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When Radio Advertising Goes Wrong


Over the past few weeks I have heard the story more than once: A big segment of a News/Talk show or a morning show was given over to an interview subject whose identity, content, and duration had nothing to do with what interested audiences and everything to do with what advertisers are paying for.

Everybody was in on this joke – except for the audience.

For them it was just crappy content.

It seems quaint to reflect on the fact that advertisers once bought spots. Today, the demands are much broader, deeper, and contextual. And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, of course. Advertisers want their messages to be more organic and natural – to seem more like word-of-mouth recommendations from their trusted friends on the radio than like the kind of interruptions listeners have grown to disdain.

But what happens when we’re talking about content, not just messaging. What happens when the interview topic or the subject is part of an entire segment bought and paid for by a sponsor without the acknowledgment that this is, by design, an ad? What happens when this content is of a type that would never meet the threshold for audience interest under any other circumstance? That is, what happens when this content is just for the advertisers, not for the audience?

Stations engaging in this type of practice are training their listeners to expect poor content because no longer does the content have to meet a standard which is in the interest of listeners (not surprisingly, advertisers have historically had a much lower quality threshold than audiences have).

“Native advertising” is the term that represents that form of advertising which is indistinguishable from content and fits contextually on media platforms with other content which is not specifically produced for or by advertisers. It’s content which is really advertising. And that’s fine, as long as the emphasis is on the content, not the advertising. That is, the content must be as good as any other content around it. Yet in the cases that have been described to me, this is never the case.

So we have two content standards: The one the audience demands and the one the advertisers require. The former is typically high, the latter is typically low. Ironically, it is the former that reinforces usage of the brand and the latter that diminishes it and persuades listeners that we have all lost our minds.

It’s fine when we’re bundling ads or endorsements with the content folks came to us for in the first place. Listeners understand that commercials are the price they pay for free content.

It’s fine when we’re sacrificing a 30 minute block of time on a low-risk remote weekend hour that is sold off to the highest bidder (in that case, the revenue is much more important than the audience – in the unlikely event there is any).

But it’s not fine when the priorities of advertisers win out over those of listeners during prime time slots in morning shows and popular news/talk programs.

To be sure, radio stations have historically sold everything that moves and everything that doesn’t move to sponsors. That’s the business.

But when you are making content decisions based solely on advertiser priorities and not at all on audience priorities, then you are beginning a long, slow slide to the bottom.

In an era when consumers have more listening choices than ever, they will embrace the ones built for them over the ones built for your advertisers. You need to decide whether your audience is the one with ears or the one with dollars. Keep in mind one pays – but only when you have the other.

If you’re a morning show or a talk host forced to interview someone for a sales department initiative, reflect on the damage this does to your reputation with your audience. When they hear this mediocre content rather than something built with them in mind, whose fault is that in their ears?

It’s yours. That slow flushing sound is your career.

Content that exists because it’s paid for rather than asked for will turn off listeners to brands and hosts that muddy the line between the two.

Let the advertising buyer beware.

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