By Sean Ross (@rossonradio)
“So why does radio even need to advertise itself as a medium?”
That was a colleague’s response to last week’s column. As part of a Radio Show panel, I’d charged representatives of iHeartMedia, Radio Disney, and CMT to come up with their own ads on behalf of the industry. The motivation was twofold: much of radio’s institutional advertising brings out the cynic in industry people, without winning over the cynics outside the industry. Besides, I just wanted to hear how broadcasters with the resources of a CMT or Radio Disney would tackle the project.
But I understood the question about advertising the category, not the product. There are legacy brands with a lot of the same challenges as radio. But the ads are for Coca-Cola, not for caffeinated soft drinks. Or for McDonalds, not on behalf of “quick serve restaurants,” trying to hold position as an overall concept against “fast casual.”
Institutional ads are for Wall Street or for regulators, rarely for the consumer. When you encounter institutional ads these days, they are almost never to reinforce the brand of healthy industries, but as plausible deniability for those under scrutiny: energy providers who are really friends of the otter; brewers encouraging you to designate a driver; wireless providers discouraging distracted driving.
It was definitely something to think about. And 36 hours later, I will say the following:
Regardless of what it does for itself as a medium, I agree that radio can best improve the fortunes of individual stations, and protect its franchise, by marketing its individual properties. It doesn’t just drive listening; it surrounds callous non-listeners with our brand. And some agency people are more likely to be reached that way than by institutional advertising on your own air. Even if you have never watched a “Sharknado” TV movie, it is part of the atmosphere for a few weeks every year. You know that somebody cares, even if it’s not for you.
I also believe that a major part of reinforcing radio’s value to listeners is doing the things that make it great on a consistent basis. The companionship and curation that make broadcast radio’s shared experience great are often delivered inconsistently. The service elements that make radio indispensable in times of crisis are sometimes hard to find when you’re looking for a weather report on a mundanely rainy weekend. Radio often fails the “show me, don’t tell me” test.
And the best advertisement for radio as a whole may not be any spot, but the places where it presents itself as an entity to the next generation. NextRadio and iHeartRadio both seem to understand this. Broadcasters are still working toward being more experiential to a 19-year-old, rather than merely cumed, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the newly announced, but not yet unveiled, version of iHeart takes us.
All that said, I believe that broadcasters can be taken for granted, even when they do the right things. An early lesson for any programmer is “tell them what you’re going to do, do it, then tell them that you did it.” It’s not wrong for radio people to remind listeners what we do for them, or better represent themselves to the agency community. And when we do it, we often sound grasping or defensive. People who tell stories for a living should tell radio’s story better, and this is an attempt to further that dialogue.
And sometimes showing and telling work in concert. One of the best known institutional slug lines is at least a decade older than most people reading this column. “Movies are better than ever” probably rang hollow to the early ‘50s TV fans at which it was aimed. It was a new generation of mid-to-late ‘60s filmmaking that made movies cool again. But when movies were better than ever, we all somehow knew that slogan.
The same goes for “Today’s Best Music.” In the early ‘90s, when Top 40 radio was in danger of disappearing entirely, it was almost self-defeating. I remember listening in 1993 and thinking, “If this really is today’s best music, the format is in trouble.” And yet, when the music got better a few years later, we already had a way to explain it. To some extent, constantly thinking about radio’s benefits makes it easier for us to codify and deliver them.
I believe in broadcast, and I believe in audio, and that broadcast should continue to aggressively carve out its place in audio. Radio should tell its story. Radio should also constantly rewrite its story.