never heard of the PPM, radio executives around the country were already engaged in a pitched battle against a device they claim is slowly driving out of business radio stations that enjoy popularity with minorities.
The PPM is used by media marketing research firm Arbitron, Inc., to compile listener data relied upon by advertisers wishing to reach the largest audience possible. Introduced earlier this decade, the PPM is given to select individuals by Arbitron so that the company can track and record the radio stations they listen to over an extended time period. The PPM achieves its purpose by collecting inaudible codes embedded in the audio of the programming to which the listener is exposed and relaying the data back to Arbitron. The use of PPMs replaced the previous method of collecting such data, which was based on the more unreliable written journals kept by selected listeners.
Although one would expect PPMs to produce more accurate marketing data than the paper journals, critics argue that Arbitron’s deployment of the devices has resulted in discrimination and dire financial consequences for radio stations with audiences comprised largely of minorities.
Specifically, critics point to Arbitron’s heavy reliance on public telephone directories for solicitation of potential PPM carriers. Statistics show that Hispanics and African-Americans represent the largest number of cell phone-only households, which means that members of these households are more often excluded from participation in Arbitron’s studies than other ethnic groups. That wouldn’t seem to bode well for radio stations such as WAMO, whose listeners are less likely to show up in the Arbitron ratings used by advertisers to determine which radio stations will receive their lifeblood revenue. For its part, Arbitron claims that it has instituted a “Feet on the Street” campaign in an effort to attract more minority participants for its data collections.
In response to the controversy, the Federal Communications Commission opened an official inquiry (read the full inquiry here) into Arbitron’s use of PPMs. Comments by interested parties (akin to administrative amicus briefs) were filed on July 1, and comments on the initial round of comments are due to the FCC today.
As for WAMO (named after Pittsburgh’s three rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio), the station could still be heard broadcasting hip hop to the masses on Thursday night despite its recent change in ownership. However, other American radio stations enjoyed by a large number of minority listeners could face a more unceremonious end without changes to Arbitron’s PPM regime.