The Folly of Commercial Free

I am so damn proud of Philadelphia broadcasters and my mentor Jerry Lee who, if it were not for him, I would not be in radio today.

So, Mark Mays, Lew Dickey and Farid Suleman -- blame him!

Seriously, the latest reason I am proud of Philly radio people is because they are banding together to do some positive things that I think you should take a close look at.

Led by WBEB (B-101) owner and pioneer Jerry Lee they are going to use what's called facial coding to test radio commercials and hopefully make the medium more compelling to buyers. In fact, the participating Philly stations will use new technology to rate the desirability and effectiveness of radio commercials.

Radio has a lot of problems to be sure -- shrinking audiences, competing technology, a generation it has lost to mobile and Internet devices -- but the one problem it doesn't have to have is watering down the effectiveness of radio as a sales tool.

Unfortunately, while CEOs are confusing People Meter results with actual listeners and their stations are declaring "commercial free days" and segments, most of radio's problems with advertisers are self-made.

Hey, there's no reason to sell an ad to a sponsor and then run it back-to-back with seven others just to have a long music sweep that arguably will give you meaningless higher cume with PPM. And there's no reason to have your weakest talent (perhaps voice tracked from hundreds of miles away) recording RAB copy thrown together without a thought about effectiveness.

And God knows there is no reason radio has to sell spots when it can sell solutions. There is a reason most station reps don't go back to advertisers and agencies and ask, "did we meet your expectations?".

They already know the answer.

But all of that is changing and what the Philly stations are doing is vaulting into the future to actually make radio effective for advertisers rather than sell ratings and stupid commercials stacked in sets that don't work.

Jerry Lee's system checks the response of 43 facial muscles when a respondent listens to a radio commercial. Then they use 50 cameras to take the listener's picture every split second until they get 900 photo data reference points for a 30 second spot, for example. The group will target non-radio advertisers -- even better for the participating stations as this is revenue waiting to be counted.

I've heard the number bandied about that this system delivers eight times the return on investment for advertisers. Now we're cooking.

At the NAB Radio Show in Philly last week, so many speakers kept saying that radio revenue would pick up when the economy came back.

I'm not sure about that and I believe I have a lot of company.

That's why when radio is down on its luck, radio people ought to stop with the happy talk and do something positive.

Facial coding isn't the only answer, but it's an example of how the radio industry can maximize the positive cash flow it can throw off. Anything that can prove the effectiveness of radio to its revenue sources works for me.

But that's not the end of it.

Time to come to our senses.

Stop with the commercial free days -- at least calling them "commercial free". Commercials are not swine flu. Listeners obviously don't like them which is why stations pander to their sense that no commercials makes the station more desirable.

As a programmer, I have done "non-commercial" hours on my stations, but in hindsight I would have called them "100% music hours" like my old friend Marlin Taylor used to do when he was programming in New York City.

No reason to "dis" commercials.

It's good to emphasize the quantity of music a station plays but not at the expense of making commercials undesirable.

And while we're on the topic, commercials are undesirable because most of them -- frankly, stink. Yes, even the ones from agencies who should -- well, be doing things like using facial coding or Internet testing to gauge effectiveness.

You can't make great commercials without talent. You can't have great copy without good copywriters. Hell, radio will never invest in this -- and it's a mistake.

And if you could build the best commercials for your paying advertisers then proceed to run them in crowded clusters is the best way to make them irrelevant right from the start. These spots have no chance of being heard let alone having an impact for the client.

So, we've got a lot of work to do.

Keep in mind my students at USC claimed to like the concept of commercials but not the ones on commercial radio. They preferred them one at a time -- not clustered.

And let's not forget that small, local stations -- many of whom know exactly how to make effective commercials -- concentrate on that which is going to get the best response so they have a visible way to show how important radio advertising on their station is to local advertisers.

Look, radio people mean well. They want to do a good job. At the NAB it was apparent that the smaller operators marveled at how screwed up the bigger companies were and how they negatively influence the industry.

So, less voice tracking, more music discovery and better commercials -- now, there's a formula for a recovery that we should all embrace.

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