Voltair Controversy: The Seduction of Denial

Next month is the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual radio convention, to be held in Atlanta. I wish I could be a fly on the wall in some select panels and the local off-hours watering-holes. Fireworks are expected over an issue that’s been feistily percolating for more than a year — the integrity of the U.S. radio ratings system.

First, a quick primer about radio ratings in the United States. Administered by Nielsen, the ratings are collected by two primary means: listener diaries and Portable People Meters (PPM). The PPM system is a small pager-like device that selected listeners carry around with them; when exposed to a station’s broadcast, the meter logs the station and time spent listening. How? Stations that subscribe to the Nielsen ratings in PPM-enabled markets broadcast a special audio watermark that is inaudible to listeners, but that PPM devices can hear. The watermark is a 1000-3000 Hz tone; as a proprietary technology, the only way to work out how it really operates is by observing it in the wild or by examining its patents.

When the PPM system was introduced in 2007, it was touted as a new era for measuring radio ratings because listeners aren’t all that great about accurately and meticulously recording all the stations they’re exposed to. For example, radio often functions as background noise in places like restaurants, stores, and offices; when you’re at the dentist are you really paying attention to the smooth/lite pabulum oozing from the waiting room ceiling? Today, four dozen markets are measured using PPM technology. Read More

An Unwelcome Guest at the NAB Radio Show

This was the first year that I’ve actually attended the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual radio convention. Though I have been to two as a protester: the first in San Francisco in 2000 to let the industry know people were unhappy with their evisceration of LPFM, and again in Seattle in 2002 to culture-jam the airwaves and emphasize the continued vibrancy of electronic civil disobedience.

This time around, I figured things might be different, because I’ve grown a lot in the intervening years, left the radio industry for academia, and just wrote a book about one of the industry’s most pressing problems. Instead, I came away with the uncomfortable realization that the industry remains the purview of a bunch of old white guys wholly detached from reality and happy to keep things that way. Read More

WKRP Reunion Highlights Innovation and Chemistry

Last week the Paley Center for Media hosted a reunion of cast and crew from WKRP in Cincinnati. The show aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982 with an 88-episode run and is still in syndication more than 30 years later. When it first aired, I was too young to appreciate the show, but I grooved on it as a teenager and have to admit that WKRP is partially responsible for my forays into radio. Read More