Controversy comes in all forms and sizes, and at this very moment a controversy is surrounding a technology that may help improve your station's ability to be picked up by PPM. According to its maker, Telos, incorporating the system "will help you be more confident that PPM panelists listening to your station are correctly measured."
So why is that controversial? Let me count the ways.
The big issue is why this technology is even necessary. Why is it that Voltair can make sure your station is being picked up and recognized, while the PPM can't find you? It seems to me that this points to a deficit of the current PPM system. The evidence seems to be clear that Voltair is improving the ratings of stations in formats that have previously not shown up as well in PPM. Since in most cases nothing else changed at those stations, it could be one of a couple of things. Perhaps different sample base prefers those stations, or -- more likely -- they've acquired a system that makes certain PPMs are recognizing them.
These two graphics were sent to us by a general manager using the Voltair unit. This first picture is the Voltair unit in action during a extended music sweep on a station. As you can see, there are just a few dropouts during this period. The top portion of the first screen is the actual encoded signal before it reaches the Voltair, and the screen right below it is the screen after Voltair processing. At the very end, there's a stopset of commercials. Same layout.
The second picture, below, is what was concerning to the GM who contacted us. The red you see between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m. is during an extended talk period of a morning show. Look at how low the output is in the non-Voltair "normal" encoding process, and then look at it after it's been run through the Voltair box.
Back in the day we used to fly to Beltsville, Maryland, and look through Arbitron diaries to seek advantages in the ratings battle. Some went further, offering bribes to people who had diaries so they could fill them out to a particular station's advantage, while others had banks of phone operators calling homes until they found people with diaries. That, ethical or not, is how they gained an advantage. Today, to gain that advantage, it's simply a matter of spending some bucks to put the system in your station.
While some cry foul, what's wrong with making sure your station registers with PPMs? I say nothing. In fact, I applaud the inventors of the Voltair unit.
That said, the problem is that no station should be disadvantaged. If the Voltair helps stations be received significantly better by the PPM, it seems Nielsen should require all stations to have the unit, so no station has an advantage and ratings are indeed reflecting the market. It appears Voltair has uncovered a flaw in the PPM system. If the PPM itself cannot properly receive and credit all stations, the only answer is to make sure every station has it.
Nielsen tells Radio Ink it is evaluating and testing the Voltair product:
"We have had dialogue with the MRC about its role in validating our testing results and about working with the MRC's independent CPAs to execute a series of lab and real-world tests of the Voltair product. These discussions are ongoing. Additionally, Nielsen is working directly with Telos, the maker of Voltair, to evaluate the effect of the Voltair product. As we complete our thorough assessment, we will provide additional updates. Until we've completed our analysis, Nielsen cannot endorse use of the Voltair product."
I'm not an investor or a shareholder in Telos, and Voltair is not even an advertiser. My only connection to them is lifelong relationships with the people there. But then again, I have lifelong relationships with most people in the radio industry. My point is that I have no ax to grind here.
As a former programmer and station owner, I would seek every advantage I could get, as long as it's legal and ethical. I believe this product is both, and I believe it simply makes the system work the way it's supposed to work.
But of course, ratings can't properly reflect radio listening if some have Voltair and some don't. Nielsen needs to licence the technology, buy the company, or underwrite a unit for every station being measured via PPM. If Nielsen's own technology does not properly give stations credit, then it's Nielsen's responsibility to resolve that. The last thing radio needs is any question about the integrity or operability of its rating system or for advertisers to believe that some stations are buying a ratings advantage. Nielsen needs to finish its testing and resolve this -- quickly.