To Help Radio, Rate the Commercials


(By Larry Rosin) Longtime radio consultant Mike McVay published a great article in Radio Ink last week, giving suggestions on how radio can ‘bring back the audience’. Fairly and correctly, he focused on how a station can increase its Nielsen ratings, and how radio as a whole can improve in Nielsen. And that makes total sense.

After all, Nielsen is how radio is measured. The smart radio station and the smart radio company and the smart radio industry learns and understands the rules of the game as they are played and attempts to maximize the results against that measurement.

One of his seven suggestions really caught my eye:

Manage the heavy commercial load that many stations air by looking for those highest listened hours to air fewer messages. I’d ask that we all lower our spot-loads, as it would be valuable to advertisers to do so, but I’m not counting on anyone making that move. So, play fewer messages in your most listened to hours.

Let me stress – every word he writes here is correct. He mentions that spots loads are too high, and then he suggests a strategy to maximize ratings regardless, and it is to have your listeners hear as few commercials as possible.

Smart programmers have been doing this forever. Even before spot-loads were so high, and certainly since, programmers have configured their clocks and strategies around the commercials. We acknowledge that listeners tune out during breaks, and thus we attempt to induce them to listen only to the content and to come back after the breaks. This leads to touting “Commercial-free hours” and facilitating them in adjacent hours with 13 minute breaks (yes, some really do.)

Listen to this and just try to endure it: We have deep discussions of the “hourglass” vs. the “butterfly” clock etc.

The key to all of this is that Nielsen doesn’t care what you are playing at any given time, they measure any and all listening, and then they average it over a quarter-hour. And if you can just get five minutes of listening, they will give you credit for the whole 15 minute span. Winning by today’s rules actually incentivizes strategies designed to get listeners not to listen to the commercials.

But imagine a different way for Nielsen to measure – what if they measured how many people actually listened to your commercials?

Think about how this would transform and improve the radio industry.

What would change? Well from the programming point of view, nearly everything. Instead of packing the commercials into long sets, we would likely go to more frequent shorter breaks. Instead of taking any commercial content no matter how grating or negative or poorly targeted to our audience, we would adapt standards about what we take. (Seriously, who won’t want to show the tune-out numbers to the Kars-4-Kids krowd). We would work with our clients to make better spots that keep people tuned.

If radio reorganized around “winning the stop set”, spot-load issues would get cleaned up fast. The streaming experience would, I presume, finally get improved after 15 years of hampering radio’s efforts to compete digitally. We ask our listeners to download our app and use our Alexa skills, maybe it’s time to stop taunting those who do.

If only the commercials were rated, there would be more announcer-reads that blend into the content, as on podcasts. It might lead to more spoken-word formats as by all accounts there is less tune-out for spots on them. We would be discussing what kinds of clocks get people to listen to our clients’ spots, instead of trying to keep listeners and spots away from each other.

Rating the commercials would be better for all involved. What could matter more to advertisers than to take steps to maximize the numbers of people hearing their commercials? Radio’s endless demonization of spots has long complicated our relationships with clients.

If only the spots were rated, the time-worn programming stunt of launching a new music station commercial free would go away forever. Good riddance, as it really did nothing but make the eventual spots sound terrible. Rating the commercials would obviously be better for listeners in the long run, as radio will be playing fewer, better commercials that command higher rates. Presumably that will lead to longer TSLs at well-programmed stations.

Many people in radio might be unaware that television already is rated this way by Nielsen. In PPM radio markets, Nielsen already knows the listening levels to our spots, they just aren’t reporting them. I am not proposing a revolution, simply proposing that Nielsen counts what it is already taking in differently – in a way that is better for the advertiser, better for the listener, and ultimately, I believe, better for the radio industry.

Now I know what some reading this must be thinking: “Do we dare tell the advertisers these numbers? After all, we’ve been working so hard for so long to get people not to listen to commercials.” I submit it doesn’t even matter. Radio is getting great results for advertisers even as we try to make it hard to hear commercials. Imagine what improvement advertisers will see with this new focus on commercial ratings.

Change the rules, and the style of play will change. The three-point line changed basketball strategy. If football made a touchdown worth five points and a field goal worth four, everything about the game would change.

Radio should seriously consider changing its rules, at least in the PPM markets. If we rate the commercials, a better experience for listeners and advertisers will come, and that simply has to be better for radio.

Larry Rosin is President of Edison Research, which he co-founded in 1994. Since then he has been a primary force in building the company into one of the world’s most respected survey research companies, with a particular specialization in media and election polling. Email: [email protected]



  1. How important are commercials ? When they affect 25-40% of your radio station. When owner Jerry Lee started throwing money at “research” on his commercials, did you hear the heads of other companies turning the other way ? How many sales managers would say “it didn’t test”?

    Did it work? Where was WBEB before it was absorbed by a larger company? Where is it today? Case closed. Find what the listener likes, give it to him/her/them. That also includes effective, useful advertising. (The “Big Game” is still a “big draw” because of its commercial content as well as the game.) What more needs to be said?

  2. Great piece Larry, thank you. Jerry Lee was on to this a while ago, but not enough people were willing to listen. His crusade to improve the quality of radio commercials runs parallel to your proposal: more effective creative begets better results, which would enable us to command higher rates and then (OMG) play fewer commercials, which begets longer TSL / higher ratings… Everybody wins. Hopefully more will be open to this kind of evolution.

    PS – don’t knock Kars4Kids – if “unforgettable” is the mark of a good radio commercial, respect is due. And we all know that jingle because we didnt’ tune it out…

  3. Look into the past for ideas on increasing listenership and making commercials more appealing. Well-produced commercials will hold the listener’s attention. An example is the “Skinny Genie” series of spots for No-Cal soda that ran in the New York area in 1966. Jingle spots are also good…I still remember jingles from 50 years ago. And, instead of making your listeners sit through a clot of 13 minutes of commercials, disperse them through the programming. Live reads don’t hurt, either. If your station is voicetracked, have your announcer read the copy as part of the programming. In their heyday, Top 40 powerhouses WABC and WMCA ran lots of commercials, but they were dispersed throughout the hour…one or two minutes of ads, then right back to music. Dig out those vintage airchecks and listen to them!

    On the flip side, GET RID of irritating spots such as those obnoxious screamer car dealer ads. As soon as I hear one, I change the station. And STOP conditioning your listeners into thinking that commercials are bad. That’s not fair to the client, who just might think about moving ads to print or internet. If you do run a commercial-free hour, don’t call it that. Call it a “bonus hour”, as the old WPBS in Philly used to. That station ran a beautiful music format.

    Regarding commercials, client reads almost universally suck, although those may be a necessary evil in getting the client to tell people about his/her business.

  4. One of the most powerful ideas ever advanced in today’s radio world. Sometimes the most powerful ideas are the simplest. The most interesting part of the thought piece is the large numbers of positive results cascading from one simple idea — that everything broadcast in a given hour be audience rated.

    Industry management will heed Rosin’s advice or continue its decllne. Don’t count on the NAB to save you.

  5. Excellent article. Jerry Lee, when he owned WBEB/Philadelphia is the only person that I can think of who invested so much time and money researching the effectiveness of commercials. Of course he was researching their ability to impact a product, service or brand. What Larry suggests, using Nielsen’s research, would certainly place greater emphasis on improving our commercial clusters and the quality of their production.


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