For a few months last winter, we were an Arbitron household.
Arbitron does for radio what the Nielsen does for TV. If you’ve ever woken up and turned on the radio and discovered that Oldies 102 had suddenly become Sports Talk 102, it’s because Oldies 102′s Arbitron ratings were in the tank. Low ratings mean the station can’t charge as much for advertising.
In some markets, Arbitron sends people booklets so they can write down their listening habits for a week.
Other times, Arbitron recruits people to join its Radio and TV Ratings Panel. They’re asked to wear little gadgets about the size and shape of pagers (kids, ask your parents) that record inaudible signals embedded in radio and TV broadcasts.
We were part of the Ratings Panel. We were supposed to wear our Personal People Meters every day. We’d put them in a charger at night. The charger was connected to the phone line and would send our data to Arbitron while we slept.
We weren’t supposed to talk about this for 90 days after we left the panel. Our 90 days are up.
Arbitron found us by calling phone numbers with our area code and prefix at random and asking those who answered a few questions, like, “Do you work for a radio station, a TV station or advertising agency?” (I used to, but I don’t anymore and haven’t for a while.)
If you pass the initial screening, Arbitron calls back and asks about the number and ages of people in your household and household income.
Then, if they’re looking for your demographic, they call back and ask if we’d like to join the Ratings Panel.
Throughout the screening process, Arbitron sends you money. It’s only a buck or two, but it gets your attention.
The deal was they’d pay us a little each month, based on how often we remembered to wear our meters, and we’d get an extra $50 each for staying in the program at least 90 days.
My first job was as a radio DJ. I was 14. I don’t think the station manager realized how young I was, but it was a small town, and I had my FCC 3rd class permit, and I could read the transmitter meters and keep a log, so I was hired. We were the only station in town, so I don’t think anyone cared about the Arbitrons, but I’d read about them in the Billboard magazines that were always in the studio, and I thought being on the Ratings Panel sounded cool — in a completely nerdy way.
Plus, there was the promise of $150 if Sweetie, Thing 1 and I stuck with it for 90 days. (Thing 2, who was 4 at the time, was too young to participate.)
So, we agreed, and I have to say, it was kind of a hassle.
Thing 1 couldn’t wear her meter in school, and she couldn’t wear it when she was playing sports, and she’d forget to wear it most of the rest of the time, so Arbitron kept calling and sending us emails reminding us to remind her to wear the thing because they weren’t collecting enough data from her (never mind that she wasn’t listening to the radio or watching much TV).
They even sent her stickers so she could decorate her meter. She liked the stickers — she picked one with the basketball theme — but she still forgot to wear the meter.
I wore my meter on my belt, but Sweet just threw hers in her purse, which was bad, because the thing would fall asleep if you didn’t move it every once in a while, so we’d get calls reminding her to wear her People Meter, too.
The callers suggested but didn’t come right out and say that if Arbitron couldn’t collect enough data from us, they’d drop us from the Ratings Panel.
Once we reached the 90-day mark, Sweetie and Thing 1 rebelled, and we dropped out.
Arbitron tried to talk us into staying, but because we forgot to wear our meters so often, our monthly thank-you checks were usually only for a couple bucks each, so, really, it wasn’t worth it.
So, there you go. That’s how it works. If your favorite radio station ever switches formats, at least you’ll know who to blame.