Killer Radio Contests Don't Work

KDND, Sacramento is in hot water because its morning team did a ridiculous contest egging on a listener in a water drinking contest. Water is harmless, right? Not in excess. The victim, a contestant, drank more water than she should have. Entercom, the owner, dutifully fired ten people including the morning team, as a reaction to the death of the 28-year old Jennifer Strange. Criminal charges are possible. One of the morning crew apparently questioned on the air whether they were doing the right thing. If no charges are pressed at least a prosecutor will get a chance to make some headlines for a while.

All in all the contest was inappropriate for many reasons including the obvious -- it was irresponsible and someone died as a result of it.

It's not the first radio contest to cross over the line nor the first radio event. I remember the controversy when Bubba The Love Sponge castrated a pig and then killed it on air. He got the local animal rights group PETA mad and they launched a boycott that the Clear Channel station felt in lost advertising. Lousy radio contests have been around a long time. I'm sorry to hear of anyone losing their life because of something that was supposed to be fun and I know those involved feel the same way. Things got out of control.

But how did it get to this?

That brings me to the real issue. Things are out of control in radio. Management is not held accountable for the mistakes they make -- and I'm not talking about the death of a listener alone -- but the life and death of a radio station. They too often get a free pass from consolidators more focused on Wall Street than their local markets. Entercom wasted no time firing a slew of people, but they should also hold top management responsible -- the people who hired the "talent" and managed them. They should look in the mirror. Pushing the envelope may be a Wall Street staple, but people can get hurt like that.

Another issue is: hasn't anyone told radio stations that contests don't work. They haven't worked for years. Radio wore out contesting when stations gave away everything conceivable. Do you want to employ program directors who are running contests when the audience -- and the future audience (the one radio isn't going to get) doesn't respond to them? So, contesting is bad business, bad strategy and sometimes bad programming. Programmers think contests add something special to their formats. Perhaps. But not drink-until-you-die contests. And most stations have long since stopped giving away big cash prizes on the air, too. Why? They don't work either.

That still doesn't stop radio stations because too many of them live in the past. Too many still wish it were as simple as running a contest to boost their audience.

Radio has been self-destructing for almost ten years. You can blame the consolidators and the people the consolidators chose to run their "investments". When a listener dies in a meaningless station promotion, it not only shows poor judgment but poor management.

Radio has been blaming satellite radio, iPods, the Internet, the decline of CDs, the laughable lack of HD audio and you name it for its demise.

But it's time they look to themselves. They are the real problem. Radio doesn't get it and until it does there will be more unfortunate embarrassments ahead and more erosion of its future potential. There are still too many talented people around who know how to do good radio. They've been spending ten years since consolidation started trying to keep their jobs. Now is the time to let them get back to doing what radio does best -- a management decision that takes more courage than, say, firing ten people after they get your station in trouble.

Killer contests used to be ratings-getters. Now, they just don't pack much influence. Today, killer contests where people actually could die show the desperation of some radio stations that have seriously lost their way.