What if the problem isn’t PPM?

I’ve been reading a lot lately about PPM (Nielsen’s Personal People Meter) and how it may not be capturing all the listening in a radio market.

In Las Vegas at the NAB2015 show, Telos Alliance was demonstrating their Voltair.   This additional “black box” in a radio station’s audio chain will correct for times when the PPM isn’t properly watermarking a radio station’s signal. As I understand it, some formats that have pauses – like talk radio formats, classical formats – aren’t being encoded with the audio watermark the PPM encoder is supposed to transmit to be received by the PPM device a listener in a Nielsen panel carries (or not) with them.

OK – let’s take a time out here.

PPM is now the radio measurement system used in the Top 48 radio markets in the USA. It began being the currency for radio listening in the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) in the spring of 2002. When a measurement system is considered “up-to-snuff” an agency called the Media Ratings Council gives that measurements service its Double Checkmark seal of approval. (The diary method of radio listening measurement has had that seal in all markets it’s used and is still the measurement method used in radio markets from #49 to #273 by Nielsen Audio.)

Now you would think that in the lucky 13-years since PPM was officially launched (it was being tested in England back in the late 90s) that it would have earned that gold standard of ratings methodology approval in all PPM markets by now, but no; it apparently only has it in about 25 markets, leaving another 23 without it. But make no mistake it IS the ratings currency used Double Checkmark or not.

This new PPM device replaced the paper diary methodology in America’s largest radio markets and here are a couple of more interesting twists to the story. There were less PPM meters deployed than the number of paper diaries they replaced. They also raised the costs of measuring these radio markets by something like 60%. (That’s sounds like Clear Channel’s old “Less is More” strategy.) But if the ratings will be more accurate, then everyone should rally around this newer system and it will be worth what they’re paying for, right?

That’s what makes the Telos Alliance Voltair black box so disturbing. Its seller’s claim it fixes a problem that no one (or not a lot of people) knew even existed. It made the PPM encoder do a better job of encoding a radio station’s signal so PPM receivers could decode the audio watermark and give that radio station its due. And to implement this “fix” to your radio signal, all it would cost you is $15,000.00 per Voltair.

I’ve had the pleasure to actually visit a station in a major metro and watch the Voltair work. The telemetry it displays appears to be doing just what its sellers claim. So maybe it IS fixing things. But what about all those formats that are no more? What about all those PDs and air personalities that are gone because a new measurement device was not giving them the proper credit they should have been getting? A lot has changed in those 13-years since the first PPM market went online.

Another manufacturer points out that this additional black box in your audio chain designed to capture more PPM receivers will actually make your radio station sound worse and drive listeners away from your station. And I know some radio engineers that would agree with that analysis.

So what’s a radio broadcaster to do?

Dick Harlow thinks he knows. He’s in PPM market #46. He’s dropping Nielsen Audio’s PPM measurement service. He’s not spending $15,000.00 on a Voltair. And he’s not going without audience ratings like Saga has done (and is still doing in some of its markets). He’s hired Mike Gould’s Eastlan ratings to measure the Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem market for his radio stations; WKRR-FM Rock 92 and Top 40 WKZL 107.5 FM.

Mr. Harlow says “enough is enough.”

Eastlan will reportedly deploy a sample size that’s triple the number PPM meters currently used in this radio market using its proprietary ratings estimate methodology.

And no it isn’t MRC Double Checkmark approved, or as far as I can see, under review by the MRC.   But then again, there appears to be a lot of ratings currency being used that lacks this approval.

A quick check of the Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem market shows that PPM is also not receiving the MRC Double Checkmark seal of approval for that market, so there’s no loss for Mr. Harlow on that metric either.

I studied the Eastlan reports back in the early part of the 21st Century when I was running radio stations. At that time it was Arbitron and Eastlan that were battling it out in a few radio markets where we could examine how each company ranked the stations. What I saw at that time was they could both agree on the Big Dawg stations, but Eastlan found those little pups that super-served a niche audience and that was the eye-opening difference to me, for at that moment in time I was running some low powered AM radio signals and needed a ratings company that could drill down a market deeper and uncover more of the radio listening that was actually occurring.

My gut tells me that Dick Harlow will find that too. And if he’s smart, he will take the cost savings by switching to Eastlan and pour it back into advertising and promotion of his radio stations; for if he does, he will not only win in Eastlan’s audience estimates, but in those done by Nielsen too. But the real win will be for his listeners, advertisers, employees and his company, for he will be investing his resources where they will pay the biggest dividends for the community he’s licensed to serve.

To sum this all up, the problem isn’t PPM. It’s that PPM has taken radio broadcaster’s eyes off the ball. The game is programming radio stations with great content. It’s hiring great talent. It’s crafting commercials for advertisers that get results and don’t annoy the listener. It’s super-serving the community you’re licensed to operate in. In other words, it’s doing all the right things, all of the time. Ratings are a by-product of doing it all fabulously well. And profits are the reward that the stakeholders receive for investing and believing in their radio team.


Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

21 responses to “What if the problem isn’t PPM?

  1. Julia Armstrong

    I would love to hear the follow up on how this all worked out.


  2. We need another ratings option for small market stations, and groups. We will be watching this.


  3. Worked for several staions technically part of the NYC ADI that had great loyal audiences, bt we were very much part of the donut but not part of the hole-always screwed in the ratings-call letters on request. 2 of ’em killed off by mismanagement. (refused to listen to me). Most of the time w/atings, figures lie & liars figure-that’s why youll hear me at http://www.albumzone.co.uk.


  4. Peter Wilson

    “Another manufacturer points out that this additional black box in your audio chain designed to capture more PPM receivers will actually make your radio station sound worse and drive listeners away from your station. And I know some radio engineers that would agree with that analysis.”

    The Voltair is essentially a processor for the watermark. Just like if you run an audio processor too aggressively, you can make your station sound worse. If you run Voltair too aggressively, it will also make your radio station sound worse. This is nothing new, Dick.


  5. Correction: Media Rating Council was originally referred to as a government agency. That is incorrect. It was established in the early 1960’s at the behest of the U.S. Congress to secure for the industry audience measurement that is valid. You can read more about the history of the MRC here: http://www.mediaratingcouncil.org/History.htm


  6. Dick, your last paragraph should be etched on the walls of every radio station in America!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mike Worrall

    If it’s true that the PPM encoders do in fact short-change talk / classical / other formats, then *Neilsen* needs to re-issue replacement encoders to all PPM stations. If they don’t, then the playing field that we all assumed was “level” will be out-the-window; the ratings may be skewed to those Mega Corps that can afford to plunk down for the Voltair. Talks stations need to start YELLING at Nielsen to fix this – to date they’ve been conspicuously silent…


  8. Doug Erickson just blogged about the PPM problem and you might find what he had to say of interest. You can read the blog post here: http://ericksonmedia.com/blog/radio/1957-what-if-it-s-all-wrong.html


  9. Rick Starr

    Not surprising that there were fewer PPM’s distributed than diaries. Fully half of the diaries distributed either were never mailed back, or came back without so much as a pencil scratch in them.


  10. Interesting read on the impact of Voltaire on a talk show with a host that evidently PPM encodes poorly. The study looks at before & after the use of Voltaire. Read more here: http://www.radioinsights.com/2015/06/voltair-case-study-shares-nearly-double.html


  11. The PPM dilemma has left broadcasters (and Nielsen) with a Morton’s Fork of a problem. A Morton’s Fork is a no-win situation in that two choices exist but both lead to the same bad result. It originated in 15th century England when a tax collector named Morton came up with the circular logic by which neither both rich nor poor could escape paying taxes. The logical premise stated that if a subject lived in luxury, then it was plainly obvious that he could afford to pay tax to the king. If a subject lived frugally and showed no sign of being wealthy, it was just as obvious that he was squirreling away money, and could also afford to pay tax to the king.


  12. More about the PPM problem in this Radio Insights blog post “PPM Edits: Adding Insult to Injury” http://www.radioinsights.com/2015/07/ppm-edits-adding-insult-to-injury.html


  13. Paul McLane is editor in chief of Radio World says:Nielsen should open its upcoming client webinar to the industry; and NAB and RAB need to step up in the Voltair controversy.



  14. After a year of rumor and speculation, Nielsen is preparing to address the controversy that erupted in recent months surrounding the impact of a new device, called Voltair, on radio ratings produced by its Portable People Meter technology.

    The ratings giant will first discuss its stance on Voltair and PPM with clients in a conference call and Webinar on July 21, 2015, followed by a public statement afterwards. No matter what happens, however, there are likely to be more questions generated by this hot-button issue.



  15. FM vs. DAB is the dust-up in the UK. PPM vs. Voltair is debate here in the USA. Both subjects are dealt with in detail in Larry Gifford’s wonderful podcast: https://soundcloud.com/radio-stuff-podcast/radio-stuff-episode-110


  16. My friends at The Research Director wrote an excellent piece on the PPM vs. Voltair kerfuffle. http://www.researchdirectorinc.com/2015/07/to-voltair-or-not-to-voltair-that-is-the-question/


  17. Ultimately, the Voltair controversy reminds me of a kerfluffle currently raging here in New York City. The nation’s #1 metroplex has plenty of critical issues facing it: income inequality, gentrification and the decimation of affordable housing, police brutality, the crumbling of infrastructure and public education. But the ruling class is captivated by a need to do something about the proliferation of free-range titties in Times Square.

    Talk about missing the forest for the trees. Last year I found the NAB Radio Show to be an insular affair dominated by cheerleaders. I suspect it’ll be more of the same this year, but at least both sides of a controversial industry issue are being given microphones.



    • Enzo

      Another site touting watermarks as “inaudible to listeners” ARE YOU DEAF?

      I just recently learned what this was. I haven’t been able to listen to the radio for years, and now I know why. What has been touted as “inaudible to listeners” is VERY audible to me. It makes everything sound like it’s in a damn trash can. I would cringe and run out of stores playing radio (which, luckily the numbers of THAT has been diminishing since this fiasco) Metal pipes, garbage cans, wash tubs… Just a few nouns to describe what I hear. Buzz saws, metal scraping…. UGH!


      • Thanks for stopping by the blog Enzo and adding your perspective.

        I remember in the early testing days of the audio watermark, the air personalities would complain of the noise they heard in their headphones, but that was identified and corrected.

        This is something I’ve not heard discussed recently.


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