by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
The idea of using sponsorships as a way of reducing spotloads has been around since at least the late 1980s. I first saw it suggested by veteran programmer Jack McCoy in a Billboard interview in which he posited that stations would eventually trade the spot sales business for merchandising instead. Unfortunately, that prediction came only half true when sponsorships began to augment already bulging spotloads during the NTR boom of the late ’90s.
For nearly 20 years, some broadcasters have been talking about dropping spots and selling sponsorships only
Then again, the idea of selling fewer spots and charging more for them has been around for years, too. And just as it took several years of declining listening levels, punishing consumer press, and increased competition from other media for broadcasters to actually sell fewer spots and charge more for them, the notion of replacing spots with sponsorships finally came to fruition 17 years later when The Morey Organization took its three Eastern Long Island stations jockless and began billing them as “commercial free” in what it positioned as an attempt to match the appeal of (frequently) jockless formats like Jack-FM and the commercial free music of satellite radio without the subscription fees.
TMO’s concept, billed as “FM Channel Casting,” involved repositioning its three stations as “FM Channel 98.5″ (hard-rockin’ Classic Rocker WBON), “FM Channel 105.3″ (WDRE, former dance/rhythmic Party 105.3, which became a somewhat more mainstream Top 40) and “FM Channel 107.1″ (WLIR, which switched from adult Modern Rock to a soft AC/triple-A hybrid called “NeoBreeze”). Each hour is devoted to one sponsor which, the stations emphasize, could even be a listener who wants to spend $100-$500 an hour to, say, convey birthday wishes to a loved one.
TMO’s announcement brought national attention to three stations in Arbitron market No. 261. It has received surprisingly positive coverage from a local press that would normally take an operator to task for taking three stations jockless. (Newsday notes that only three staffers exited in the move and that all were offered other jobs.) But how does this concept actually sound? On its second day, Sept. 17, we listened to about 90 minutes of WBON and WDRE. (None of the stations are streaming at the moment.) Here’s what we heard:
- Sponsors got four mentions an hour. One at :00, then roughly where you might expect the commercials, around :21, :34, and :46 after the hour.
- The spots I heard were dry voice (at least that’s how I remember them). The three sponsors I noted over the course of two hours were local clubs–a category that was always abundant on Party 105.3 anyway.
- The spots didn’t sound like sponsorships. Ranging from 10-15 seconds to 20-25 seconds or thereabouts in one case, they sounded more like those extra :10s that sales departments started adding once spotloads maxed out a few years ago, except, of course, they weren’t buried in the middle of six other units.
- Except at the top of the hour, where the sponsor announcements preceded the legal ID, there was no station logo on either side, and no attempt to link the sponsor with the (almost) commercial-free hour.
- Roughly 40-50% of the song-to-song transitions were cold segues. The produced drops were brief–no “this is Channel 105.3 music” promos, for instance.
- The legal ID for both stations used similar wording: “Now for another hour of commercial-free music on the Long Island Rock FM, Channel 98″ in WBON’s case.
Among the other positioners:
- Party Hits, Channel 105.3: No monthly fees and never any commercials;
- Commercial free 24/7 and 365 days a year;
- FM stands for Free Modulation; XM stands for “X-pensive Modulation”
What I heard was not literally “commercial free”. The sponsorships–brief though they were–are likely to read as commercials to some listeners, particularly those who don’t give a station a free pass even for its own contest promos. And we’ve all come to realize over the last five years that just because your traffic department codes that extra 30-second spot as a sponsor promo, it still sounds like an extra unit to a listener.
But you can’t dispute that there was more music. WDRE is up against Top 40 WBLI, which, like most of its Cox brethren, began positioning around 50 (or more) minutes of music every hour long before Clear Channel’s Less is More brought a lower spotload to WHTZ (Z100) New York. And yet, for the three hours between 3-6 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 17, Mediabase shows that WBLI played 40 records, Z100 played 42 and WDRE played 47–the same number as Sirius’ Top 40 channel “Hits 1″. (Then again, you’ve also got to be a little impressed that the other guys were getting 14 songs into other hours, when so many PDs had become resigned to 12 or fewer in recent years.)
Broadcasters have long wondered what number and configuration of spots constitutes a “killer app”. Cox launched now defunct dance outlet WPYM Miami several years ago by adding two units at a time, maxing out at eight an hour and relentlessly hammering Rhythmic Top 40 rival WPOW on spotload. Classic Hits WKLU Indianapolis has been running only one four-unit stopset an hour since its successful launch last year. And, technically, WDRE is running four units an hour, too. So now you have to wonder if a listener will interpret 58 minutes of music as “commercial free” in a way that makes 56 seem like not enough–although the two concepts are hardly likely to be common in most markets, much less the same ones, in the immediate future.
Beyond that, it’s a little distressing to think that the only way to make the sponsorships-for-commercials tradeoff work is to be jockless. Just as there’s no rule that a great Classic Hits/Hot AC hybrid of the Bob- or Jack-FM variety inherently has to be jockless, there’s nothing that says that listeners who want fewer commercials don’t simultaneously want a little companionship from the radio as well. The right airstaff, by the way, could also give any sponsor a lot more oomph over the course of an hour without having to stop the music at all.
But it would take one hell of an operator to support even a four-person jock staff with less than two minutes of spots an hour. Morey’s press release is candid that “trimming the promotions department and airstaff offers broadcasters the opportunity to run their stations at extremely low operating costs.” Kurt Hanson’s Radio And Internet Newsletter estimates that TMO stations would pull in an aggregate $60-75 CPM per hour compared to $120-150 for a traditional approach. Scott Fybush’s Northeast Radio Watch reports that the stations were heard running infomercials on Sunday morning. And TMO made its move after Labor Day–when demand for spots in Eastern Long Island would be lower, anyway. On Saturday of Labor Day weekend, WDRE played 34 songs in three hours.
It’s worth noting here that not everybody sees going jockless as the best way to compete with satellite and other new media. The same week TMO made its changes, WPLJ New York announced that it was rehiring former p.m. driver Rocky Allen. During Allen’s mid-’90s stint at WPLJ, full-service afternoon shows were rare. But even after he left, the concept of a morning show in multiple dayparts became part of the playbook for many Hot AC outlets, particularly as the format’s music became a less reliable franchise.
It’s also worth mentioning that the No. 1 radio station in Eastern Long Island at this writing is again Oldies WLNG, which continues to defy the odds both against its format and independent operators with a lot of remotes, a lot of content, a lot of jingles, and a fewer records-per-hour, even for an Oldies station. You can try to build a new concept around the things people like about satellite radio or new jockless outlets, but there’s still something to be said for winning the battle by giving people what they used to like about radio.
Finally, while the commercial-free and expanded variety aspects of satellite radio were its calling cards at the outset, it’s been a year since the announcement that Howard Stern was joining Sirius Satellite Radio. With that announcement came the tacit admission that maybe conventional radio had some content that was worth stealing, after all. So should radio be looking for ways to co-opt the satellite experience if satellite is going the other way?
But if you can get the number of messages an hour down to a point that a listener is willing to accept as “commercial free,” then you’ve got a killer app that makes you more competitive against other radio stations, not just satellite and iPods. The notion of swapping sponsorships for spots has always been appealing, and actually instituting it is a brave move. The key is going to be refining it in a way that doesn’t force owners to trade off the other important elements of their radio stations.
Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.