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Rep. Ed Towns reveals findings from subpoenas of MRC Arbitron documents

(September 22, 2009) Chairman Edolphus "Ed" Towns (D-NY) announced a summary of findings after serving a subpoena to the Media Ratings Council for documents detailing its oversight of Arbitron's use of the Personal People Meter (PPM). Chairman Towns issued the subpoena recently after Arbitron forbid MRC from releasing documents related to the Committee's investigation of the PPM.

In June 2009, Chairman Towns opened an investigation into Arbitron's use of the PPM amid allegations that methodological flaws with the device are resulting in the underrepresentation of radio listening preferences of minorities and certain age groups. The PPM is a device developed by Arbitron to measure radio station listenership.

Chairman Towns directed Committee investigators to meet with Arbitron's representatives in early July 2009 after he received many complaints from minority broadcasters about the accuracy PPM data. Although Arbitron promised full cooperation with the investigation, the company immediately prohibited MRC from providing the Committee with any documents related to the PPM. Shortly thereafter, Arbitron provided the Committee with insufficient documents that were either publicly available or biased toward the company. Chairman Towns then chose to issue a subpoena to MRC for the PPM documents.

Among the key items uncovered in MRC's documentation of the PPM:

- On multiple occasions, MRC refused to grant accreditation to PPM for use in all markets across the United States except for Houston and Riverside/San Bernardino. MRC denied Arbitron accreditation because of the company's continual failure meet MRC minimum accreditation standards.

- MRC found "persistent problems" with Arbitron's minority sample audiences across the country. For example, New York City 2008 census data indicates African Americans comprised 25 percent and Hispanics comprised 27 percent of the City's population. Meanwhile, the subpoenaed documents show that Arbitron's New York City sample audiences comprised of only 17.7 percent African-American and 21.5 percent Hispanic participants.

- The documents also show that Arbitron's radio ratings almost consistently are based on data they receive from an unacceptably low percentage of their sample audiences. For example, in New York, where there is an average of 5400 sample audience participants, Arbitron uses only the data submitted by 2700 persons or 50% of the sample audience in order to create radio station ratings. Therefore, the radio listening habits of over four million ethnic minorities are represented by only 500 Arbitron recruits. The sample audiences are simply an inadequate representation of the true listening habits of New York's diverse landscape.

"Taken separately and together, these and other problems translate into a ratings disaster for minority-targeted radio stations. Until these items are corrected by Arbitron, the problem will only get worse," said Chairman Towns.

PPM Coalition, which includes the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters and the Spanish Broadcasting System, issued a statement responding to the findings from the House Committee. "As the Committee indicated in its statement, a review of MRC data shows that the PPM system suffers from "persistent problems" in minority sampling; the system has ‘unacceptably low' audience participation in the sample; and Arbitron has made ‘insufficient efforts to use bi-lingual interviews to recruit Spanish dominant Hispanic sample participants.' We applaud Chairman Edolphus Towns for undertaking this investigation."

In a statement issued by Arbitron, the company responded, "Over the last four months, Arbitron has been actively engaged with Chairman Towns and the Oversight Committee Staff. Arbitron has been open and forthcoming, supplying detailed information, answering questions and providing proactive recommendations to address the challenges faced by minority broadcasters. We were aware of the Committee's contact to the Media Rating Council (MRC) and we are extremely surprised and disappointed at the analysis and erroneous conclusions reached by the Oversight Committee Staff and communicated in their press statement.

"We respect and support Chairman Towns' commitment to the health of minority broadcasters and believe that our collaboration with his staff, the MRC, as well as a number of initiatives that we have underway, will help address that challenge.

"We look forward to a fact-based dialogue as we clarify some of the erroneous conclusions reached in this current analysis, and will continue to work to resolve these issues."

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