(By Deborah Parenti) Early in my radio career, I was a shaggy dog. OK, it was a costume. Fortunately, it was also autumn. Even in milder temperatures, however, the costume was hot and I was grateful to only have to endure that sauna suit for an hour-long ad club reception. And I admit I agreed to do it because I got to go to one of my first media functions. I was young and eager to absorb every bit of radio air I could gasp — even if that air was inside a dog’s head.
As a promotion director, I helped marry two cardboard boxes, which resulted in some national press for our station. Later, when I was a sales manager, we commandeered time on the 6 o’clock news by sending reps dressed as Mideast oil titans in a stunt to get attention of area car dealers struggling with sluggish sales and excess inventory during the early ’90s oil crisis. It worked!
Promotions have often played a role in my radio career. To buffer against an anticipated ratings hit, we pre-empted our “bad book news” with lemon drops, lemon chicken, lemonade — and an occasional lemon vodka.
And when we consolidated six stations under one roof, we did it with Ethel Merman blaring “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as introduction to a contemporary ballet troupe performing music reflective of each station’s format. That was capped with fireworks, by the way, set to the refrain from the song, “Count on Me,” by Whitney Houston. In case you never counted them, “count on me” is repeated six times at the end of that song — perfect for dramatically lighting up six station logos across the night sky.
Along with these sometimes larger-than-life and more frequent smaller promotions, I can recall station involvement in all kinds of giveaways, from Mustangs to Three Musketeers, media campaigns using television, billboard, and direct mail, and listener engagement from country dance contests to county fairs. If the thousands of pens, bumper stickers, notepads, key chains, coffee mugs and other tchotchkes were laid end to end, they might well stretch coast to coast.
But times change. Digital and social media have altered the landscape and expanded marketing options. Additionally, today’s radio stations are often budget-strapped and lean on personnel, including airstaff. It’s hard to do a remote with an out-of-market personality.
Finding someone to wear that station mascot costume can be problematic if the promotion department has been cut or if there are no interns willing to sweat it out. Depending exclusively on social media to carry the message and expecting listeners to seek out, find, and engage with those messages can’t be relied on to get the job done. Good marketing starts with getting in front of people and branding takes visibility — “in your face,” “you can’t miss me” visibility. There is nothing like pressing the flesh, whether it’s the morning personality shaking hands, or a staffer in a station jacket putting a logo-bearing mug, bumper sticker, touchscreen pen, or T-shirt in the hands of a loyal listener. The truth is that a lot of radio stations have forgotten how to, or just don’t do, the best job of marketing themselves anymore, first and foremost within their own markets. The pervasive thinking seems to be that all a station needs is a website and people will find it. So while so much of a station’s revenue is dependent on local advertising, the art of local branding has become a lost art, or an afterthought — if it’s a thought at all.
As for using other media to market and brand stations: When is the last time you passed a billboard advertising a radio station? Or saw a television spot touting the morning show? In most cases, the answer is obvious: There is no budget. Much like what we hear from clients when times are tough or money is tight, the first thing cut is advertising and promotion. And how do we usually respond to that wisdom? Yeah, I thought so.
One of the questions posed to the Top 40 leaders in the July issue of Radio Ink dealt with what they believe to be among the industry’s biggest challenges. Almost everyone mentioned that radio needs to do a better job of telling its story to Madison Avenue. Perhaps we should also look to Main Street — and our other customers, the listeners. How well are we telling our story, branding our image, and really bonding with them?
Editor’s Note: Prove her wrong. Send your best promotion of the year, including pictures, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deborah Parenti is the Publisher of Radio Ink Magazine and can be reached at Parenti@aol.com