By Michael Berry
HOUSTON — All I ever hear radio industry execs talk about is ratings and revenues, as if the two go hand in hand. With music stations, that may be true. But talk radio’s future will be determined by our ability to get results for our advertisers. That includes, but is not limited to, ratings, and it probably has more to do with ratings in categories currently seen as less, or altogether un-, important; namely, 55 and up, or 35-64.
Ratings are not an end in themselves, but rather a pricing mechanism by which advertisers determine the rates they will pay. In an industry which measures itself primarily, indeed almost exclusively, on the 25-54 demo, it’s good to remember how many people are active consumers who don’t fit into those niches. Twenty-five-year-olds don’t buy houses, or improve them. Their bodies aren’t breaking down, so they don’t need all the medical advancements of companies willing to advertise those services. They are not investing, banking, exercising, losing weight, restoring vision, or maintaining a house that needs everything from new pipes to electrical to roofing to driveway pavers to a pool. In short, radio can still be very profitable as our society ages by appealing to direct-buy advertisers. But only if radio can yield results for the client. Think about it: listeners tune to music radio to zone out to music, and when someone talks it’s a distraction. Listeners tune to talk radio to be engaged, and the talk by the host is what they sought. If the host’s endorsement of a product could be as compelling as his discussion of Obama’s hypocrisy, imagine the boon to advertisers. Winning the ratings war for most listeners under 54 does not necessarily yield financial returns to the people who pay for advertising. It is not the size of the audience, but rather the size of the response for the advertiser, that will build loyalty in clients. So how do we get results for clients, especially live, direct clients?
Consider the ads that ran during the Super Bowl recently. Interesting that a television spot by a major company employed a voice from the radio: the late, great Paul Harvey. It was from a speech he gave to a Future Farmers of America convention back in ‘78, and it was vintage Harvey. The rich timber in his voice, the slow and steady control, the rhythmic pattern, the perfect pace. He extolled the virtues of the American farmer, and even city dwellers had to wish they were one. Honor, sacrifice, a bygone era, hard work. Pictures appeared on the screen, but it was Paul Harvey’s voice that pulled us closer, shushing our fellow game watchers, to figure out how this would end. I found myself wondering who paid for this awesome spot – was it the farmers? – then letting that go to hear more of the story, then wondering again. Oddly, it was a paid spot that made me yearn to know who paid for it. That’s rare.
At 1:47 into the 2 minute story (because calling it a commercial seems odd), a picture of a truck appears. The logo is not clear, and a closer look doesn’t help. It’s not yet clear why the truck is even there, because its markings are not highlighted. The truck stays on the screen for a rodeo eight seconds, while “to the farmer in all of us” anchors the screen. Finally, fade to black and the Dodge logo makes a grand entrance. Two hundred ninety-words are spoken, and never once the word “Dodge.” Or even, “truck.” Dodge reported over five million hits of the YouTube video of the ad in less than five days. That is five million hits for a simple advertisement.
The USA Today Super Bowl Ad Meter ranked it the third best spot during the game, but WSJ’s Cindy Gallop called it the “Great American Super Bowl Commercial.” It appealed to the people who buy new trucks, which is not 18-34 year-olds but rather 50, and 60, year-old men.
It’s time we realize that talk radio is primarily an older demographic (as we grow up we talk about more serious things, in our younger years we just turn up the music). Talk radio shouldn’t try to compete in advertising with stations that are selling to kids, by which I include people in their 20s. Our listeners are loyal to us, to our cause, to our values, whereas music listeners tend to gravitate to the musicians more than the people talking in between.
With that in mind, this was perhaps the best TV spot I’ve seen in 10 years. What made it so special? It didn’t push a product, use a silly gimmick, or tie a celebrity to a company in a way that is not believable. It told a story. It actually, dare I say it, entertained. The spot itself was interesting. Had it not been a paid commercial, it could instead have substituted for a lackluster halftime show that likely blew the lights at the Superdome.
We as talk hosts entertain every day. That includes talk about politics, our culture, our families, anecdotes from our lives and those of our listeners. It is old-fashioned entertainment. Storytelling, without the crutch of visuals and whizbang graphics. Campfire conversation, a lost art.
Yet, when it comes the necessary time to pay the bills, our talk goes bland, boring, and offputting. The rote recitation of copy points, the dull and dreary mainstay of talk radio. Listeners don’t like it, we don’t enjoy it, and, perhaps worst of all, it doesn’t yield results. At least not the type of results we need to compete with traditional media and the emerging online competition.
I tell my sales reps, and my clients, “I’ll read the bad copy you insist on, because you pay the bills, even though it won’t get results. I can get you results, or I can read your copy. But I can’t do both. You decide.” Most will let me do what I do, and judge our success not in hearing their crafted words on my show but on the phone calls to their company. Here are my five suggestions to the sales reps who expect us to get results for your clients.
This is the second such piece I’ve written on this subject, and it won’t be the last. Radio is an exciting, engaging medium. TV cannot give you instant interaction, and the internet lacks the intimacy of a spoken word conversation. But our future will be determined by dollars and cents, not by ratings. Profitable radio requires listeners – of whatever age (yes, people live and consume beyond 54!) – who believe in it, and who support those who sponsor it. I call the people who pay to be on my show “sponsors” rather than “advertisers” and I make clear to my listeners that they keep us on the air. I tell our listeners that supporting these folks supports my show, and that consumer patriotism is a viable way to take back our country. When I’m boycotted, I remind my listeners that they must step up to support my show by supporting my sponsors. It typically results in spikes in business for my sponsors.
There should be as much attention and passion given to providing a good experience for our advertisers as there is to our listeners. Sellers are out selling radio, and we’re in the studio in making it. However, when the advertiser and listener are interacting, with us as the connector, we’ll not only be more engaged, we’ll ensure our future success.