Where is the Outrage Over PPM?

Nielsen-ppmThis week I went down the PPM rabbit hole and it is worse than I ever imagined.

After talking at length with researcher Richard Harker (hear the interview here), watching this 25 minute video on the science of watermarking audio, reading blogs and articles and then comparing it all to my personal experiences with PPM data, I believe the issues with PPM are nearing DEFCON1 for our industry.

Some things all radio broadcasters should know about PPM

The PPM tones are encoded and masked by other audio. If there is no audio on your radio station, there is no PPM encoding. If you are a spoken word radio station every time the host stops talking, takes a breath or a dramatic pause – the PPM tone stops encoding.

The PPM tones encode at certain frequencies (1 to 3 kilohertz), much higher frequencies than a typical male radio announcer, meaning higher pitched voices and music actually be decoded more consistently.

There has been no test results, at least released to the radio industry, how loud the radio station must be playing or how close to the radio the PPM device needs to be in order for the masked tone to be recognized and decoded. Though it is noteworthy that background radio station formats, like smooth jazz, have suffered greatly in the PPM era.

Audio watermarking technology can be wobbly leaving gaps (some small, some giant) in decoding and unknown amounts of unreported listening.

PPM encoding on internet streams is even less reliable. Just like a .jpg or .mp3 is compressed to make smaller files, your internet stream is compressed too, which means there is even less audio to mask the tone behind.

Because of these factors, some radio stations may only be encoding 50% of the time or sometimes even less and receiving greatly reduced credit in listening compared to what is actually happening.

My Conclusions

Radio should be mad as hell. This is costing people jobs, livelihoods, and impacting radio families across the country. Programmers, myself included, have made “strategic” adjustments to shows, personalities, and formatics based on inaccurate PPM data.

If I’m Premiere Radio or really any big radio company I’m lawyering up. With the hit talk radio has taken in recent years (see: Rush) could it be that the audience likes it fine, but PPM doesn’t?

Fight back. The Voltair seems to be a worthy investment for some stations. It essentially makes your watermarked audio easier for the PPM to recognize and decode.

Also, and this goes against my better judgement, if you’re News/Talk or Sports I would seriously consider adding a music bed or crowd noise at all times so the encoding never stops.

  1. June 11, 2015 at 5:24 PM

    Great points Larry and I’m glad this is being discussed.

    I don’t know the exact reasons why there isn’t more outrage. I do speculate that the costs associated with loudly yelling that Radio measurement is broken – plus the costs of actually fixing it are far too high for debt-ridden broadcasters.

    But here’s a question:

    Why do certain AM and Spoken Word stations do phenomenally and consistently well in PPM?

    Look at the latest PPM from Kansas City – launching a troubled never-ran AM into the top of the ranks due to increased interest in the Royals Games?

    Similar uplift here in San Francisco with the Giants Broadcasts.

    Our public radio station KQED has been in the Top 5 persons 25-54 all the way back from diary years and nearly every month since PPM launched.

    All News KCBS here – also a consistant Top 5 performer.

    Even in the last monthly my little FM Sports Station that could KGMZ is in the Top 5 with men 25-54 when 4 years ago we were 28th.

    I’m not saying these charges about PPM encoding are false. But I am saying that high quality, in demand programming seems to make it not matter that much. Am I missing something?

    • June 12, 2015 at 8:43 AM

      Jeff, great question that needs answers. Some possibilities…

      There are 600 Voltairs installed today across the country and it is improving the PPM results for underperforming formats. No one knows which stations these are.

      Play-by-play responds extremely well to PPM encoding because the crowd noise offers uninterrupted masking for the tones.

      The other factor is the wobbliness of the technology – where sometimes it fails other times it succeeds. In Seattle, where I was PD at KIRO we went from #2 to #28 and they’re back in the Top 5 now.

      My personal experience combined with this new data on the watermarking technology and generally being a reasonable and rational guy gives me pause regarding PPM and the decisions radio stations make each day with such unreliable data. I’ll continue to investigate your question. Thanks.

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