Friday, April 22, 2005

A Better Commercial Radio?

Much has been written about Clear Channel’s “Less Is More” campaign to reduce commercial spot loads and make better sounding commercials. Early information on this campaign suggests that Clear Channel is learning some of the same lessons public radio learned from the Listener-Focused Fundraising (LFF) project – how a break opens can affect how long a listener stays tuned, good production values can help prevent tune-out, and initiatives like this are never an overnight success.

LFF showed that on-air fundraising messages produced with public radio’s core values were well received. Listeners, even those who said they “hated pledge drives” not only listened to these spots, they also said they enjoyed them. Good radio can overcome bad perceptions. That will be true on the commercial side as well. Not all advertising is a negative. Not all advertising creates tune-out.

Commercial broadcasters will soon be able to measure this with Arbitron's Portable People Meter (PPM). Individual commercials, not just the station's programming, will be the subject of measurement and analysis. Radio spots will have a report card of their own and some spots will get A-pluses.

Many commercials, however, lack the creativity, production values, and connection to the audiences’ values to get a passing grade. That’s because many ad agencies treat radio as a third class medium. Commercial stations share the blame for accepting these ads and for airing some awful locally written and produced spots.

What makes this interesting is that ad agencies are eager for PPM results so they can hold stations accountable for the audience they deliver. But it’s entirely possible that stations will be able to turn the tables and hold agencies accountable for spots that drive listeners away. How? Clear Channel has talked about higher rates for the first spot in a break. Instead of charging more, what if preferred spot positions were given to commercials known to keep listeners tuned-in? And it’s not too difficult to imagine a car dealership dropping an ad agency because its spots were an audience killer.

Today, it is easy to sit back and assume that public radio will never face serious competition from commercial radio because of spot loads and annoying commercials. But with continued fragmentation of the media marketplace, commercial stations have more incentive than ever to sound better and keep listeners from going away. PPM can help them do that. That means more competition for current and new audiences. It’s a challenge that public radio should take seriously.

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