Back to Wag-Net Main Page

Airwaves: March 9, 2012

Stressing the Airwaves over Limbaugh’s Comments
Or ... how national ratings are just made up


I detest writing about political talk radio. Not because I don’t like it myself, though I am still on a pseudo-hiatus because I am still tired of the negativity and misleading statements that tend to permeate the genre. How many times can you -- depending on your views -- say “Bush s***s” or “Obama s***s” before it gets tiresome?

No, I hate it because no matter what I write I get fan mail accusing me of -- from the very same column -- being a commie liberal and a right-wing fanatic.

But the elephant is in the room, so perhaps I can’t ignore it any longer. Therefore, I will ... ignore it.

All right, not totally. In case you missed it in the newspaper, on radio, on television, or on the internet, popular conservative talker Rush Limbaugh said some things that -- especially out of context --sounded pretty bad about a young woman who was testifying before congress regarding birth control and health insurance. People protested, and advertisers began pulling out of the show. Limbaugh issued an apology that wasn’t, and more advertisers pulled out. As of this writing, the number is up to eight.

But that’s not going to be my focus, nor am I going to comment on whether or not the statements were satire, funny, or appropriate. I’ll leave that to people who actually heard the shows in question, and I did not. My focus comes from a link my friend Jeff Leonard sent me via Facebook of a story by Cenk Uygur in the online Huffington Post of March 5th entitled A Challenge to Rush: Prove Your Ratings.

I am not a regular reader of The Huffington Post, but this story caught my eye. I had been researching the issue of national radio ratings recently myself, due to claims from some talk hosts and their followers regarding ratings. Uygur confirmed what I had found ... when it comes to national ratings, the numbers don’t necessarily add up. The reason is simple: no one actually takes the time to accurately calculate the ratings or number of listeners on a national level.

You could make an educated guess, I suppose. How accurate I will be is unknown. Limbaugh, for example, has a weekly audience of 15 million listeners. Sean Hannity has 14 million. Mark Levin, 8.5 million.

Or maybe not. Those numbers listed come from Talkers Magazine, which says the numbers are “estimates of national Arbitron numbers gathered directly by station reports and information provided by Arbitron and other sources as they relate to talk shows on news/talk-formatted stations. These figures are rough projections based upon a significant sample and do not represent exact Arbitron or any other ratings service totals.”

In other words, they’re (almost) made up. As one source said, “Talkers is the only outlet that has ever tried to produce audience estimates. It’s basically the same numbers every year, which means it’s either accurate, or it’s too high and the syndicators are happy with the exaggeration.”

Radio ratings giant Arbitron does not rate nationally, and the task of doing so is actually quite daunting. There are over 13,000 radio stations in the United States, over 4000 on the AM band alone where talk radio thrives. Talk programs can be found, however, even on stations that also play music. Or news. Or whatever. And on the internet.

With Arbitron’s new (almost instant) Portable People Meter electronic ratings system, it would theoretically be possible to use a computer to tabulate the data, but there’s a hitch: the PPM system is still not available in much of the United States; in 2010 the number of markets, roughly representing US cities, that had PPM was 48. That means most of the United States uses the old diary recall method of calculating ratings, based on time periods that don’t necessarily match up with the hours a program airs and that use three-month averages in the final calculations. Try counting listeners based upon that data. No wonder only Talkers even tries.

So will Limbaugh’s national ratings be affected by the recent controversy? Hard to say since no one really knows how many listeners he has anyway. Does that make him a paper tiger with no real influence as Uygur claims in the Huffington Post story? No. His ratings are good in the major cities he serves (including KFI here in Los Angeles). And I sincerely doubt that true-blue Limbaugh fans will be affected long-term by the event, if at all.

But if Limbaugh continues to bleed advertisers, then there is a problem. The next few months may be critical to the future of Limbaugh ... and of political talk radio.


Copyright © 2012 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

To subscribe to The Daily Breeze, call (310) 540-5511