Radio Is Not A Background Medium


(by Bob McCurdy) To fully appreciate the impact of radio advertising, it’s important to understand how we process what enters our ears. This is a topic I’ve written about before.

Audio, any audio, “registers”, whether it is processed consciously, passively or non-consciously as each of us absorb every sound that enters our ears from the time we are born until we take our last breath.

When we’re “listening”, we respond. The same is also true when we are “hearing”, but since much of what we “hear” is processed passively or even non-consciously, its impact is under-appreciated, as it is more difficult to attribute subsequent actions to what’s “heard”.

Commercial messaging (radio, TV, digital) that is processed in a “non-conscious” fashion means it is largely “off limits”, due to the manner in which it is processed. But not being able to grasp or vocalize the impact of the messaging processed in this manner, doesn’t mean the messaging was without impact. A lot of TV is viewed in what’s often referred to as a relaxed, “alpha” state and TV advertising seems to work just fine.

One objection we’ve likely run into at one time or another, is that radio is a “background” medium. Much of what enters our ears in life and some of what we hear on the radio is absorbed passively and even non-consciously and that can actually be a good thing, as if it wasn’t, we would not be functional human beings.

We don’t always listen to the radio in the lean-forward mode any more than we always view TV in the lean-forward mode. There are times when consuming just about any type of media that we go on auto-pilot and that’s ok.

In fact, passive processing of commercial and even non-conscious processing of commercial messaging can even be beneficial to the advertiser.

We process what we hear three ways:

Explicitly– Which is a full attention, lean-forward mode.

Passively– Low attention cognitive process that requires only partial attention. When we listen passively we are able to “record” and link together brand names and other elements in an ad.

Implicitly – An automatic, non-cognitive process that requires zero attention. When we process messaging in this fashion, we retain what is heard along with any simple conceptual meanings in the messaging.

Psychologist Daniel Schacter confirmed that learning can take place even when we’re paying no attention and psychologist Stewart Shapiro has proven that ads can influence product consideration when processing was entirely passive. Shapiro’s conclusion was that advertising has the potential to effect future buying decisions even when subjects do not process the ad attentively and do not recollect ever having seen or heard the ad.

Another benefit of messaging that is absorbed passively or implicitly is that it results in less “contesting”. How many times have we seen or heard a commercial in the explicit, lean-forward mode where we’ve actually “contested” or debated its claims. This type of counter-arguing does not occur when messaging is processed passively or non-consciously. It seeps in uncontested.

A Mindshare study that utilized state-of-the-art fMRI technology concluded the following:

The manner in which an ad enters the brain (consciously or non- consciously) greatly impacts the way it is processed. During conscious listening the listener weighs the value of the facts presented in the commercial, at times “contesting” its claims based upon previous history or experience. During non-conscious listening, the brain is “pre-occupied” with other matters and is less likely to “critically” evaluate the advertiser’s claims allowing the messaging to register uncontested.

Finally, explicit learning has been linked to the rational processing of commercial messages, while passive and implicit learning tend to appeal to the more enduring and influential emotional processing of commercial messages. This is another benefit for radio as in the fast pace of everyday life, “considered” or rational decisions tend to be subservient to “intuitive” or emotional decisions- particularly FMCG (fast moving consumer goods). Consumers simply don’t have time to think through the pros and cons of every purchase in many product categories and thus rely on their gut, which is largely emotion-based.

The bottom line is that we all have developed the ability to “suppress”, but not “inoculate” ourselves from what enters our ears and as demonstrated above, reaching the consumer while in a relaxed, passive mode can actually be preferable.

Explicit, passive, implicit, 360 degree processing of every sound that enters our ears is radio’s “trifecta”. Not a bad subject to be familiar with when faced with the “background” objection.

Bob McCurdy is The Vice President of Sales for The Beasley Media Group and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. I am always impressed when Bob makes the conscious/semi-conscious/unconscious distinctions.
    Plus, when he makes the other distinctions about ads that are dependent on alleged “reason-based” approaches (direct response ads) and emotion-influencing ads, I toss my cookies with relief and joy.
    But then, I wonder: How many radio folks, never mind the advertisers, are willing to process this information and, as a result, appreciate what ads, specifically, satisfy the parameters of each approach?
    Meanwhile, without these discussions, radio stays where it is – stagnant.


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