Fourth Estate: Radio Days

When tv’s Rosie O’Donnell held up a chocolate-covered Ring Ding, smacked her lips and declared her love for the lunch-box snack, a publicist sighed and said to me, “You can’t pay for publicity like that.” “Oh yes you can,” I replied. “On radio.”
Yet the perception remains: A TV ad is like buying cashmere, while radio is the purchasing equivalent of polyester. True, broadcast TV does reach a large audience, but it’s not as snug-fitting a niche market as radio. Offering listeners everyone from call-in psychologists to shock jocks, radio can effectively zero in on key demographics.
Moreover, while NBC charges some $600,000 a spot for Seinfeld and American Express spends millions to have him personally endorse its card, an advertiser need only part with upward of $10,000 per national ad for Don Imus or Howard Stern’s hit show, $1,500 for a local ad on Scott Shannon’s drive-time frenzy or $6,500 for Rush Limbaugh to secure similar services. This is cheap, cheap, cheap.
And less is more. Radio sales have climbed steadily to $12.4 billion a year, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau, and millions tune in to their favorite shows daily. Clearly, the power that personalities wield when they plug a product is awesome. As an added bonus, these guys routinely turn dull, lifeless ads into hilarious comedy, which eliminates the need for expensive copywriters.
So why does radio get as much respect as Paula Barbieri at a Mensa meeting? The reasons are long-standing: The economy of scale for agencies, the practice of encouraging broadcast TV buys and the creative directors’ desire to strut their stuff mean that pushing TV spots was and is smart business.
But a guy like Jerry Howatt knows a bargain when he sees one. In Burlington, Vt., the Vermont Teddy Bear’s in-house media buyer has scribbled some talk points for a radio ad. He keeps the copy simple. After all, the end result will only be a reasonable facsimile of whatever he writes. That’s why he is paid a big premium-as much as 66 percent more than a preproduced commercial-to have radio personalities read the ad live.
With a flick of a finger, he faxes the copy to WFAN-AM’s Don Imus, WXRK-FM’s Howard Stern and WPLJ-FM’s Scott Shannon. Then he sits back and waits for the phone lines to light up like a Christmas tree.
On WFAN, Imus, one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people of 1997, regularly interviews the big brass from the media, Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Now, it’s time for a commercial. Imus deftly takes the cold words on paper and transforms them into his personal blend of rant, comedy and extortion.
“Go out and buy yourself one of those fat, fuzzy Vermont Teddy Bears. You know, the ones made by those hippies in Vermont,” he says, with the implicit comic undertones that if you don’t buy one, he’ll humiliate you.
Now it’s WPLJ’s turn. Tony award- winning Phantom of the Opera star Michael Crawford is a guest on Scott Shannon’s morning show. “I always try to turn the ad copy into entertainment,” says Shannon. “By the end of the bit, we got him to sing the 1-800 Vermont Teddy Bear number to our audience.”
Of course, a company would pay Crawford well for such an endorsement. But it’s all part of the radio act-and Vermont Teddy Bear, which has grown into an $18 million company, hasn’t paid one extra cent for this off-the-cuff performance.
Flip the dial and Howard Stern does his syndicated shtick before 5.4 million fans. Stern is as impassioned a pitchman as P.T. Barnum when it comes to his sponsors. “The people who are sponsoring our program are terrific. I want you to support them,” he tells his listeners. “Even blindly support them. Because that’s what’s going to keep us on the air!”
Back in Vermont, Howett is tracking responses. “For every dollar we spend, we’re getting four dollars back,” he says.
Similar success stories are echoed in sales offices around the country. Don Imus’ support of Jeeps has made it a Wall Street favorite-and WFAN a mecca for car dealership ads. Limbaugh has helped sales soar for Clean Showers.
Thanks to Stern, Dial-A-Mattress has grown from a rinky-dink store into a chain. The result? For a Christmas ad, shock-jock Stern is charging a cool $15,000, while Heineken recently signed him to pitch its biggest radio ad campaign ever.
Naturally, those in the know are clamoring to buy ad time on these hit shows. But there’s a catch. To ensure integrity and influence with their loyal listeners, these talk-show titans are in the enviable position of picking and choosing which live ads they’ll read.
“We refuse many more than we take,” says Stuart Krane, senior vice president of sales for Radio Active Media, who buys ads for Rush Limbaugh. As a result, companies flood stars’ offices with products to prove their airtime worth. Most telling, even blue-chip companies are rebuked.
For example, concerned about the ethics of lending his weight to one financial institution, Limbaugh only accepts recorded financial spots. Nor will he say in copy, “I buy Wilson tennis racquets,” since his audience knows he doesn’t play tennis.
But not every radio jock is as big as Limbaugh, Stern or Imus. Few can give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a product. Low-rent advertisers such as Gold Bond itching powder or Oreck vacuum cleaners will then buy ads with smaller, lower-rated stations. Admittedly, the personalities on these stations look forward to these ads as much as they do root canal.
Radio and TV personality Mark Simone recalls the time he was asked to promote a New York restaurant. “The sales department had given me the copy of ‘Let me tell you about my favorite restaurant.’ You know it stinks, and you know your friend got food poisoning there.”
What do you do? Simone did what most personalities do. He read the copy with enough insincerity in his voice to tip off the regular listeners, but not enough to alert the account executives. “During my lean years, I would just do the read,” admits Shannon. “But if you like the product, you turn the sponsors into personalities. And they love it.”
Conversely, the worst fate for an advertiser is to be ignored by any radio jock. Nothing pleases advertisers more than to be called dummy, idiot, buffoon and bozo. That is, unless the personality really means it, which is the one big risk advertisers face when buying campaigns for live radio reads. Hell hath no fury like a radio personality scorned. Just ask Snapple.
When Quaker Oats bought Snapple, the company dropped Stern, deciding he wasn’t wholesome enough for its image. “There is nothing worse for an advertiser than to wake up and hear Snapple being called ‘Crapple’ everyday,” recalls Richard Kirshenbaum, chairman of Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, which handled the account. “We begged Quaker Oats to keep the account. They didn’t-and look what happened. Howard Stern helped build that account into a $1.7 billion company. Quaker Oats then sold it for $300 million. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that Howard Stern took part in that debacle.”
So when Nelson Peltz was poised to buy Snapple, he first negotiated a deal to have Stern promote it again. Call it the realpolitik of the marketplace.
“These guys are making people rich,” says Bob Moore, the general manager of Los Angeles’ KLSX-FM. No wonder savvy advertisers believe that investing in radio is the best way to make your product a hit.

Publish date: October 27, 1997 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT