More than 1 out of 4 of your Listeners may be outside Arbitron’s reach

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22.3 percent of U.S. households with both landline and cell phones receive almost all of their phone calls on their mobile phone. That’s 13.1 percent of all households in the United States. Combined with wireless-only households, 28.9 percent, or nearly 3 out of every 10 households, are reliant or almost completely dependent on cell phones.

Now obviously Arbitron is aware of this problem. And, as they often tell us, coping with it is difficult and expensive. But what does it mean for these people to be – as a group – potentially stripped of qualification for your ratings?

What does it mean for radio’s effort to target younger audiences in particular? What does it mean when the 100 shares in your Arbitron rank don’t include the one in four households who opt out of landlines?

Arbitron’s stated percentage of cell phone onlies is 11.8% overall – but this number is dated. And it specified cell phone ONLY households, glossing over those households who may have a landline and rarely if ever use it – even (or especially) for a call from Arbitron. If, for example, a listener is using her phone line only for DSL then she may not even have a phone attached to it. Good luck answering that call.

Listen to some of these horrifying anecdotes from the same story:

“I keep it for emergencies and for DSL,” said E. Gilliam, 38, an Alameda graphic artist. “If there were a cheaper way, I’d do that and not have a landline at all.” “That [landline] phone, except for telemarketers, didn’t ring for a year,” said [Vala] Burnett, an admissions counselor at Mills College. Peter Wilson, a 27-year-old Sebastopol musician, calls his landline a “catch bin” for [telemarketing] calls.

As long as ratings matter in the radio business, our industry should plan for a scenario whereby landlines effectively cease to exist.

Because that day is not far away.

POSTSCRIPT…

Here’s a reply to my post from Arbitron’s Dr. Ed Cohen:

Arbitron uses the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) as our guide to the percentage of cell phone only (CPO). NHIS updates their data twice a year and the latest data came out on Wednesday morning. The link in your blog was to data presented at the December 2007 Advisory Council meeting which was held about a week before the last release of data prior to Wednesday’s release. Those estimates are dated now, but were current when presented to the Council.

The new estimates are eye-opening. Over 30% of 18-29 year olds are now CPO and that percentage continues to grow. It’s the key reason behind the dropoff in 18-34 proportionality in diary markets, for both men and women. Arbitron always presents the most recent NHIS estimates and we often go into far more detail about CPO than most people ever see.

Getting CPO samples into the diary service is a huge priority for Arbitron. The biggest roadblock is the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) which prevents the use of “automatic dialing equipment” to call known cell phone numbers (feel free to link to the Wikipedia entry or another source for TCPA if you wish), in other words, we can’t use our predictive dialers on a list of known cell phone numbers. To add CPO to all of the diary service markets would require massive interviewing centers with hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people hand-dialing cell phone numbers. As the CPO percentage grew, we realized this approach couldn’t work.

Late last year, we started testing another method which uses an address frame (street addresses instead of phone numbers). We eliminate those addresses that have landline numbers; the rest get a mail survey with some money and the promise of more if the person responds. A good percentage of the respondents are CPO and that creates a sample pool for us. And by responding, we’ve created a relationship with these individuals and the TCPA does not apply, in other words, we can use our dialers. We’re currently placing diaries in CPO households in seven markets using this method (this is offline and not part of the syndicated service). Pending the results, our goal is to have CPO in diary markets in 2009. That’s not a commitment but is a goal. And no, we have not decided how many markets will get CPO sampling or which ones will go first. Right now, the main point is that we believe we have a workable solution to the problem.

To your point about those who get most or all of their calls on cell phones, the answer is they still have a landline. The landline numbers are still accessible in most cases and we still reach most, if not nearly all of these households. And while the assertion is valid, our main focus is to get the CPO households into the diary service as soon as we can with a method that is high quality and cost-effective.

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