Nielsen tweaks measurement of radio audience amid hush-hush adoption of Voltair boxes

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For pubcasters in the 50 or so largest radio markets, another big set of changes is coming to the way Nielsen Audio measures their listenership.

At the NAB Radio Show in Atlanta Oct. 1, the ratings company unveiled changes to the Personal People Meter system that gathers ratings data based on inaudible codes transmitted by participating stations. Addressing an audience of engineers and station executives, Nielsen Audio chief engineer Arum Ramaswamy tacitly acknowledged that the version of PPM that has been in use for several years does not fully measure listening in real-world environments that are noisy or otherwise challenging.

Those same concerns drove the audio-processing company 25-Seven to create Voltair, a $15,000 device that claims to enhance broadcasters’ audio by allowing Nielsen’s PPM encoder to better inject its codes. That leads, at least in theory, to more accurate recording of a station’s listenership.

At the larger NAB Show in Las Vegas in April, Voltair’s public unveiling touched off heated debate among radio engineers over the device’s effectiveness, not to mention the legality and ethics of its use. Numeris, the Canadian ratings agency, officially barred client stations from using Voltair to enhance their audio.

On this side of the border, stations that installed Voltair did so quietly. For fear of drawing Nielsen’s attention, Voltair users, both commercial and public, have generally refused to acknowledge using the boxes, creating plenty of speculation about Nielsen’s monthly PPM ratings reports.

Nielsen added more fuel to the PPM debate in Atlanta by announcing that it’s changing the algorithm its own boxes use to inject and detect ratings codes. For several months, Ramaswamy said, Nielsen has been testing an enhanced version of its encoding system, called CBET.

The new “Enhanced CBET” was tried first in several “non-currency” markets — locations where the Media Ratings Council , the independent industry group that accredits ratings services, has not yet given its blessing to the accuracy of PPM results. After what Nielsen described as positive results in those markets, Nielsen next tested Enhanced CBET in two markets where PPM is in active use, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

In those markets, Nielsen’s Beth Webb said in Atlanta, Enhanced CBET showed clear improvement over the earlier CBET system. On average, she said Enhanced CBET picked up 15 percent more radio listening in an average quarter-hour, which led to an increase of 0.1 ratings points in at least 40 percent of the cases studied.

Nielsen is now moving to roll out Enhanced CBET in all markets where PPM is in use. By the end of October, Nielsen expected to have Enhanced CBET in use in the Baltimore and Washington markets, with the new system being rolled out in the remainder of its active PPM markets by late November or early December.

Since the Voltair controversy was touched off in Las Vegas in April, 25-Seven has been careful to emphasize that its boxes do more than just enhance station audio. In his own presentation in Atlanta, 25-Seven president Geoff Steadman emphasized Voltair’s ability to measure and track how well each element of a station’s programming can be encoded for PPM. Commercial broadcasters have discussed whether certain songs and even some on-air personalities are particularly “PPM-unfriendly” by not giving the encoder enough patches of audio where the PPM tones can be buried.

Steadman said that the newly released 2.0 version of Voltair’s software and another update now in alpha testing will provide even more comprehensive monitoring and tracking ability.

An hour later, Nielsen announced in a presentation that it will distribute its own monitoring boxes free of charge to all PPM subscribers sometime in 2016.

While broadcasters may be loath to publicly admit that they’re using Voltair, they were quick to raise questions about how Nielsen’s new system will work with the boxes they won’t acknowledge using.

“It sounds an awful lot like Voltair,” Steadman said after listening to Nielsen’s presentation. Asked whether stations should hesitate to spend $15,000 on a Voltair when Nielsen might duplicate many of its functions, Steadman noted that Voltair units are shipping immediately, while Nielsen’s monitoring boxes may not arrive for another year.

In a webinar after the Radio Show, Nielsen outlined plans for a rapid deployment of the Enhanced CBET system, which will be rolled out with firmware updates distributed on flash drives. For its part, Voltair says its new software versions will continue to offer features that Nielsen can’t replicate. That includes centralized monitoring of encoding quality, a feature that could appeal to statewide pubradio networks and others with multiple streams of programming.

Just don’t ask too many questions. While Nielsen has shied away from officially banning the use of Voltair by client stations, Ramaswamy made a pointed reference in Atlanta to the idea that Enhanced CBET will give stations an even playing field “without any user controls.” At the station level, that’s meant a “no comment” policy across the board about whether or not Voltair is in use.

No major-market public radio engineers contacted by Current would discuss the topic, adding to the mystery that has surrounded PPM and Voltair all year.