Kurt Hanson: How to fix radio’s spot load problem

kurt_hanson.jpgEarly this month, journalist and researcher Sean Ross opened up a debate in his Edison Research blog about apparent consumer preferences for more-frequent but shorter spot breaks on broadcast radio.

Last week, country consultant Jaye Albright has continued the conversation on her blog, countering Ross’s point by reminding her readers about the Canadian broadcaster Corus’s year-long experiment, under CEO John Hayes, shortly after launch of PPMs, with running six two-minute breaks per hour.

Short answer about Corus from Albright:  It didn’t work.  With frequent spot breaks (albeit shorter ones), Corus station ratings declined. As soon as Corus flipped back to two six-minute breaks, their PPM ratings went up group-wide.

Addressing this issue should be a major concern for AM/FM broadcasters, since hugely-long spot breaks are cited regularly, at least anecdotally, as a reason consumer are spending less hours per week with broadcast radio and more hours per week with satellite and Internet radio each year.

Like many things (not exercising, drinking martinis, etc.), playing long spot breaks is a case in which there are short-term benefits (fewer tune-outs to your nearest competitor this hour) but long term detriments (people giving up on the medium).

LOAD 247wOne issue that doesn’t regularly get mentioned in this debate (at least not much in the comments sections of Sean or Jaye’s blogs) is the impact of long spot breaks on ADVERTISERS.  It seems logical that the poor advertiser who has purchased the sixth or seventh spot in a long spot break is going to suffer from diminished listenership and/or effectiveness.

Another thorny issue I would like to bring up again is the LENGTH of radio commercials.  As you know, the standard spot length for TV commmercials is 30 seconds, but for radio spots is 60 seconds.  That means a six-unit break on radio often runs for six full minutes, when with tighter copy the job could probably get done in half that time.

This is one big reason why most consumers, as I showed in my “State of the Industry Address” recently in Las Vegas, aren’t embracing simulcast streams of broadcast radio stations: The spot loads are absurdly high compared to the Internet-only channels that are available on the same device.

In other words, if you’re a broadcaster, you may get away with six-minute-long spot breaks on AM/FM if all your competitors are doing the same thing, but once you’re competing with the newer crop of competitors (i.e., satellite and internet radio), the problem becomes far more challenging.

So, putting on my “dreamer” hat for a moment, here’s one idea of what the broadcast radio industry could to do to solve this problem:

  1. Announce that beginning January 1, 2015, the standard length of a radio commercial will be 30 seconds.   Perhaps :60s will still be available, but they will be priced from now on at a high premium, because, generally speaking, they are a disimprovement for both the audience and the advertiser.
  2. To help make this work, set up an industry-supported website showing YouTube videos of old 1960s-era TV commercials — i.e., for Kent cigarettes (“Kent, with the amazing Micronite filter… As we said, Kent, with the amazing Micronite filter…”), Kool-Aid, and Ford Falcons.  The savvy advertiser will watch some of these commercials and will realize, “Sixty-second spots are intolerable!  Cutting TV spots down to :30s has led to much more effective messaging.”
  3. Simultaneously, announce an industry standard that four units (or maybe even three?) is the maximum break length that’s acknowledged as good for advertisers.  (Within the parameters of this standard, let programmers compete over how to schedule their breaks within the hour.)  If any station violates this standard, let all the other stations in town tell the advertiser, in one voice, “When your spots are being played in a overly-long break, you’re being played for a sucker.”

I realize Clear Channel tried something like this briefly in 2004 with John Hogan’s “Less is More” campaign, but it was a unilateral effort in which Clear Channel made no effort to get support from other broadcasters.

As an industry-wide effort, however, I believe a program like this would energize radio’s sales forces, improve listener satisfaction with the medium, and improve radio’s effectiveness for advertisers.

In other words, a win-win-win.

Brad Hill

One Comment

  1. Interesting article Kurt. Here in the UK the ‘standard length’ commercial is 30s. We seem to sell as many 20s as 40s ads discounted or uplifted accordingly. The structure and duration of ad breaks is a pet subject for me. It reminded me to dig out the Arbitron report from Dec 2011 ‘What Happens When The Spots Come On?’ http://bit.ly/1i6Tq5b . It may be 2+ years old but for me it still shows that, retaining 96% of its audience, the 2 to 3 minute break is optimum in the general population – modified for station format and age. I would also say that one of the driving factors in our use of the 30s standard is that the production costs can be reduced without completely destroying production values, so audience retention is not compromised.

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