Voltair 250

Hardware that increases the likelihood of encoded broadcast signals being detected by Nielsen’s portable people meters has become a new high-tech weapon in ratings battles in the largest markets. But with a five-digit price tag, Voltair gives a competitive advantage to only those stations that can afford it.

More than 300 units are in use, according to developer 25-Seven Systems, with adoption widespread in the top 10 markets. Installed in a station’s audio chain, the box monitors and displays PPM encoding quality based on programming material. Stations can simulate decoding quality in various listener environments and actively process their signals to optimize PPM encoding.

Voltair doesn’t increase actual listenership. But its developer says it can help broadcasters be more confident that PPM panelists listening to their station are correctly measured.

Programmers using it say it has a direct impact on ratings, especially news, talk and sports stations. “The difference it makes with spoken word is like night and day,” says one major market user.

“It’s capturing people that were either too far away from the speaker and their meter couldn’t identify it or maybe it’s a soft-spoken talk show host and it doesn’t show up,” says another Voltair-equipped programmer.

Stations with the box now adjust their audio to make it easier for meters to pick up the inaudible PPM codes, such as boosting the gain in softer portions of songs or not scheduling back to back straight-voice spots. Some use it in their production studios to make sure all the audio they put on the air will encode better.

Programmers can monitor how the enhancement affects the likelihood of meters picking up their codes by viewing bar graphs that compare the original signal to the one processed by Voltair. They can also monitor it for different listening environments, such as in-vehicle, where it’s said to be more difficult for meters to detect the codes because of ambient noise coming from the outside. Red bars show the encoded audio is harder for the meter to pick up. Green bars are smooth sailing. Yellow is somewhere in between. The goal is to turn audio flagged as red into yellow or green, which shows optimum encoding.

Not all audio content is equal when it comes to embedding codes or watermarks that can be “heard” by the PPM but not by listeners. Voltair developer 25-Seven Systems says research uncovered two variables that contribute to the robustness of a station’s PPM encoding. One is the spectral characteristics of the specific audio content, like music or announcer voices. “Some audio content encodes well while other content does not,” the company claims in a white paper. The second is the listening environment. “A song or voice may not, for example, decode as well in a car as it does in a bedroom,” the company says.

The higher the watermarking energy received at the PPM decoder, the more robust the system but the greater likelihood the codes will be audible to the listener. The quieter the tones, the less likely they will “break through” but the more fragile and less reliable the decoding becomes. Rock and CHR produce stronger watermarks than AC or classic hits, especially older recordings without today’s compressed sound or with quiet passages like the Drifters’ “Under The Boardwalk” or some Elton John songs.

That’s where a $15,000 box can make a difference. But even a bumpin’ CHR may have issues when the commercials come on or an artist stops by. Artist interviews were scaled back in the wake of the PPM rollout – but was that because the interview was boring or the meter wasn’t picking up the watermark? “We always said that interviews are death in PPM but I’ve seen some interviews score extremely strong on a radio station that uses Voltair,” says one PD.