It's taken awhile for fans of the station once known as "the Planet" to recover from the heartbreak after Union Broadcasting changed the station's format and rechristened it "the Max," replacing its alternative-leaning pop tunes with the sort of thunderous, screaming anthems that rule on KQRC 98.9 (the Rock).
More local radio upheaval occurred last week when KCHZ 95.7 ("The Z") dropped its Top 40 format (known in the industry as "contemporary hit radio/pop") and, after temporarily dubbing itself "The Jingle" and playing Christmas songs for a few days, re-emerged as "The Vibe." The station's format remains contemporary hit radio, but 95.7 emphasizes "urban" music and hip-hop, playing Kanye West and Mariah Carey. The new Vibe seems to have stolen a page from the playbook of urban-contemporary juggernaut KPRS 103.3, a consistent Arbitron success.
But it was the Planet change that was more drastic and caused more lingering pain.
"We loved the radio station and are disappointed that we didn't have the ratings or revenue sufficient to make it a success," says Union Broadcasting President Chad Boeger, who also runs stations KCTE 1510 (talk) and WHB 810 (sports talk). "It was a tough decision ... but we had to do what's right from a business standpoint."
Kansas City is the 29th-largest radio market in the country, with 30 stations fighting for more than 1.5 million listeners. But 97.3 was ranked second-to-last, with 1.1 percent of market, barely ahead of Bible-beating KCCV 92.3, according to Arbitron's spring ratings.
Many listeners had a hard time believing that the station's ratings were that low and it turns out they might have been right.
Arbitron, the international marketing firm that has measured radio audiences for more than two decades, seems to have lost its ability to reliably track a new generation's listening habits. By its own admission, the company has been unable to accurately gauge the 18-to-34-year-old demographic the listeners the Planet needed to quantify in order to keep their favorite records spinning.
The Planet was an "album adult alternative" format, playing a diverse selection of middle-of-the-road rock not hard rock or rap to appeal to both adults and teenagers. Such stations are known for playing lesser-known alt-rock, alt-country, jazz, folk and blues artists alongside household names. (The top-ranking artists on the AAA commercial singles chart ending October 23, for example, were David Gray, Sheryl Crow, Death Cab for Cutie, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Coldplay and Aqualung, according to an industry guide at www.triperadio.com.) By contrast, the Max's format is known in the industry as "album-oriented rock" it plays album cuts (as opposed to just singles) by ratings-tested hard-rock acts such as Def Leppard, Van Halen and Bon Jovi. (Bryan Truta, 97.3's program director, prefers to call the Max's format, which doesn't mine, say, the Metallica catalog as deeply as a typical AOR station, "adult-oriented rock.")
The problem is that the coveted 18- to 34-year-olds consumers with the disposable income to buy beer and cigarettes and bed frames and baby clothes have outgrown Arbitron's tracking technology.
To compile its ratings, Arbitron uses telemarketers to contact test listeners, whom it sends diaries to record their listening habits over the course of one week; the company compiles the diaries, then publishes the data quarterly. The company's rating books function as guides for both stations and advertisers, and the stakes are high; successful stations command higher advertising rates and in smaller market such as Kansas City, ad dollars are limited.
But these days, that strategy is flawed from the beginning. Telemarketing misses people who use caller ID, block calls from unknown numbers or have permanently unplugged their land lines in favor of cell phones. Which means that an entire segment of the radio-listening population is not thoroughly polled.
In fact, Arbitron's ability to penetrate any given market peaked at more than 40 percent in 1995 and has plummeted with the proliferation of wireless technology, according to Forbes magazine.
By 2004, Arbitron had a response rate of just over 30 percent, meaning that one-third of the listeners contacted by the company actually took the time to fill out their forms.
In February 2003, the National Association of Broadcasters tried to encourage reform by issuing a public statement saying that the organization had a "serious concern" with the slacker generation's response rate. This September at the annual National Broadcasters Association convention in Philadelphia, CEOs from radio juggernauts such as Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting (which owns Kansas City stations KSRC 102.1, KBEQ 104.3, KMXV 93.3 and KFKF 94.1), the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation and Saga (which owns about 70 AM and FM stations in the Midwest) bashed Arbitron for its lack of reliability.
"The world has changed. Arbitron has not," Saga CEO Ed Christian told the Billboard Radio Monitor trade magazine during a public forum.
Dave Lange, a former vice president of programming at Clear Channel who is now a consultant for McVay Media, a national radio marketing agency, tells the Pitch that music formats like the Planet's aren't unpopular their listeners are just being overlooked.
This year, he compiled an industry report titled "The 18-34 Sample Nightmare" that poses the question: "Is it the music ... or a sample return problem that is our real challenge?"
Lange's report shows that, over the past five years, Arbitron has charted a 30 percent loss in listenership for rock stations in general, including those that program classic rock, AOR, "active rock" (hard rock and heavy metal), AAA and alternative rock. Lange writes that the trend might be attributable to something other than taste: There was also a 30 percent drop in Arbitron's ability to hit its target return rate for 18-to-34-year-old men.
"Their Achilles' heel is that 18- to 34-year-olds aren't responding [to Arbitron's measurements]," Lange tells the Pitch. "Large segments can isolate themselves. Is this group of people different from those who do respond in terms of what we listen to? That's a question we can't answer, because we can't speak to them."
Arbitron's quick fix is equally suspect: The company simply weighs some responses more heavily.
During the last poll before the end of the Planet, a 12-week period in spring 2005, Arbitron gathered 2,696 diaries from metro listeners. That's about one diary for every 600 residents, says Thom Mocarsky, vice president of communications at Arbitron. Using census data, the company estimated that adults between 18 and 34 accounted for nearly 38 percent of the market "universe," Mocarsky says. But because just 29.6 percent of Arbitron's selected listeners responded, each opinion actually counted for about one and a quarter persons to make up the difference.
"While that makes sure the listeners are in proportion to the population, it does reduce the reliability," Mocarsky admits.
And the unpolled generation may stay that way. Even if Arbitron were able to circumvent federal laws restricting the release of cell phone numbers, the company still wouldn't know how to find a representative sample, Mocarsky says other than using that old, cost-prohibitive method of going door-to-door. So the company is trying to develop an e-diary to pique interest among younger listeners. It's also working on a "portable people meter," a pagerlike device that attaches to a belt and automatically picks up and tracks nearby radio frequencies.
As it stands now, Arbitron ratings suggest that Kansas City's official soundtrack is country.
The most-listened-to station in the metro, according to Arbitron ratings released the week of October 31 (which measured listening trends over the summer), is the country-kickin' 104.3. AM talk station KMBZ 980 ranks second, followed by the urban-contemporary 103.3. Established stations such as active-rock 98.9 and alternative KRBZ 96.5 ("the Buzz") fared better than the Planet, ranking 4th and 15th, respectively.
Lange says that even though adult-alternative formats like the Planet's have succeeded in Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston, they were built over more than 20 years of ups and downs. In today's market, stations have off-the-dial competitors in satellite and Internet radio. There's greater pressure to get good ratings fast, which might not be possible if Arbitron's diarists have gone mobile.
Meanwhile, Kansas Citians' radio choices are determined by people who actually choose to talk to telemarketers.