Radio ratings jumbled during Alabama tornadoes

Tuscaloosa tornado damage.

Jeremy Hobson: It's been three months since tornadoes killed hundreds of people and destroyed thousands of buildings in Alabama. And the after effects span the dial. Executives in the state's radio business say the storms cost them millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

From WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.


Tanya Ott: Most days, Birmingham's 95.7 JAMZ sounds like this. But in the days after the tornado, it was wall-to-wall news.

David Dubose: Immediately after the storm, I called to say I have grave reservations.

That's David Dubose, head of Cox Media Group in Birmingham. The company he called was Arbitron. It's like the Nielsen of radio; Arbitron mails out diaries for people to record what stations they listen to.

Dubose: When the tornado hit, you had some diaries that were already in the field. So imagine, are you going to fill out your diary or are you going to worry about dealing with debris in your yard or the hole in your roof?

Sure enough, JAMZ dropped from its long-held number one spot in the market to number five. Dubose demands Arbitron dump the ratings for the period when the tornado hit.

But Arbitron's Beth Webb says no way.

Beth Webb: A few days of disruption isn't going to disrupt the entire service if things get back to normal.

And, she says, things did get back to normal. The company collected enough diaries. Webb says a blip for one station doesn't warrant canceling the ratings for the entire Birmingham area.

Industry execs say this rumble over ratings points to a larger problem: Arbitron is a monopoly. If it wants to dig in its feet on any issue, there's not much radio stations can do about it.

Peter Dominowski: It's not due to some nefarious plot.

Peter Dominowski is with Market Trends Research. He says other companies have tried competing against Arbitron, but didn't last because the business is highly specialized and expensive. Observers note until another company gets in the radio ratings business, there are bound to be more disputes.

In Birmingham, I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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