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Blesser: How Radio Handles PPM Debate Will Influence Its Survival

Voltair developer fires latest volley in methodology controversy

Debate over the Voltair ratings methodology processor continues to put a charge into the lives of radio PDs and engineers.

Barry Blesser, one of the product’s developers at the Telos Alliance, now has posted a commentary giving his views on the debate. He headlined it “Explaining Voltair Success With the Big Lie(s).” He concludes that the way that the radio industry handles this controversy will influence its chances of survival.

“All sides of the debate quietly accept the fact that it does work,” Blesser wrote about the device. “Not surprisingly, the struggle has moved to interested and powerful parties who attempt to control the explanation in order to control the debate’s outcome.” He summarized these explanations as fitting two classes: that the box works “because it improves on some deficiencies and limitations of the original PPM system, capturing missing listeners,” or else that it produces “phantom listeners,” registering credit without humans listening to program audio.

Those explanations, he says, lead to distinct conclusions: either Nielsen should adopt Voltair technology itself (or give every PPM encoding station one); or it should make the use of Voltair illegal because it is undermining a reliable system.

Blesser’s post delves into the way human ears hear program content and meters hear watermarking codes and how the watermark energy varies over the range of audio content types in radio; among other things it will be interesting to those curious about how the box does what it does.

He describes Voltair as “basically an AGC (automatic gain control) compressor that keeps the tones higher in amplitude when they are on their way to becoming too small. Voltair produces tone energy similar to that of a well encoded audio signal.” He seeks to “put to bed the myth of the phantom listener” and discusses the argument that the processor constitutes “a zero-sum game between radio stations and advertisers.”

“Voltair reduces the influence of random program spectra on the ratings,” he wrote. “Listening preferences for program types is a legitimate criterion, but success on the basis of time-frequency statistics between 1 and 3 kHz (the part Voltair can improve) is where a purely technical artifact influences outcomes.”

Blesser concludes that radio has changed dramatically since PPM was rolled out, as programmers shortened or eliminated spoken word segments, modified program clocks “and even dumped whole formats. … Assuming Nielsen refuses to address technical issues raised by Voltair, we can expect this trend to accelerate.” He thinks alternative delivery media “without this PPM technical bias” will offer a wider range of program content to match listener demographics and that terrestrial radio “will rapidly become yet more irrelevant as listeners migrate to delivery vehicles that offer what they want to hear even if the time-frequency spectra of their programs does not match PPM.”

Telos says the number of Voltairs in use in the field is approaching 600. Nielsen has generally been mum about the Voltair but has said it is testing the unit to see what effect, if any, the box has on the PPM encoding process. Meanwhile, several trade publications reported last week that Canada’s ratings service Numeris told stations to disconnect any Voltairs pending an analysis.

Read Blesser’s commentary.