Oh, For the Good Ol’ Days

Sparky Taft in green shirt, yellow visor
Sparky Taft

Pub Note: We’re devoting this space this issue to a commentary by Sparky Taft, the long-time principal of Dynamic Results Media and former GM of eight radio stations and the owner of his own station (425-353-3265 or ).

Over the past few years, radio has changed—a lot! And not for the betterment of advertisers. It’s sad, but that’s the reality in today’s corporate broadcast environment.

Until a few years ago, there were more than 25 different radio station ownerships in the Seattle market. In those “good ol’ days” we used to have lunch and make a deal on a napkin. Beyond agreeing to rates and schedules, we often planned special promotions to assure that the clients got good results from the advertising. No more.

Now, only six broadcast companies (plus Christa Christian Radio) own all of the Seattle radio stations. And all of these companies are big corporations. Only Fisher Communications is locally owned and they, too, are a big company.

How has this changed radio advertising? All of these companies are really run by “bean counters” (aka bookkeepers) and program directors. Their shareholders want a huge return on their investment and thus the pressure is on the general managers and sales managers to produce large-dollar revenues.

A radio station’s audience can be dropping like a rock, but the investors want more money than the station produced in the past. It’s a “numbers” business… sell commercials for more money whether it’s realistic or not. This creates a lot of pressure—particularly on sales managers—to sell, Sell, SELL!!!

The program directors play a significants role by dictating “on air” policies, including how many commercials the station will run and how they’re run. Most music-format stations “cluster” their commercials—as many as six or seven in a row.

Program directors generally look at commercials as a nuisance, but know they’re necessary. Until a few years ago, most stations ran only two or three commercials in a row and the played another record. Now most music stations have only tow or three commercial breaks each hour, with “clusters.” This clustering greatly dilutes the effectiveness and audience impact of each individual ad.

The there are the “all music” formats, again dictated by the program directors, who have the philosophy that the all-music format will compete with iPods. For many commercial radio listeners, that’s true. But for the advertising client, it’s horrible. Most listeners to the all-music format are listening to the station for only one reason: MUSIC!

When a commercial cluster comes on, these listeners are street smart (or commercial smart!). They tune to another station until they know the commercials are over. So, there are “listeners” to the all-music station, but they’re not listening to the advertisers’ commercials. And the Arbitron ratings don’t reflect this tune-out audience.

The rates on all leading stations keep going higher and higher, whether justified or not, making it more and more difficult for many advertisers to use radio properly. Radio is a “frequency” medium; it takes many commercials to impact a station’s audience. If an advertising client can’t afford to run a lot of commercials on any selected station, they should save their money—write a check to charity—because they at least can write that off. Sadly, more and more stations are getting so pricey that many clients (particularly retailers) are looking for alternative media to reach their potential customers.

In spite of all these changes, I’m still a big believer in radio advertising. A couple years ago, one of my clients commented that he believed commercial radio was doomed with the emergence of satellite radio. I told hime then—and I say now—nothing could be further from the truth. Radio may have become very corporate and more difficult to deal with, but it remains an important part of Northwest life.