Using radio as part of your small business marketing mix

People may think of radio as old-fashioned in terms of today’s marketing vehicles–”the next big thing” before television, which was “the next big thing before the Internet, but radio is still a viable and effective medium for reaching audiences.

Radio has been on my resume for almost 30 years. I’ve produced programming for commercial radio, hosted arts programs, and anchored news. In the public radio arena, I’ve sold underwriting, promoted events, anchored on-air fund drives, and developed off-air programs. My client roster has included public radio, commercial radio, and hybrid radio initiatives. I recommend radio to clients, coordinate their buys, produce their commercials, and research options.

So, it made sense to ask my radio colleagues for advice for this article.

Richard Malawista, executive director of Broadcasting at New England Public Radio and a radio veteran for over 30 years, says that most people, regardless of age, know how to turn on a radio, whether it’s on a desk or counter top, in a car, or on their laptops, iPhone or other device. “Radio is ubiquitous, easy and accessible,” says Malawista, who adds that, in general, access to radio is free. “It’s there 24/07, and an audience can surf the dial to find what they’re looking for, from news and information, to talk radio, to music of many genres.”

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine/RadioInfo, has been in the business for 47 years. “In spite of increased competition from online sources, radio remains one of the most popular and widely used forms of mass media in the nation,” he says.  “Plus, every radio station in America has a web presence and component, so it isn’t a matter of one or the other.”

Kent Martin, NPR’s National Representative/Corporate Sponsorship for 17 years, and a radio professional in local stations since the 1980s, agrees. “The audience is still there, regardless of how they listen. They have so many convenient options in which to listen to what they want when they want.”

Gary Hebda, an account executive for two Davidson Media Group commercial stations in the Springfield, MA, market for the last eight years (and a veteran of radio for almost 30 years) says, “The most persuasive instrument in the world is the human voice. Radio delivers that.”

There are basically two choices available to a small business owner who chooses to use radio in a marketing campaign–public radio or commercial radio  Public radio (non-commercial radio) offers underwriting and sponsorship opportunities. The FCC mandates that public radio is non-commercial, so stations make sure that all underwriting or sponsorship messaging is value-neutral and non-promotional in nature (with no calls-to-action).

Within that, there are many radio formats out there: music (classical, jazz, rock, country, hip-hop, ethnic, folk, oldies, and more), sports and sports-talk, news and news-talk, religious, foreign language. The list goes on.

When Buying Radio Time…

1. Learn about the station’s format before you talk with a rep. Listen, if you can. Check out the website. Who are the other advertisers? When you do talk with a rep, be very clear about your company, its products and services, the audience you are looking to reach and your radio advertising budget for that station.

Hebda recommends that one “asks the rep about the station’s audience, age, gender, and other demographics to see if the audience matches yours. Always ask about TSL (or time spent listening). If audiences are just “passing through,” it’s less valuable than those who are listening for extended periods of time.”

2. Negotiate! Ask about discounts for frequency purchases (based in total dollars purchased, total number of weeks, or other thresholds). Ask about discounts for pre-payment. Ask about other “perks:” advertiser listing and link on their website; web banners, being interviewed on air, having a show do a remote broadcast from your business.

3. When you’re dealing with a public radio station, the FCC has restrictions on what can be said. According to Martin, “Most public radio reps can help craft an effective message on your behalf, within the FCC guidelines.” Malawista adds that the public radio format and clock is designed to maintain an uncluttered atmosphere.

4. Determine how many spots to buy to get your message across. In public radio, less is more. In commercial radio, it’s a different story. Harrison says, “There is no tried and true number to determining the optimum frequency that an ad should run per day or per anything. The general rule is the more the better. Certainly only running one spot per day will not net the same results as two, three or more because not everyone is listening to a station at the same time, let alone concentrating on the message upon any singular listening event.”

5. Format for the ears. Your spot doesn’t carry weight unless it’s creative. There are differences between 10-second spots and 60 second spots, aside from time. Can you fill 60 seconds with your message? Can you get your name out in 10 seconds? People in their cars won’t remember intricate phone numbers or websites, so make sure yours is memorable.

Hebda says that “commercial stations, in general, do not charge advertisers for the production of a spot, from copy to music bed to voice-over.” If your needs are more complex, seek out an ad agency that can create quality materials for radio.

Terms You’ll Hear

Affidavit of Performance. A statement from the radio station that states when your spot aired (usually within a 15-minute window). The statement can be notarized. If a station can’t provide this information, don’t pay.

AQH: The number of people listening to the station within an average quarter hour. A Nielsen term.

Co-Op Purchase. If you sell a product (from cars to insurance to paint), ask your vendor if the product has a co-op advertising program, in which the product reimburses you a percentage of your ad buy for their being mentioned in your ads a certain number of times. This can stretch your media buy.

Commercial Radio. A station or network that is organized as a for-profit business, and raises its income through advertising and sponsorship.

Cume: The total number of people tuning in to a radio station for at least five minutes during a day part. A Nielsen term.

Drive Time: A period of time in morning and evening when listenership is high, because people have their radios on in their cars, as they commute to and from work. The station determines its drive time, and commuting times are different in each market.

Nielsen Ratings. The Nielson Company provides ratings and other demographics to radio and television stations. People either fill out a diary when they’re listening to radio or carry around a small pager device that captures the information from radio waves. Arbitron used to provide radio ratings until they were sold to Nielsen.

Public Radio. A station or network that is organized as a not-for-profit organization with an educational mission. It raises money through grants, membership, sponsorships, contributions, and events. NPR (National Public Radio) is a network that provides programming to public radio stations. Pubic radio stations are not necessarily NPR member stations.

Also Of Note.

Nielsen, the folks who provide TV ratings, acquired Arbitron, the folks who provided radio ratings. For information on Nielsen:

Executive Summary: Radio Today2013: How America Listens to Radio.

Nielsen’s Radio by The Numbers (Fall, 2013):

Talkers Magazine, published by Michael Harrison, has excellent audience demographics for the talk radio industry. For the top talk radio audiences: (this is updated monthly).

Talkers Magazine’s 2013 Talk Radio Research Project.


Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.


  1. Joy says:

    Radio using an amazing way of small business marketing. I think these days radio department has been improved a great popularity among people and through doing marketing on such channel people actually can promote and gain good traffic for their business. Thanks.

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