At midnight on Dec. 28, 107.3 The Wave replaced its usual playlist with the sound of a ticking clock. It was counting down the seconds until the long-running smooth jazz station’s demise.
At noon the next day, The Wave became what is now V107.3, an adult-album-alternative format that features Beatles and U2 music alongside that of newer artists such as Feist and Metric. The change was the Elyria-Lorain Broadcasting Co.’s response to the advent of the Portable People Meter. The new device used to track radio-listening habits crashed The Wave’s ratings when Arbitron started using it here last fall.
“It took us from the Top 10 right down to 15th, 16th, 17th in 30 days,” says vice president and general manager Lonnie Gronek.
Before, listeners recorded the time they spent listening to their favorite stations in paper diaries, which often resulted in gross overestimates. But the PPM, which is worn on a belt or carried in a purse, tracks real-time exposure to radio stations.
Gronek isn’t the only executive who’s had to adjust. In December 2008, CBS Radio transformed its hard-rocking K Rock 92.3 into Radio 92.3, an alternative music format, because it had done well in markets where Arbitron’s new device was already in use. CBS Cleveland vice president of programming Dave Popovich calls the technology “the most significant change broadcasters have had to deal with in the last 25 years."
The good news is initial worries that it could be an across-the-board ratings killer have so far proven to be untrue. Popovich says Radio 92.3 was No. 1 among 18- to 34-year-olds in the January, February and March ratings. And Arbitron corporate communications manager Jessica Benbow notes that CBS-owned stations WDOK, 98.5 WNCX and Q104 have all shown an increase in 12-and-older listeners since the fall. (The PPM tracks listeners down to age 6 while the diary method measured listeners 12 and older.) Benbow also reports that Clear Channel-owned stations Mix 106.5 and Majic 105.7 have shown an increase in listeners in that same 12-and-older demographic while WGAR 99.5 and 100.7 WMMS have both seen declines.
Gronek, who had a slow start with V107.3, is seeing improvement, too. After the station “bottomed out” with a 1.1 percentage share of the 12-and-older audience in the January ratings and remained there through March, he says those numbers are now rising.
But not everyone has felt the need to tweak formats. Ironically, the biggest shift in the Cleveland market in recent years — 100.7 WMMS’s metamorphosis into a male-oriented rock/talk hybrid — had nothing to do with the PPM, according to Clear Channel Cleveland operations manager Keith Abrams. He calls WMMS “a very unique animal” that wasn’t built from a ratings-proven template. “It’s certainly not that easy,” he says.
In fact, Abrams, who is the operations manager for 100.7 WMMS, Majic 105.7, Mix 106.5, WGAR 99.5, Kiss 96.5 and WTAM 1100, says he made no significant format changes in anticipation of the arrival of Arbitron’s new ratings system.
Still, the arrival of accurate monthly statistics about who’s listening offers quite a bit for programmers to think about.
“We’re more conscious of talking about things you really care about,” says CBS Radio’s Popovich. “[We’re] presenting the information a little bit more efficiently and playing the best songs for whatever the format happens to be.”