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Nielsen’s Testing Hasn’t Resolved The Radio Ratings Debate

For months, radio company executives have been waiting to hear from Nielsen, the company they pay to measure their audience size. Hundreds of stations around the U.S. had bought a device called Voltair, a gray box that some executives said has helped their stations increase ratings by making it more likely that Nielsen would count their listeners. If that were true, it would call into question the accuracy and fairness of Nielsen’s ratings system for radio — the basis for what stations play and how much advertisers pay to sponsor it. (I wrote an article about this fracas in June.)

On Tuesday, Nielsen finally addressed Voltair in a presentation to clients. The ratings giant’s message — based on a recording I heard and slides I saw — was: We’ve tested Voltair. It doesn’t seem to affect ratings much. Our ratings are fair and accurate. We’ll improve our technology later this year. (I’m paraphrasing.)

Nielsen tested lots of types of radio (including music and talk) to see whether the Voltair system made them more likely to be detected by Nielsen’s Portable People Meters (PPMs). Voltair made it more likely for one particular type of radio Nielsen tested to be counted: talk radio played at a hushed volume — roughly one-fourth the volume of an ordinary conversation — with background noise of about the same volume. That doesn’t necessarily mean PPMs aren’t doing their job, Nielsen said. Those conditions might make talk radio inaudible for many listeners, in which case it shouldn’t always be counted.

Nielsen executives said in the presentation that the company’s current technology registered almost every test case for all other scenarios tested. Nielsen’s tests covered a range of music (including smooth jazz, one type thought to be at a disadvantage under its system) and talk, and different volumes of sound and background noise.

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Matt O’Grady, a Nielsen executive vice president and managing director who hosted the client presentation, said Nielsen would have liked to do more real-world testing of Voltair. “The industry is clamoring for more information on this, but very few people cooperated on real-world tests,” he said, referring to radio executives who didn’t supply data. “Imagine being in that situation.”

I asked why Nielsen didn’t release all the test data to the public. “You have got to start with the clients,” O’Grady said. “They deserve to know. They’re paying the bills.” Nielsen is also sharing data with the Media Rating Council (MRC) and other industry groups. He’s not sure whether journalists will get their hands on the data. “I know everyone is clamoring to see more data and results,” he said. “I just can’t comment on that right now. I don’t know what our position is on that.”

Other testing is coming, from MRC and from Numeris, Nielsen’s nonprofit counterpart in Canada. “We’ve got a test design we’re trying to finalize,” Jim MacLeod, president and CEO of Numeris, said in a telephone interview Monday, adding that it’s more complicated than it might appear to an outsider.

Nielsen ended the presentation with four frequently asked questions, the first of which was, “Are you telling clients to remove Voltair?” The answer Nielsen gave on the presentation was to reiterate the company’s “nonsupport for Voltair.”

I put Nielsen’s own question to O’Grady. Like in the presentation, he didn’t explicitly say Nielsen is banning Voltair. He did say that after Nielsen introduces its own new technology later this year, Voltair “will be redundant.”

The lack of a clear answer on a Voltair ban confused one Nielsen client who uses Voltair and listened to the presentation (the client asked not to be named because the presentation was supposed to be for clients only). “I really would have liked them to answer their own question a bit better than that,” the Nielsen client told me by email. “Come on, guys, yes or no?”

Read more: “Did Nielsen Kill The Radio Star?”

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.