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.

Kurt Hanson


  1. Some of the best radio marketing ever done came from Coca Cola in the 60’s when they introduced the “Things Go Better With Coke” series, as sung almost Jingle style by groups like the Beach Boys, etc. The ‘commercials’ were loved by listeners and as a ‘jock’ in that era, the ads were requested often. (Remember when listeners could call and request songs … and jocks were jocks!) Coke took advantage of a basic rule of advertising – if the message is entertaining or truly informational, listeners love them.

    What advertiser would want to pay money to drive customers / listeners away? But sadly, some do. And greedy salespeople who simply want the commission on the sale never think about the consequence of bad marketing campaigns. The topic here is really about a lot more than how many intrustions per hour. It would serve the industry to talk about the content and creativity of the intrustions as well. Stations should scrutinize ads the same way they scrutinize their music play list.

  2. Some years ago, someone (I don’t remember who) did a study that spot length mattered less than the number of spots in the stop set. Listeners, according to this survey, said “a spot is a spot is a spot.” I’ve often contented that broadcasters should bite the bullet and limit commercial avails to 8 per hour, the old “standard” in the early days of FM, when “fewer commercials” was as much of a drawing card as was superior fidelity. Raise the rates to compensate and promote the hell out of less clutter.

  3. Interesting. I’ve felt for sometime now, that there’s not a radio broadcaster in the world that would be happy and accepting of being the 6th or 7th unit in a stopsets if they were buying time. Yet, they continue to disrespect their clients in this manner.

    Kurt, you didn’t mention the number of breaks per hour. While reducing length of spots from 60s to 30s, I assume you’re keeping the 12 minutes an hour of commercial time.

    If that’s the case, either 6 – 4 unit stopsets or 8 – 3 unit stopsets an hour would be required.

    Not only that. It would be necessary for stations to significantly increase their 30 second spot rates in order for those heavily leveraged companies to continue to service their debt load.

    Insisting that 30s become the standard across the industry and instituting large rate increases simultaneously could make for a very difficult sell.

  4. Radio has 2 choices. Cut the spot load by choice or lose the ability to sell spots because there will be no audience to hear them. The 30 second idea is a great place to start.

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