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By Gautham Nagesh December 2, 2009

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The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on Wednesday on a topic that doesn't usually reach our radar: the manner in which local radio stations receive the ratings that determine their audience size and advertising rates. The debate that took place highlighted the difficulty of creating a balance between using technology for outreach while preserving access for all groups.

In 2007, the audience measurement firm Arbitron (basically the Nielsen of radio) introduced its Portable People Meter (PPM), a device that is worn like a beeper and tracks what radio stations the user is exposed to during the day. Previously the company relied on written accounts of radio listening habits from survey participants.

Predictably, the initial data reports showed that the stations individuals were actually exposed to differed significantly from their written recollections. Listeners were exposed to more radio stations than they admitted and listened to them for shorter periods of time. Arbitron Chief Executive Officer Michael Skarzynski maintained that the changes in the data are reflective of greater accuracy in the survey methodology. Critics were quick to point out that being in the vicinity of a radio doesn't necessarily mean someone is actively listening to the content or advertising.

Additionally, some advocacy groups claim the changes to the ratings have disproportionately harmed radio stations owned by or targeted toward minorities. In particular, Spanish-language and urban radio stations have seen their reported audiences shrink and their advertising revenue plummet thanks to the new Arbitron ratings.

House Oversight Chairman Ed Towns, D-NY, suggested that flaws in Arbitron's methodology may be costing minority communities one of their most crucial organizing tools. "What's at stake is life and death of one of the most viable industries for people of color," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Skarzynski argued that much of the decline in audience is due to the general economic situation, as well as the particular difficulties facing the radio industry such as the rise of the Internet. He said the rating declines facing minority and urban radio stations have also emerged in other formats, including talk and Christian radio. But according to Univision's Ceril Shagrin, the disproportionate impact of the new methodology on specific audiences would suggest that at very least Arbitron is facing issues with its sample size.

Shagrin's point speaks to the heart of the issue, which is providing equal access in an age where technology is increasingly the default government tool for both gathering and disseminating information to the public. For a multitude of reasons, minority and low-income individuals are significantly less likely to have access to the Internet. Even among minorities with the necessary resources, language and cultural barriers may prevent certain populations from taking advantage of the latest communications technologies. Since these are groups that are often less engaged by the government to begin with, the increasing reliance on technology rather than personal interaction may serve to discourage individuals in those communities from interacting with the government, even when its in their own interests.

This is something to keep in mind as our nation is fast becoming accustomed to conducting all of our government transactions online, from renewing our license to collecting social security payments. While the vast majority of federal financial transactions are now electronic, there remains a sizable number of individuals that can't or don't take advantage of the more modern ways of interacting with the government. Similarly, surveys that rely on online respondents are by definition out of reach for a significant portion of the general public.

So what is the solution? George Ivie of the Media Rating Council repeatedly advocated more personal interaction on the part of Arbitron and recommended the firm increase the amount of outreach and education between the company and the participants. This is excellent advice for any federal agency seeking to interact with minorities and other groups that are traditionally hard to reach. The Census Bureau in particular would be wise to invest more resources placing agents in undercounted communities, rather than relying on advertising and media campaigns.

Regardless, it's important to keep in mind that while the goal of many public-facing government technology initiatives is to increase the public's access, the benefit is often restricted to communities that are already comfortable interacting with the government. If the goal is to build trust and engagement among groups that are traditionally resistant to such interaction then nothing beats an old-fashioned handshake.

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