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Dick Taylor: What if the problem isn’t PPM?

[alert-note]Reprinted with permission from DickTaylorBlog.com[/alert-note]

Dick Taylor Voltair PPM Western Kentucky University Radio Talent InstituteI’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.

Profile photo of Dick Taylor
Dick Taylor spent 27 years as a General Manager and Market Manager and is currently assistant professor of broadcasting at the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Since 2013 I’ve been the director of the KBA WKU Radio Talent Institute coordinating a professional faculty of broadcasters who teach broadcast students who qualify and are accepted to attend a ten-day intensive program that trains tomorrow’s broadcasters in all aspects of radio station operations.

2 Comments

  1. Profile photo of radioperson


    “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.”

    It is far more complicated that just pauses.

    Some voices don’t code well. Does not matter how good the talent is.

    Some music does not code well. Does not matter how popular it is.

    While certainly the content has to be compelling to listeners’ ears, but if it is not technically “compelling” to the panelists’ receiving device, the station is being denied their proper ratings acknowledgment.

  2. Profile photo of Dr. Akbar


    In Phoenix, KFYI 5~Fifty, consistently beats KTAR 92~Three in 6+. Don’t know if either station has the black box, but do know both stations are well programmed and aggressively marketed. Pre PPM the complaint was diary placement, now it’s the compatibility of certain formats to the encoding. hmmmm….”meet the new boss, same as the old boss” is rattling around in the grey matter under my fez!

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