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Adelstein Steps Up Call for PPM Probe

But outlook for an investigation is unclear given the 'shifting commissioners' situation

Outgoing FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has again called for the commission to look into whether the Arbitron Portable People Meter undercounts minority listeners. He sounds convinced it’s going to happen; but that’s not what Acting Chairman Michael Copps says.

Things turned interesting at yesterday’s FCC meeting, which I attended. During a vote on changes to reporting requirements — so the FCC has a better handle on how many minorities and women are employed at stations — Adelstein said he’s hoping the agency “will soon launch an inquiry” into PPM, because the commission has been hearing concerns since 2007 that PPM is affecting ratings and “potentially inaccurate ratings” could potentially damage women- and minority-owned stations.

“Some will say we don’t have the authority” to conduct such an investigation but, he said, they should read the Communications Act.

“Because encoded signals are required for PPM to operate” and these signals are “over the airwaves,” the agency does have the authority to look at the issue, said the commissioner. But Adelstein also plans to exit once presumptive new Chairman Julius Genachowski and two additional commissioners are confirmed by the Senate and installed at the Portals.

David Honig, executive director of the Minority Media and Telecom Council, who also was in the room during the vote, told me the PPM probe is “appropriate and necessary. Radio is a primary vehicle that makes democracy possible, so it’s vital that the scientific protocols being applied to audience measurement are accurate.”

A spokesperson said Arbitron does not believe the FCC has an oversight role in the company’s operations or assets.

After the FCC meeting, Acting Chairman Michael Copps told reporters, including the two radio trade journalists in attendance, that he took Adelstein’s comments more as “a suggestion.” RW has reported that Arbitron has held meetings with Copps’ office on the issue. Copps told us that, “We’ve been looking closely at their concerns,” referring to the “minority community” and talking about a lot of things related to this issue, but he had nothing to announce.

Arbitron, meanwhile, told me that talks over PPM continue with customers who are members of the National Black Owned Broadcasters and Spanish Radio Association and asking, in these talks, for specific ideas for ways Arbitron can improve PPM. Indeed, the company regularly announces markets where PPM sample sizes have increased and where a corresponding increase in ethnic listening is reflected in PPM audience estimates:

That’s not to say all urban or Hispanic station PPM numbers are up. While overall they are, Arbitron still has some work to do in varying ethnic groups and age cells in some markets. The audience research firm continues to work with the Media Rating Council on accreditation of PPM in more markets.

Because progress is being made, I predict that even if the commission conducts an official probe of the issue — which wouldn’t become a certainty until a new chairman is there — the investigation would become moot with Adelstein is leaving and as the agency learns more about how ratings work. For my money, Adelstein is making noise while he can.