Inside Look at Radio

After riding high for much of the last decade, the radio industry has taken its lumps lately. A number of alarming recent studies show listenership among 12-to-24-year-olds, the MP3 generation, dropping like a stone, along with growing disenchantment among all age groups with stale, overly formatted programming. Advertisers are miffed at rising prices, while calls to curb the power of radio consolidation get louder on Capitol Hill. Even among veteran industry mavens an anxious mood is evident, epitomized by former AMFM executive Jimmy deCastro’s widely reported "Radio Sucks Today" speech at the Radio and Records convention in June.

Despite its current funk, however, radio still has plenty going for it as a uniquely flexible and, at its best, amazingly effective advertising vehicle. A strong case can be made that in an age of time scarcity, radio, though nearly a century old, is the medium best tuned in to the way contemporary consumers actually live, and buy.

"Consumers don’t have the same kind of time they used to for media by appointment," observes Gary Fries, president of the Radio Advertising Bureau. "They’re too busy to plan their time around a TV schedule or to spend much time reading newspapers. They’re at work more, they’re running errands, they’re in their cars more, and marketers have to try to catch them on the run. That’s where radio has its big edge. It’s the medium of choice for people while they’re on the move. Almost two-thirds of shoppers aged 25 to 54 listen to the radio within an hour of making a purchase."

As the only proven mobile, out-of-home medium, radio also offers advertisers a way to escape the increasing clutter of at-home media, believes Debbie Durben, president of the Interep Marketing Group. "In the home," she explains, "you have a slew of media vying for consumer time — TV, the Internet, DVDs, and video-games. Out-of-home, radio is the only medium consumers literally bring with them."

"Radio," insists Jay Williams, CEO of the Urban Radio Network, a national network aimed at the urban African-American community, "is the best tactical weapon to get out an actionable message quickly to a highly targeted audience. TV may be sexier, with its visual dazzle, and newspapers convey more information on products and comparative price points, but TV and print ads are generic. With radio, formats are already differentiated very precisely by demographic. You can use the same ad copy and vary the delivery of the message for different target markets. You can easily tailor it into a country, hip-hop, adult contemporary, modern rock, or oldies-styled spot, and directly connect with the audience you want."

Brian Wheelis, planning director of Austin, Texas-based GSD&M, an agency that has handled ad campaigns for brands such as Jiffy Lube, Chili’s, and regional Bell telcos, believes radio is the premier medium for what he calls "transactional branding" — tying brand awareness to a specific product or service offering. "With 30 seconds on TV," Wheelis says, "you can introduce a brand and attract interest, but once you’ve got a customer’s interest, there’s really no time to tell them where and how to act on it. For the cost of one 30-second TV spot, you can run numerous 60-second spots that give you more room to prompt consumer action."

Radio, Wheelis says, is perfectly positioned to activate consumers when they’re near point of purchase. One client, a national motor oil company, found that running ads during midday, traditionally a less expensive off-peak time, dramatically increased sales by spurring "top of mind" awareness of products at times people are most receptive to acting. "Busy people these days use their lunch hour to take care of errands they don’t want to have to do after work or on weekends," Wheelis says, "so that’s an excellent time to jog their memory that they need to get motor oil." The motor oil ads were most effective, he adds, when they were co-branded with local auto service centers, giving drivers a destination close by to act on a promotional offer. Wheelis explains that the most effective current radio ad format is "copy-splitting," where a 60-second ad is split into two parts, with the first 30 to 45 seconds describing the national brand and its attributes and the second part featuring a concrete offer from a local vendor.

When Yahoo!, a heavy TV advertiser, wanted to promote a three-day "World’s Biggest Internet Sale," it turned to radio for its timeliness and immediacy. "Yahoo! needed to ramp up awareness of the event very quickly," recalls Warren Cockrel, radio copywriter for Yahoo!’s creative agency, San Francisco-based Black Rocket. "With very little lead time to drum up intense interest, radio was essential," he says, "because unlike TV campaigns, you can put together the creative and target the promotion very quickly with heavy, high-frequency advertising to a narrowly targeted audience. TV takes far longer to ramp up. It may reach further, but to get a timely message out to the right people quickly, and to do it cost-effectively, radio is the way to go."

Another Black Rocket client, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, finds radio critical for building awareness of new flavors and special offers, and quickly translating that awareness into store traffic and sales.

"One of the most effective things we’ve done with Ben and Jerry’s was create a campaign called Freezer Fairies,” Cockrel says. Freezer Fairies are magical characters who reward people who contribute to good causes with a Ben and Jerry’s coupon." The campaign, Cockrel explains, was based on an action message wonderfully suited to radio, which drove store traffic while promoting Ben and Jerry’s progressive brand image.

According to Cockrel, he targeted 18-to-34-year-olds because they’re heavy premium ice cream purchasers, yet have little brand loyalty. It was a great way to connect them to the brand with some new flavors skewing to a younger market, Kaberry Kaboom and Concession Obsession. The ads used "celebrity voices" such as the Car Talk guys, and told listeners they could get a Freezer Fairy packet by going to a local store or calling an 800 number.

The campaign attracted thousands to the stores to get the packets (and buy ice cream), while generating tremendous word of mouth as well. The power of the campaign, Cockrel believes, stemmed largely from working with the medium’s strength, storytelling. "Having a Freezer Fairy on TV would have made the concept too literal," he reflects. "The campaign did what only good radio can do, engaging the listener’s imagination through humor and storytelling, letting them make up their own pictures."

Another plus for advertisers is that radio listening habits, unlike those of restless channel-surfing TV viewers, are incredibly steady. Even though dozens of radio station choices exist in most larger metropolitan markets, the average radio listener, according to Arbitron, listens to a total of just 3.1 stations regularly. Ernie Roth, president of Furman Roth Advertising, believes that listener loyalty to stations also makes radio a strong strategic branding tool to build awareness and name recognition through high-frequency advertising.

"Most dot-coms never succeeded as business models," sayss Roth, "but one thing many of them did very successfully, mainly through radio, was become names people remembered. That experience dramatized to many people the power of radio to establish brand and name recognition."

This ability works not only for new products, but also for four-century-old brands, such as Grolsch beer, trying to reposition themselves in a new market.

"When we first began promoting Grolsch," says Bob Hoffman, president of Gearon-Hoffman, a Boston-based agency, "we started with magazine ads, which are a good way to provide information about a product. But print takes a long time to accumulate. A monthly magazine often takes two months at least to actually be looked at."

Gearon-Hoffman used radio as the primary vehicle to reintroduce the venerable Dutch brew to a younger market against dominant import brands Heineken and Becks, both heavy TV advertisers. Grolsch used radio heavily in eight major metro markets during a.m. and p.m. drive times, advertising on stations listened to by males, especially in the 25-44 group. Ads employed humorously irreverent flashbacks to imaginary episodes in European history to emphasize the beer’s "full-bodied, bold, classic" quality.

The campaign’s strategic use of radio was similar to one the agency previously used in launching Sam Adams beer. "When an emerging brand has a modest budget and wants to challenge the big guys in a category," says Hoffman, "radio is the way to rapidly ramp up name awareness and establish a brand image." The results were impressive. Grolsch U.S. sales jumped from 600,000 cases to more than 2 million cases over four years. While radio works well as a stand-alone platform, it is also, according to Hoffman, an extremely cost-effective way to complement other media, particularly outdoor billboards. "Radio and outdoor ads," he says, "can enable a guerrilla marketer to outflank TV. We ran billboard ads concurrent with the radio campaign and got our target market in their cars with sound and visual at least twice every day, on the way to and from work."

Procter & Gamble, traditionally a heavy user of print and TV advertising, recently used radio pivotally in tandem with a website ( and 800 number to do a non-retail trial launch of its new product "Crest Whitestrips" in 11 cities, using heavy advertising on select local personality-based talk shows in each market. . "The key," explains Derek Ross, director of marketing for Interep Marketing Group in Cincinnati, an agent for P&G, "was to use very popular local talk personalities, such as Matty in the Morning in Boston, to personally endorse the product and talk about it in a spontaneous way, using a list of key selling points as a ‘script.’" Listeners were directed to the website or 800 number to make a trial order.

"What was really amazing," he says, "is that we got almost immediate feedback, something a magazine ad could never give us. We got to hear the live reads the same day the ads ran and could see which ones were working basically the same day. With those that weren’t we could get back to the reader and say ‘That one didn’t work, could you try to emphasize something else tomorrow a little more.’ This kind of individualized tinkering and tailoring to each local market would be impractical on television, which is a far less personal medium. People listen to a popular local personality as if they’re getting word of mouth from a good friend."

The eight-week campaign drove tens of thousands of listeners to visit the website or call the 800 number. It also allowed the company to sell several thousand kits at $40 each and build strong product recognition before any of the kits were available in the stores. Based on early radio-driven successes, the kits were distributed through retail channels. "The intensive early exposure and momentum radio generated made roll-out of the product in stores ramp up much more quickly," says Ross. P&G has continued to use local radio endorsements extensively for the product.äRpite its strengths, contemporary radio is not without its flaws. "I worry about radio programming getting too sophisticated for its own good," says Bob Hoffman. "The medium is so well researched and targeted that it’s in danger of losing touch with its creativity. In the long run that would be bad for advertisers. Younger listeners in particular are finding radio today in way too tight a box." Hoffman also faults radio programmers for "completely letting down their judgment" in running "interminable commercial pods" consisting of several ads unimaginatively lumped together. "The desire to jam in as many ads as possible each hour is making it harder and harder for a good ad not to be buried," he argues.

Another alarming trend, according to Ernie Roth, is the aggressive pricing large radio owners are attempting in some cases to unilaterally impose. "Too many programmers think they can raise prices at will, even if numbers of listeners are not increasing," says Roth. "There’s a dangerous tendency out there toward squeezing advertisers, which could threaten to undermine one of radio’s big selling points, cost-effectiveness."

While acknowledging some current criticisms, Gary Fries remains confident that the medium’s best days are ahead of it. "Advertisers should remember that radio is a work in progress," he says. "Good programmers don’t mind constructive criticism, because no one wants to identify and improve on flaws more than them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that radio was losing its edge. They even said that when eight-tracks came out. But it’s always adapted. No medium in history has ever proven so adaptable to what people want to listen to."

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