Shorter radio ads could be the go writes John Patkin | radioinfo

Shorter radio ads could be the go writes John Patkin

Sunday 20 March, 2016
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Remember the Canadian radio station with the QuickHitz format that halved the length of songs? It seemed a bit rude for radio edits to be re-edited but it got me thinking.


Why should we cut what we feel is appealing content to make more space for advertising? It reminds me of former colleagues who lamented, "I wish we were like the ABC." Back in the 80s commercial free programming was packaged as One of hour of ad free classic hits, though it was jammed with promos telling you so and sounded atrocious when AM radio tried to copy it.

Maxing out the number of ads you can squeeze into breaks has been defined as clutter by Erica Riebe and John Dawes. Their peer-reviewed paper Recall of radio advertising in low and high advertising clutter formats (2006)[1] revealed that low clutter formats are more effective. Low clutter listeners have a higher product recall and stations with such formats can charge more for such ads. The study also confirmed that ads placed at the start and end of breaks were more effective. While they acknowledged the effectiveness will vary, low clutter ads and those with a premium position could be valued at almost double.

Riebe and Dawes' study may be a modern iteration of the Shannon-Weaver model (1948) in which an interruption, labeled  as noise, disturbs the delivery of a message.  Originally used to explain signal interruptions such as static and white noise, the Shannon-Weaver model gained traction in defining linear communication, particularly the feedback given by receivers of information.

Aligning their model with Riebe and Dawes would suggest that clutter is noise and that it has a negative effect on delivering a message and results in less action by the receiver.
It would therefore seem plausible to consider clutter is more than maxing out ad breaks and more about over doing content.

Literally applying both of these studies might see hundreds of stations suddenly changing to easy listening formats. Obviously that is not the solution as we know that different segments, as opposed to demographics[2], have varying interests but we could attempt to identify clutter with internal reviews or focus groups and so forth.

Nova experimented with five two-spot ad breaks per hour and later made adjustments in response to advertiser requirements which saw some breaks with seven ads[3]. That might have worked out cheaper for advertisers, but if we took Riebe and Dawes' advice it would seem the messages sandwiched between the first and last would be lost.

The conclusion of an Edison research report supporting shorter ads and fewer breaks managed to get a group of broadcasters to divide eight minutes of advertising over three breaks[4]. The Edison report argued long ad breaks were turn-offs and the impact of messages could be harmed if the first one lacked punch. It also warned that broadcasters need to take more control over advertising content.

Moving forward we also need to consider the competition. Internet advertising can be turned off and  blocked but some ads are useful because they can respond to your individual interests. Putting aside the elephant in the room, app-radio, how can audio broadcasting include advertising without devaluing the product its leveraged on? Radio is still working with a broad cast while the Internet is narrow cast. Is it possible to mirror the seemingly tiny ads that appear in the corner of our screens and still make money?

Perhaps we could reduce the length of radio commercials to 10 seconds and the number of advertising events to eight per hour including news and weather bumpers. Yes, 80 seconds per hour of air time for sale. Advertisers would have fewer competitors and being a sole tenant of rare space would make a greater impact. While the initial cost of space may increase, selling and producing it could be streamlined.

In order for such an upheaval to work, stations would need to limit their own promos and be prepared to reject spots that challenge the spirit of the change such as those attempting to cram 30 seconds into 10. The "10" could be considered as complementing other media and providing timely and creative support. For example, media buyers knowing an audience would listen to a particular station for longer periods could produce a series of "10s" to ensure variety. They could also produce "10s" for specific times and spaces to support calendar events and react to environmental conditions.

Perhaps 30" and 60" commercials are a hangover of previous industry limitations. Using "10s" would have meant scheduling up to 100 commercials per hour to maximise the space in peak times. It might have also been more difficult to produce shorter carts and have so many in service. Splicing short pieces of tape together in a plastic box is not an issue in digital programming.

Eventually radio stations will need to make the transition from a fixed frequency and the "10s" would bring the industry in line with seemingly free online audio services that raise revenue from subtle ads and the on selling of traffic stats. Such synthesis might also work with sectors that are used to the online format such as the well-informed youth market. Teenagers can quickly search for an item on their devices if it piques their interest. So "10s" could work well as signposts that respect the audience's knowledge and don't kill a brand by thrashing it.

Cutting ads and attempting to put a premium on them without research showing a valuable audience would be a business for those used to selling snake oil. It is a move for a successful channel wanting to build a more intimate relationship with its audience. Less advertising would mean more space for programming and so the pressure would be on content teams to showcase their talent and not clutter. Content may be king for programmers and space the new frontier for advertisers.


John Patkin is a regular contributor to Asia Radio Today and radioinfo. He is a Hong Kong-based Australian media researcher.


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