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Nielsen Audio sues Bubba the Love Sponge for fraud, ratings tampering

Radio host Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, left, appears in court in 2010. This week he was sued by Nielsen Media over ratings tampering allegations. [Times files]
Published Oct. 16, 2015

TAMPA — Nielsen Audio has filed a federal lawsuit against radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, who admitted last week to ratings tampering charges.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Tampa, outlines five counts, including fraud to manipulate audience estimates and station rankings. The ratings company is seeking at least $1 million in punitive damages for each count.

Nielsen listed Clem and Bubba Radio Network Inc. as defendants, and said Clem's actions irreparably damaged the company's reputation, interfered with its business and contractual relationship with Beasley Media and Nielsen's rating panelists and violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Practices Act.

Clem acknowledged in a short news conference last week that he was in contact with a Nielsen ratings panelist during July and August and that he tried to influence that person's listening habits.

The 21-page lawsuit outlines how Clem instructed the panelist to manipulate the data collected by the four listening devices that look like pagers. Clem also used his Amazon account to buy and ship radios and other devices to the participant's home, the lawsuit said.

"What he did is akin to cheating on a test," said Valerie Geller, a New York-based radio consultant.

Being "de-listed" from Nielsen for a period — the standard punishment in cases of tampering — is particularly devastating for radio stations that depend on the ratings for ad sales, Geller said. But as radio hosts expand their brands to the internet and podcasts, there are other measurements of audience size they can use to attract advertisers.

"Will it hurt the station? I don't think so," Geller said. "It's bad, but it's survivable."

It's unclear whether Clem could face criminal charges, as well. Mark Cox, spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, said nothing has been referred to that office.

Nielsen panelists are meant to be kept secret and are changed every 18 months to avoid unusual behavior. Subscribers are strictly prohibited from contacting panelists. As someone who has been in the radio business for 30 years, Clem was "well aware of the importance of the Nielsen Audio ratings to the success of any radio program," the lawsuit said.

According to the suit, Clem was introduced to the panelist on July 29 through a mutual acquaintance, Jason Fuller. Clem kept in contact with the panelist through in-person meetings, phone conversations and numerous text messages, and offered to pay him anywhere from $300-$700 a month to help Clem boost his ratings.

Clem sent the participant, whom the suit does not name, several texts urging him to keep the deal secret.

"U have to PROMISE NOT TO SAY A WORD," read July 31 text messages included in the lawsuit. "This could ruin me. B …THANK U. again this will kill the bad guys."

Clem also instructed the panelist to occasionally listen to other radio stations, as to not seem suspicious, but to never listen to 102.5, one of Clem's "main rivals."

The lawsuit argues that Clem manipulated other panelists as well. One of them is referenced in text messages included in the complaint.

"I had a guy who had just 1 of them," Clem texted the panelist. "And they took it from him Friday. Cause he wasn't smart about it... So I need your 4 more than ever buddy."

The panelist told Nielsen about the scheme in mid-August, according to the lawsuit. Nielsen removed the tainted data and confronted Beasley Media with the claims on Sept. 21.

Clem's show was suspended for eight days in the local market, and Beasley issued an Oct. 5 release condemning Clem's actions. Nielsen Audio also de-listed Beasley's station, WBRN-FM, from its September 2015 reports.

"Based upon Bubba Clem's actions, Nielsen Audio's subscribers have expressed concern about the integrity of the survey and the possibility of additional ratings distortion activity by Bubba Clem," the lawsuit said. "Nielsen Audio's reputation and the reputation of its rating reports as an unbiased tool in the industry has been damaged irreparably."

Times Staff Writer Anna Phillips contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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