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Are There Too Many Commercials on the Radio? Nope!

A friend told me how radio broadcasters at a recent conference emphasized the importance of minimizing commercial interruptions in online radio streams without mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room:

What about the far worse ad clutter on good, old-fashioned terrestrial radio?

Does the logic of minimizing spots in one place mean spots should, for the same reasons, be minimized in every place?

Here’s my answer (and this may shock you): No.

Three reasons:

1. Practical Reality

On a purely practical basis, there is no way the radio industry is going to significantly trim on-air spots en masse. All the business pressures are moving in the other direction no matter what the audience wants and no matter what the audience does. Indeed, if audiences bolt for the door (as is already happening, drip by quarter-hour drip), I expect stations to add more spots, not to cut back.

So arguing that we should drop spots from the radio airwaves because our products would be more compelling is like arguing the sky should be colored in flavorful shades of pastel because every day would be a delightful new surprise.

It ain’t gonna happen.

2. The Clash of Context

Consider the reality that non-music commercial formats are universally cluttered with far more spots than their music-oriented peers. It’s a well-known fact that the very same listeners who tune in non-music formats tolerate far more ads than they do when tuning in music formats. So the tolerance for spots is related to the nature of the content around those spots.

In other words: Context.

The problem, therefore, isn’t too many spots on the radio. It’s the fact that spots clash with music and, frankly, that clash happens no matter how many or how few spots we’re talking about.

In the long run, as listeners continue to wander, the more contrast there is between radio platforms with more spots (like terrestrial radio) vs. those with fewer spots (like iTunes Radio or Pandora), the more the spot-heavy platforms will surround those spots with programming that doesn’t clash.

In other words: Look for more non-music on more stations.

If you can’t raise the bridge, lower the music.

3. Advertising Inertia

Why do we assume that fewer spots is the new normal? After all, terrestrial radio can thin down to online radio or online radio can fatten up to terrestrial.

Although the easy entry strategy is to go lean and mean and relatively commercial-free, the lure of advertising dollars – especially to public companies – will prove to be irresistible, and that will result in more online radio outlets sounding more and more cluttered over time, assuming they subscribe to the same ad-supported business model that created today’s radio landscape (although not all of them will).

Indeed, isn’t this why Pandora runs more spots today than it used to? Not just because it can but also because it must? It’s certainly not because that’s what the audience wants.

So what’s the bottom line? Is it that we should trim our over-the-air spotload to compete with online sources?

Perhaps we “should,” but we won’t.

No, the real answer is to create more value, to make our content worth listening to no matter what clutter surrounds it, to minimize the clash between content and messaging, to make the ads relevant to the audience who hears them, and to focus on what’s hard for platform competitors to do rather than what’s easy.

Advertising is the price consumers pay for radio. If the price is too high, perhaps that says more about the content than the ads.

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