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morning rush hour
rush hour traffic
minute breaks
satellite radio
commercial breaks
retention rate
Is The Commercial Break Broken?
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Is the Commercial Break Broken?

I am going to tell you about fifteen different products, places to go or contests to enter one after the other. When I'm finished I'd like you to recount each of them with their message and contact information. And no, you are not being given a roadside sobriety test.

Now, let's try the same exercise, only this time you are driving your car in morning rush hour traffic and I am spouting off fifteen different messages. Chances are your retention rate is much lower, because you are multitasking. Navigating rush hour traffic takes a great deal of concentration on its own.

Here is my question; If you are a radio advertiser wanting to be on morning drive (M-F 6a to 10a), the most listened too and vis a vi most expensive day-part to advertise during, doesn't being one in a string of fifteen messages defeat the purpose? Remember, nobody is sitting there trying to remember them all. Most people are involved in other activities and radio is only part of their environment, like when making breakfast, driving, working or pretending to look svelte at the gym.

Moreover, many listeners know morning and afternoon rush hour radio inherently have long commercial breaks which they figuratively and or literally tune out during the cavalcade of annoying banter and jingles. Most of them actually go completely unheard!

Radio stations know all this. Other music media such as Satellite Radio and Pandora have none or very little advertising. And, their advertisers are not forced to buy the traditional full priced sixty-second ad unit most of us grew up unconsciously listening too. In an attempt to level the playing field, commercial radio stations have been selling thirty and fifteen-second commercials. But just to stick a fork in it, a thirty-second commercial is generally priced at seventy-percent of a sixty, and so forth.

But by accepting smaller ad units simply means packing more commercials into fifteen-minute breaks in order to earn the same revenue. It's like when you negotiate with a car dealer. The finance manager keeps coming back to you with the same deal, just with less months and a higher payment. Or, more months with a lower payment. The car price still remains the same. So do the length of the commercial breaks.

Some stations have taken to heart the ineffectiveness and unpopularity of the long commercial breaks. AM news, talk and sports stations have a lot of natural breaks between phone calls, shifting from weather to traffic reports or in between baseball innings, for example. Programmers have taken to stuffing one or two commercials in each short break. This eliminates the need for the long fifteen-minute marathons of mutter. But often listeners becomes annoyed with the constant interruptions in programming every five to seven minutes, defeating the purpose.

But before you conclude radio advertising is not effective, think again. Many stations in every major US market still deliver huge audiences. And, radio is not going anywhere. Not only is it a mobile medium, but the content is always fresh. When a major local event happens, the first thing most people do is turn on the radio. And when disaster strikes, we get our instructions from radio. Moreover, when nine out of ten people throw something at their significant-other while in the bath tub, it's usually a radio.

National Public Radio (NPR) is currently having its heyday. Although sponsorship frequency and content is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the few fifteen-second messages that do run per hour (no more than six minutes) usually garner excellent results. Less clutter has decreased tune-out because of fewer breaks. Most surprising, the fifteen-second ad unit has no bearing on retention and response. When NPR affiliates lose business, it's usually because they hate going out on sales calls. They don't like missing three o'clock at the Russian Tea Room. They love those little finger sandwiches.

Commercial radio stations definitely have it rough. There are very few independents. Most are owned by one of three or four major broadcasting conglomerates. And the home office wants more revenue every year, despite market conditions. Moreover, they want the largest market share on every piece of business. What is a station to do when maxed out on commercial inventory or left with too much they can't sell?

Sell something besides radio! And I'm not referring to transmitters. Most radio stations sell banners on their web sites, seats at seminars they are promoting and tickets to special station events like concerts at private venues. Much of this non-spot revenue is so profitable stations hire salespeople who just specialize in selling it. And that's how most stations make their numbers.

I've been in and around radio for 26 years. I've seen incredible changes to technology, programming formats, advertising approaches and salespeople who make Herb Tarlic from 1980's television's WKRP in Cincinnati look like someone with the client's best interest at heart. No matter the obstacle, commercial radio always finds a way to repackage themselves and adapt. Radio is not just a service, its formats and personalities are a fundamental part of the American landscape. Will they gravitate toward the non-profit broadcasting sponsorship model? Are events going to be a standard part of every radio sponsorship? What strategic partnerships will be formed to cut costs and increase the quality of programming?

I don't know the final result, but I am confident commercial radio broadcasters will get it right. If Hyundai can build a car not relegated for use only as a taxi cab, things can turn around. You see, radio salespeople sell air. You can't touch it or see it and it's gone in a matter of seconds with no guarantee of results. If they can accomplish that consistently for over one-hundred years, I'm sure they can resolve their clutter and retention issues in the next couple.


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