Listening to velvet-voiced Jason Bentley the other day on the radio pitching KCRW’s first-ever Halloween masquerade ball at the fabulous old Park Plaza hotel, my mind began to drift.
I would jettison my news-dweeb persona on that day, not so far off, and disappear into the writhing dance crowd, losing myself in Bentley’s grooves. Techno. Trip-hop. (If only I knew what that was.)
That fantasy would have to go on hold, though, as I had decided it was time to call Bentley’s bosses with more prosaic concerns — like what’s happening to public radio in L.A. and could your audience be in danger of slipping away?
The question had been raised for some time, most pointedly when last month’s Arbitron ratings showed three Los Angeles public radio stations — KUSC-FM (91.5), KPCC-FM (89.3) and KKJZ-FM (88.1) — substantially ahead of the once preeminent KCRW-FM (89.9).
The numbers, and the “Portable People Meter” (PPM) the ratings outfit uses to collect them, have been the subject of furious debate nationally among radio programmers for more than a year. Suffice it to say that the bosses at KCRW believe theirs is one of the stations whose listenership is being grossly undercounted.
I won’t claim to have nearly enough expertise to settle the technical arguments about Arbitron’s new audience estimates. And surely ratings can be overplayed. But the numbers give at least a hint at the shifting balance of power in Los Angeles public radio.
For at least a few years now, more listeners have been moving steadily toward stations with consistent formats — like KPCC’s news and talk and KUSC’s classical music, a niche it holds almost alone after other stations dropped the format.
KCRW proudly and somewhat defiantly maintains its eclectic brand, carrying everything from National Public Radio’s news programs to unique home-grown shows on food, books, public affairs and more.
If you measure by its growing Web audience, stronger than its competitors’, and its list of subscribers, large and robust, KCRW has much to celebrate and little to fear.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if those ratings numbers weren’t cause for some worry.
“This has been a growing concern over the last several months, since we started seeing the new numbers,” said one member of the KCRW foundation board, who asked not to be named for fear of angering station management. “You can quibble with the numbers. But even if they are just true relatively speaking, then we should be asking what they mean.”