Radio's New Contesting Conundrum

The recession must officially be over.

CBS is bringing back contesting to its radio stations in 35 cities nationwide. That's a luxury radio operators could not afford when advertising sales were tanking.

Unfortunately, the contesting that is coming back is national in scope. That is -- listeners in 35 markets are competing for the same prizes. In the CBS example, $250,000 in prizes.

Clear Channel underwhelmed the industry before the recession by engineering national contests and I'm not so sure they weren't a little bit sneaky about the fact that local listeners were competing with listeners in other Clear Channel markets. I'm sure they did everything legal said to do, but perception that the contests remained local must have persisted.

CBS also has it's t's crossed and i's dotted with rules only a lawyer could love. Tom Taylor featured the WUSN, Chicago contest rules yesterday. It's all out there. Take a look here.

Thanks to technology, CBS can call this one big contest different names in different markets. One small step for digital radio, one giant leap for confusion.

Streaming listeners may be at a disadvantage -- if they are contest participators. Just turn to paragraph 3d in the rules and see "Due to delays in the WUSN's streaming broadcast, listeners to the online stream may not be able to participate in any WUSN-FM conducted on-air contests."

And there has been some discussion that once and for all, radio can learn -- thanks to People Meter technology -- whether contesting works or doesn't.

Let me address that now -- before the results come in.

PPM doesn't even answer the question are the listeners listening let alone are they interested in stations that offer contests. So in a PPM world, expect the conclusion to be just about anything radio CEOs want it to be.

One thing is for sure -- big national companies are trying to prime the PPM pump and national contesting is just another way of doing do.

In prehistoric days, almost all PDs would admit -- a very small percentage of listeners actually participate in radio contests. However, more listeners enjoy just hearing them and it is hard to imagine that they make the decision of which station to listen to based on contesting. Usually it's the music, a song at the moment their hand is on seek and search, a personality or service like news or talk.

So, what's up with the rebirth of radio contesting?

1. Radio contests when done right infuse excitement in the station and it's personalities -- excitement and fun -- and that combination may be the real payoff. If so, the big groups may be right in assuming that listeners will not care about their diminished chances of actually winning something. After all, popular lotteries are almost impossible to win -- even though smaller payouts are available.

2. National radio groups forget that the best contests come from local program directors. Sorry for using that word local again but national companies are local only to the extent that they let their stations make local decisions. Or, as I like to say, lots of luck with that.

3. Most radio contests are stupid and ineffective. They have been based on what prizes are available instead of desirability. In the 60's a cash giveaway in an era that preceded legal casinos, lotteries and unprecedented consumer spending could influence a Hooper Rating (telephone recall) almost instantly. Some contests get noticed. Most are worth forgetting.

4. Institutionalized contesting such as "Cash Call" -- where the contest is always on, the jackpot goes up every hour and the pot got bigger during rating periods helped make an already good station better. In Philly, my good friend Dick Carr then VP/GM of Metromedia's WIP owned the "Cash Call" franchise of his adult music, news and personality station. When competitor WPEN hired some of WIP's top personalities away, ran bigger jackpot contests and played music that the same audience would like -- WIP continued to dominate. True WIP had a much better signal. But Carr realized that WIP got top ratings for a number of related things -- Philadelphia Eagles football games being one. I'm saying, contests in and of themselves -- even good ones with big prizes and running forever -- don't make a difference by themselves.

5. My belief is that people want fantasy in their contests. I programmed a station that gave away jobs for three months -- in a recession. But I guarantee you the music was right on target.

6. If radio contests are going to be born again -- please let's not do trips, cash prizes that are unwinable, concerts, tickets, electronics. I mean, if radio is going to go down that road -- what is the purpose? How about an adult leaning station paying off college loans -- one per month (not a national contest, please). Christmas Wish was and is such a great contest because it involves fantasy and making dreams come true. Please tell me you're not going to ruin this local favorite by making it national. How about Lady Antebellum at your graduation party and then you get to go party with the group? Or your own reality show featured on the stations video stream. Bobby Flay at your Fourth of July cookout. Shoe of the month club for you and 50 of your friends would sound good on a female oriented adult station. I tired to give away a six-pack of new cars to one winner along with other outrageous prizes like use of a private jet for one year. I almost got my butt fired when the owner heard a listener win the average American income for a year -- in advance. Listeners loved the excitement.

7. Learn from Jack McCoy. Many of my readers may not know the name. McCoy created the most ripped off contest in radio at KCBQ in San Diego -- "The Last Contest" -- that not only gave away dazzling prizes but did it with long promos and spine tingling production. The promos were better than records. In truth, few of the prizes were actually given away at all -- but what was given away went to local listeners. The expense was not amortized over multiple markets. I'm certainly not saying turn the clock back and do old time radio. I am saying let programmers create the next groundbreaking, creative contest. In fact, encourage them to do so. Listen to the flavor of a creative genius at work with these promos for "The Last Contest" keeping in mind it was decades ago -- listen here.

So here we are.

The homogenized terrestrial radio business is getting ready to do all the right things the wrong way in my opinion.

How can this be?


An industry that believes that People Meter really reflects listening instead of being a drive-by technology that picks up devices that "hear" encoded signals is likely to also convince itself that national contesting will drive PPM ratings.

To me, two million PPM cume is not two million actual "listeners" -- not even close.

PPM started out okay but it has become radio's toy.

It cooperates fully with the consolidated mindset and can be everything to everyone.

But here's an alternative to nationalizing radio contests. Get to know your listeners again.

They don't care about contests anymore -- maybe never cared about most of them in the past. They are their own djs in a sense. Hear more new music in places other than a radio than every before.

They are engaged in instant communication with others through texting, social networking and the Internet.

They've grown up and grown past a radio mindset that is hell bent on using old school tricks in a new world marketplace.

To be honest, I'd take the $250,000 and give it to Jacobs, Edison, Harker, Ramsey, Van Dyke and a bunch of other good radio researchers (forgive me for not naming all of them) and say -- "help to teach me about consumers who listen to radio and also want new radio content on digital devices.

Or brainstorm with your staff.

How about a contest that encourages radio's most creative people to come up with solutions that listeners actually want?

Now that's an investment that is guaranteed to pay off with increasing listening.

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