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Although our attention mostly focuses on TV and digital, we occasionally like to see how other media are faring in today’s rapidly changing landscape. This time, we focus on radio to see how things have changed for this medium over the past few years. We took a look at the most recent data available from Nielsen and compared it to Arbitron data featured in the final edition of Radio Dimensions that we published in 2013. For those who might not be familiar with radio, Arbitron was purchased by Nielsen in 2013 and became Nielsen Audio.
It’s not surprising to see that radio’s weekly reach is down across all demographics; this is the case of all legacy media in today’s digital-centric environment. However, among those 18+, weekly reach was only down 3.6% in the seven-year period we looked at, and still reached 89.2% of adults in this time period. Given that we estimate that linear TV, across all dayparts, currently reaches about 85% of adults 18+, this isn’t bad. Radio sees much steeper declines in time spent, with almost all age breaks showing double digit losses between 2012-19 (see Table I).
Turning to radio formats, it’s clear that some are faltering while others rise to the forefront. Between 2011-18, several formats saw significant gains in AQH share, including classic rock, urban contemporary and contemporary Christian. Interestingly, America’s favorite format—country—saw a 6.4% decline in AQH share in this period, although it still leads the pack with a 13.2% AQH share among adults (see Table II).
Finally, it’s worth nothing that radio retains its unique ability to reach people during dayparts where TV has less of a footprint. According to Nielsen Audio (RADAR 143 report, December 2019), radio reached 69-78% of adults 18+ and 59-69% of those aged 12-17 between 6am-7pm in an average week. Radio is the original mobile media, and these numbers show that it still has the ability to get through to consumers. Digital may be the hot medium, but radio is clearly hanging in there.
Why isn’t radio used more often and with greater force by national marketers? There are a lot of reasons, some logical and others much more questionable. First and foremost is the way radio presents itself to the advertiser. Here is a medium with a limited and highly secretive national network presence, plus a bewildering array of spot markets and submarkets to evaluate, usually in a metro area rather than a TV DMA context. As spot TV sellers have found, much to their discomfort, the apparent advantage of geographic flexibility often turns out to be a negative since many advertisers have a “think national” outlook that favors network-style TV options and national magazines over “local media.” Shocking as it may seem, a substantial proportion of national marketers do not really have a handle on which markets they should heavy-up in, or whether such add-on weight really pays off. Others launch ad campaigns only in national media, relying on their dealers, franchisees or the stores to take care of local market promotional needs.
Adding to its problems, spot radio continues to discourage the use of shorter, cost effective ad units, like :30s and :15s, which are universally available on network TV. Spot radio’s once huge CPM advantage over TV no longer applies, thanks largely to the national cable services with their bargain basement pricing metrics. Rising promotional clutter is also a negative at many stations.
Further complicating matters, radio disseminates relatively little information about itself, especially on strategic issues, and consequently media decision-makers at advertisers or ad agencies are woefully underinformed about the medium’s capabilities and how it stacks up to other options. Instead, time-honored but hopelessly outdated axioms continue to rule, such as “you can’t get reach without using AM drive” or “radio is a frequency medium,” usually without effective updating or rebuttals by radio advocates.
Two other issues also need to be addressed. One is radio’s merchandisability relative to TV and, to a lesser degree, magazines. Many advertisers are extremely concerned about the look of their media buys; whether they impress the trade; the availability of high impact, promotional tie-ins; and other non-audience or CPM issues. It’s a big deal for a marketer to sponsor the NBA Finals, the World Series, an annual primetime special, or a weekend golf tournament on a national TV network, no matter how high the CPMs. Radio needs to do a lot more to improve its merchandisability via “big buzz” sponsorships and other creative approaches if it wishes to compete.
Finally, there is the question of advertising impact. Most marketers who ignore radio or use it sparingly think that TV offers their campaigns far greater attention-getting and motivating power. Additionally, they believe they understand how TV advertising works, based in part on a huge body of prior experience regarding ad awareness, sales motivation research and results in the marketplace. By comparison, radio offers very little data on how its commercials function, what types of executions perform the best, how radio ads generate sales, etc. Much more U.S.-based research is needed about how radio commercials communicate their messages. Without it, risk-averse client and ad agency executives can always veto a media planner’s initiative about including radio in the mix by saying, “radio hasn’t got the selling power of TV.” Unfortunately, radio’s advocates rarely have an effective rejoinder.
Still, radio offers most marketers many worthwhile benefits as an advertising medium. Chief among these is its ability to target audiences at any time of the day or day of the week, thereby capitalizing on situations when the consumer may be most receptive to a marketing sell or will shortly be shopping at a grocery, drug or convenience store, at a mall or some other location. In this regard, radio’s edge over television is significant.
Radio offers other advantages that can pay powerful dividends to advertisers. One of these concerns demographics, particularly for youth-oriented marketers. It is well established that younger consumers are difficult to target with TV. But radio, which is often overlooked, has the capability to single out 16–29s or 18–34s via music-formatted stations. If one wishes to maximize short term reach against such hard-to-woo consumers, why not add radio to whatever kinds of television you are using to attain this goal?
Radio, if used properly, can also be a great frequency leveler, taking those seemingly elusive light TV viewers and capturing their attention with selective radio formats that they prefer instead of the tube. And let’s not forget radio’s “image transfer” capabilities. When care is taken to properly exploit this angle, radio ad exposures can effectively rekindle a consumer’s recall (and positive reactions) to a TV ad campaign, creating a synergetic or complementary effect of great value.