A new piece of technology is causing controversy within Canada’s oldest broadcast medium. Over the past months, some radio stations in Canada have quietly begun using a device called Voltair in an attempt to improve their ratings — at least until ratings service Numeris stepped in and told them to stop a few weeks ago. Now Numeris says it’ll study the device to determine whether it really offers an improvement in ratings and whether the device, or the technology it’s based on, should be incorporated into Canada’s audience measurement system. “We asked them to remove it from service,” said Numeris president and CEO Jim MacLeod in a phone interview. “It appears in some way to affect the ratings. If some stations have it, and some stations don’t, I think there’s potential that the playing field is not level. And we want the opportunity to step back, do some testing, figure out exactly what it is Voltair is doing and come to a conclusion whether or not it should be part of the measurement system.” An issue is whether Numeris’ rating measurement system measures all radio stations equally. Since 2009, Numeris (then called BBM) has used electronic monitors, called portable people meters (PPMs), to help determine what Canadians are listening to on the radio. Those devices detect audio codes embedded in broadcasters’ signals and transmit a log of the programs people consume to Numeris, which compiles the ratings. But according to some critics, that technology is flawed. Richard Harker, senior partner at North Carolina-based media research company Harker Research, said the problem is that PPMs don’t necessarily pick up all of the encoded signals in radio programming, resulting in artificially low rating numbers. The problem is more acute in some genres, such as spoken word, classical or smooth jazz. That makes for, according to Harker, an “unfair playing field.” While PPMs might recognize 80 per cent of listening for less-affected formats, a sports or news talk station may get as little as 50 per cent or 30 per cent of the credit, he said. Genres such as smooth jazz and classical music are also often listened at a low volume, which compounds the issue. The extent of the problem can also often differ within genres, he said. For instance, Motown music from the 1960s is harder to encode than modern pop. “More contemporary stations seem to do a little better than the oldies stations,” Harker said. He added: “It is a matter of fixing a problem that has existed since PPM was rolled out.” Stations using Voltair see an average boost in listenership of 30 per cent, he said, and some stations airing hard-to-encode genres have seen even more dramatic results. Voltair, which promises to address these issues, was rolled out quietly in the second half of last year in the Boston area, and announced formally this spring, Harker said. It’s sold by the Cleveland, Ohio-based Telos Alliance for $15,000 US each, according to its website, which specifies over 500 have been sold thus far, and are being used “in every PPM market.” The website states that Voltair will show users how well their programming is being encoded, and offer the option of enhancing “your chances of getting credit for the listening that actually occurs.” Harker said that there are more than 600 in operation right now, and that the majority of them are in the U.S. In Canada, Numeris’ MacLeod said there are likely a “handful” of stations using the technology. He said Voltair came to Numeris’ attention when it started “gaining significant traction” in Canada in spring, around March and April. Harker noted that there is no way to tell whether a station is using Voltair, aside from an in-person inspection. “There’s a lot secrecy connected with Voltair. People are afraid to admit that they’re using it. They don’t want to attract the attention of or Numeris for that matter, so they’re very quiet,” he said. “Virtually every station that has employed Volatir goes up in the ratings,” Harker said. “So you have to either say that something is going on, and something is being fixed, or that Voltair is doing something to the audio to create phantom listening, or unreal listening, and there’s no evidence that that’s the case.” Numeris will test the technology by “piggybacking” on testing and research that its U.S. counterpart Nielsen and the accreditation body Media Ratings Council are conducting on Voltair, MacLeod said. Numeris will also do some testing of its own in Canada. “It’s very complicated, because you can’t do it live. You can’t go into the live system and do this. That’s exactly what we’re trying to prevent,” he added. MacLeod said that Numeris has also asked Neilsen, from whom it licenses the PPM technology, whether the way the code is inserted into programming is “necessarily the best way to do it.” “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We’d like to go back to ground zero,” and look at whether there is a need to revisit assumptions that were made when the PPM technology was developed about how the code should be inserted, he said. “Are there other ways to insert that code today?” Harker said that Numeris’ directive to stations to stop using Voltair devices was “misguided.” “There’s no evidence that Voltair has given any station an unfair advantage. The communiqué from Numeris focused on the level playing field, and the fact is that we don’t have a level playing field with PPM.” When asked about Harker’s claim that stations using Voltair see an average increase of 30 per cent, MacLeod said that hasn’t been “the experience in Canada.” In Canada, the handful of stations Numeris thinks had Voltair devices did not experience a uniform increase, he said, noting that “some have gone up, some went down, in the analysis we’ve been able to do.” MacLeod added that Numeris needs to “understand where these increases came from. We don’t think it’s good enough to say ‘you put Voltair in and my numbers went up 15 per cent.’ …. Why is it up 15 per cent? And that’s the testing we want to do. We just need to understand this. Maybe in the end we say, yep, you know what, this does a better job. ” If that’s the case, “you then deploy it in an organized manner, and you make sure that everybody has an equal opportunity to benefit from it,” he said. Numeris expects to have an update on that process in early August. “We should know more then than we know now,” MacLeod said. “But we are well aware of the urgency on this.” David Bray, a radio analyst and president of Bray and Partners Communications, said in a phone interview that he doesn’t see what other action Numeris could have taken in response to the use of Voltair in the Canadian market. “That’s probably all that they could do. I think it’s a fair response,” he said. Canada’s radio industry is “very aware” of the issues around Voltair, Bray said. “It is a very significant topic right now.” How big on an impact Voltair will make on Canadian radio will depend on the result of that testing, he said. “Does , in fact, make a significant difference? There seems to be some evidence of that, but not definitive as yet. But of course, if it does as some claim, then of course. It’s very significant.” He added: “if it is effective as some claim, then it can only be seen as an improvement to the system to give it greater accuracy.” — With reporting by Anja Karadeglija at firstname.lastname@example.org and editing by Shruti Shekar at email@example.com CORRECTION: The previous version of this story incorrectly identified the president and CEO of Numeris as Tom Jenks.