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Commercial radio stations make most of their revenue selling “airtime” to advertisers. Of total media expenditures, radio accounts for 6.9%.[1] Radio advertisements or “spots” are available when a business or service provides valuable consideration, usually cash, in exchange for the station airing their spot or mentioning them on air. The Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, established under the Communications Act of 1934,[2]Federal Communications Commission[3] regulates commercial broadcasting, and the laws regarding radio advertisements remain relatively unchanged from the original Radio Act of 1927, enacted to deal with increasing problems of signal interference[4][5] as more and more stations sprung up around the country.



The first radio broadcasts aired in the early 1900’s.[6] [7] However, it wasn’t until 1920 that radio stations began to broadcast continuously, similar to what we know today. In the United States, on November 2, 1920, KDKA aired the first commercial broadcast.[8] As more stations began operating on a continuous basis, station owners were increasingly faced with the issue of how to maintain their stations financially, because operating a radio station was a significant expense.[9]

In February of 1922, AT&T announced they would begin selling “toll broadcasting” to advertisers, in which businesses would underwrite or finance a broadcast, in exchange for being mentioned on the radio.[10] WEAF of New York is credited with airing the first paid radio commercial, on August 28, 1922, for the Queensboro Corporation, advertising an apartment complex.[11] However, it appears other radio stations may actually have sold advertising before WEAF. As early as May 1920, an amateur radio broadcaster leased out his “station” in exchange for $35 per week for twice-weekly broadcasts.[12] And, in Seattle, Washington, Remick’s Music Store purchased a large ad in the local newspaper advertising radio station KFC, in exchange for sponsorship of a weekly program, in March 1922.[13] Additionally, on April 4, 1922, a car dealer, Alvin T. Fuller, purchased time on WGI of Medford Hillside, Massachusetts, in exchanges for mentions.[14] So, although WEAF is credited with the first advertisement, it appears other radio stations ran advertisements prior to August 1922.

During radio’s Golden Age, advertisers sponsored entire programs, usually with some sort of message like “We thank our sponsors for making this program possible”, airing at the beginning or end of a program.[15] While radio had the obvious limitation of being restricted to sound, as the industry developed, large stations began to experiment with different formats.[16] The “visual” portion of the broadcast was supplied by the listener’s boundless imagination.[17] Comedian and voice actor Stan Freberg demonstrated this point on his radio show in 1957,[18]using sound effects to dramatize the towing of a 10-ton maraschino cherry by the Royal Canadian Air Force, who dropped it onto a 700-ft. mountain of whipped cream floating in hot-chocolate filled Lake Michigan, to the cheering of 25,000 extras.[19] The bit was later used by the USA's Radio Advertising Bureau to promote radio commercials'

The radio industry has changed significantly since that first broadcast in 1920, and radio is big business today. Although other media and new technologies now place more demands on consumer’s time, 95% of people still listen to the radio every week.[20] Internet radio listening is also growing, with 13 percent of the U.S. population listening via this method.[21] Although consumers have more choices today, 92 percent of listeners stay tuned in when commercials break into their programming.[22]


Advertisers have a broad range of choices when it comes to the type and length of radio commercial message they air. With changes in the radio industry and better production technologies, the mode of commercial presentation has changed, and commercial advertisements can take on a wide range of forms. The two primary types of radio ads are “live reads” and produced spots.[23]

Cousin to the ad-libbed commercial, live read refers to when a DJ reads an advertiser’s spot on the air, delivered from a fact sheet or from personal knowledge.[24] It can also refer to when the DJ “endorses” the advertiser’s goods or services. The Radio Advertising Bureau defines an endorsement as: “A commercial in which the…program personality personally recommends an advertiser's product or service, often done live during the program.”[25] Live read and endorsement are not synonymous. An endorsement takes the form of a personal recommendation by the DJ to the listening audience, whereas a live read could simply be the DJ reading from a script.

Produced spots appear to be more common. A spot is ‘produced’ if the radio station or an advertising agency creates it for the client.[26] Produced commercial formats include: straight read with sound effects/music in the background, dialogue, voiced by two or more personalities, monologue (where the voice talent portrays a character, as opposed to an announcer), and jingles.[27] Studies show that the quality of the commercials is as important to listeners, generally, as the number of ads they hear.[28]

Digital technology has improved in-house production capabilities and now enables stations not only to create spots more efficiently and quickly, but also allows for instantaneous transfer of the commercial from one station to another. Also, as a result of the trend towards consolidation in local markets, non-competing stations can easily exchange talent, thus increasing the diversity of voices available to local advertisers.

Additionally, radio advertisements are purchased either “locally” or “nationally”.[29] National advertising refers to ads that run in several markets, such as those for chain stores. Radio advertising is typically sold either “directly”,[30] where a business purchases the airtime directly from the radio station, or through an advertising agency that purchases the ad and produces the commercial for the business. When a client purchases spots directly from the station, most stations will produce a commercial for the advertiser at no charge.[31] Advertisers can also go to independent companies for production of their commercial message.[32]

In general, most advertisers cannot use well-known, popular music in their advertisement, unless they have prior approval from the recording artist and are willing to pay royalty and use fees to the copyright holder each time the ad airs. Radio stations and independent production companies typically have “music banks” that will sound similar to popular music, enabling an advertiser to produce a spot that sounds as though it “belongs” on a particular station.[33]

In terms of commercial content, some ads include a call to action, designed to elicit a response within a specified time period.[34] A call-to-action allows an advertiser to measure and track listener’s response to their radio schedule. Examples of direct response advertising include asking listeners to call a certain business or phone number, log onto the business’ website or come by a certain location by a certain time.[35] The more typical radio advertisement is the general ad that’s designed to let the listener know about a good, service, promotion or event.

A certification program for radio copywriters — the Certified Professional Commercial Copywriter — was created for the Radio Advertising Bureau by Dan O'Day.[36]

Research and Rates

Radio stations today generally run their advertising in clusters or sets, scattered throughout the broadcasting hour.[37] Studies show that the first or second commercial to air during a commercial break has higher recall than those airing later in the set.[38]

Arbitron is one of the primary providers of ratings data in the United States. Most radio stations and advertising agencies subscribe to this paid service, because ratings are key in the broadcast industry. Ad agencies generally purchase radio based on a target demographic. For example, their client may want to reach men between 18 and 49 years old. The ratings enable advertisers to select a specific segment of the listening audience and purchase airtime accordingly. Ratings are also referred to as “numbers” in the business.[39]

The numbers can show who is listening to a particular station, the most popular times of day for listeners in that group, and the percentage of the total listening audience that can be reached with a particular schedule of advertisements. The numbers also show exactly how many people are listening at each hour of the day. This allows an advertiser to select the strongest stations in the market with specificity and tells them what times of day will be the best times to run their ads.

Besides the basic numbers, most radio stations have access to other data, such as Scarborough,[40] that details more about the listening audience than just what age group they fall into.[41] For example, some data will provide the types of activities listeners participate in, their ethnicity, what type of employment they do, their income levels, what kinds of cars they drive, and even whether or not they have been to a particular entertainment or sports venue in the past month or gone to a spa.

Radio stations sell their airtime according to dayparts.[42] Typically, a station’s daypart lineup will look something like the following: 6am-10am, 10am-3pm, 3pm-7pm, and 7pm- midnight.[43] The spots running after midnight, from 12am-6am, are referred to as “overnights”.[44] Though this schedule of dayparts can vary from station to station, most stations run similar daypart lineups and sell their advertisements accordingly. Drive times,[45] or morning and evenings when people are commuting, are usually the most popular times of dayand when each station has the most listeners. The “rates”, or what the station charges the advertiser, will reflect that.

Rates can also be affected by the time of year an advertiser runs.[46] January is almost always a very slow time of year, and many stations run specials on their rates during that month. During busier times of the year, stations can actually sell out of ads entirely, because, unlike the print media, radio stations only have a limited number of commercial units available per hour.[47] During the dot-com boom, some stations ran as much as twenty minutes of ads per hour.[48] While commercial levels are nowhere near as high today, with the average station running approximately nine minutes of ads per hour,[49] peak periods can and do sell out.

Thus, advertising rates will vary depending on time of year, time of day, how well the station does in the particular demographic an advertiser is trying to reach, how well a station does compared to other stations, and demand on station inventory. The busier the time of year for the station, the more an advertiser can expect to spend. And, the higher ranked a station is in the market, according to the ratings data, the more an advertiser can expect to get charged to run on that station.

Advertising rates can vary depending on the length of spot the advertisers elects to run. Although sixty second spots are the most common, stations also sell airtime in thirty, fifteen, ten and two second intervals.[50] Thirty-second ads have always been popular in television advertising, but radio stations just adopted this format recently. Clear Channel kicked off the “Less is More” initiative in 2004,[51] utilizing thirty-second commercials in markets across the US. Though studies show that fewer commercials cause better recall rates,[52] research indicates that traditional sixty-second spots may be the better option, with higher brand and message recall than the newer thirty-second ads.[53]

Stations will also run ten-second spots, or billboards.[54] Typically, this type of spot runs adjacent to some station feature, such as the traffic report, stating, “This traffic brought to you by…”, and is usually limited to about thirty words. Fifteen-second spots are generally reserved for station promotional announcements, although some stations sell them.[55]

In addition to traditional radio advertising, some stations are selling airtime during their streaming broadcasts.[56] In the past, the radio station stream included only the commercials that were also running on air. CBS announced it would begin airing ‘live reads’ in its streaming radio broadcasts, sold and voiced separately from the stations’ regular spots, noting the efficacy of live endorsements.[57]


More than eight out of ten Americans say listening to commercials in exchange for free radio is a “fair deal”.[58] Thus, radio advertising can be an effective, low-cost medium through which a business can reach their target consumer. Studies show that radio ads create emotional reactions in listeners.[59] In turn, consumers perceive the ads as more relevant to them personally,[60] which can lead to increased market awareness and sales for businesses running ad schedules. Twenty-five percent of listeners say they’re more interested in a product or business when they hear about it on their preferred station.[61]

Local DJs create a personal relationship with their listening audience, and that audience is more likely to trust what they say and respond to their message.[62] Live endorsements are growing in popularity, as advertisers seek new means to reach consumers and cut through the surrounding clutter.[63] Studies show that live reads have recall and response rates higher than the typical recorded spot.[64] Perhaps because of the relationship listeners develop with their favorite station, twenty-six percent of listeners are more interested in a product or business when a DJ endorses it.[65] As more advertisers turn to live endorsements, heavy demand is placed on DJs to announce them. [66] And, as the number of available DJs shrinks, those that are left are often inundated with requests to do endorsements.[67]

Other advantages of radio advertising include: market reach, flexibility, selectivity, top of mind awareness, and the ability to target a specific demographic.[68]

On the negative side, disadvantages to radio advertising include: ad clutter, lack of “track-ability”, no tangible reference, and increased competition from new media.[69] In particular, consumers are often frustrated by the number of commercials they hear. In fact, 38% of listeners find ads so annoying or intrusive that they simply turn off the radio entirely.[70] While younger listeners tend to be irritated by the total number of commercials they hear, older listeners are more bothered by what they perceive as “annoying”, “loud” or “obnoxious” advertisements.[71]

Further, listeners today are overwhelmed by the number of commercials they hear.[72] The term for this phenomenon is “clutter”. Commercial clutter refers to “an excessive amount of non-program content, including commercials”.[73] The trend towards fewer commercials is just beginning to show up in data regarding consumer perception.[74]

Although new media has certainly impacted the demand for advertising dollars, broadcast radio still continues to reach ninety-eight percent of those aged 18 to 34 in an average day.[75] New technologies have positively impacted the industry, with radio experiencing a higher reach among those who use devices such as iPods.[76] A recent study found that radio continues to be the dominant audio media at home, work and in the car.[77] Thus, while new technology has increased demands on consumer’s time, radio continues to hold a strong position in the market.

Regulatory Considerations

The Communications Act of 1934 established the FCC, which, in turn, regulates the broadcasting media.[78] In response to the payola scandal of the 1950’s, the FCC established guidelines, known as “sponsorship disclosure” rules.[79] These rules apply to both pay-for-play and advertisements alike, recognizing that consumers deserve to know “by whom they are being persuaded”.[80] Of particular note to advertisers is Section 317 of the Act, also known as the “Announcement of Payment For Broadcast” provision.[81] It states, in general terms, that where money, services or other valuables are directly or indirectly paid to a radio station, in exchange for mentions on the air, the station must disclose that fact.[82] For example, if a cell phone provider gives a free cell phone to a station’s DJ, who then talks about that cell-phone provider on the air, perhaps mentioning what great service he has, the announcer must disclose that it is an advertisement.

Usually, listeners are able to discern radio advertisements from entertainment content. The Communications Act does include an “obviousness” exception: where it is obvious that something is a commercial, the announcement-for-payment provision does not apply. However, where anything of value has changed hands in exchange for mentions on the air, a station has a duty to disclose it.[83]

The Federal Trade Commission is also responsible for broadcast industry regulation, in terms of false or misleading advertising practices.[84] In October 2009, the FTC published guidelines regarding endorsements, requiring clear disclosure of the connection between an advertiser and an endorser.[85] Under the FTC guidelines, an endorser is responsible for disclosing any “material connections” they have with a seller/business.[86]

In recent years, there has been a trend toward the blurring of entertainment/editorial and advertising content.[87] Marketers are “embedding” products into the media so that consumers are not aware they are being advertised to. In radio, it is sometimes difficult to tell where DJ chit-chat ends and an advertisement begins.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Goodman, M., "The Radio Act of 1927 as a Product of Progressivism
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ See note 5
  10. ^ See Note 5
  11. ^
  12. ^ See Note 4
  13. ^ See Note 4
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Id.
  17. ^ Needs Citation.
  18. ^ Jerkwater, Harvey, Filing Cabinet of the Damned",
  19. ^ "The Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freeberg Collection 1951-1958: Stretching the Imiagination",
  20. ^ Berman, B., "Keeping DJ Endorsements Alive", Media Week, March 17,2008.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Needs Citation
  24. ^
  25. ^ Id.
  26. ^ Kobliski,K., "How Radio Ads Are Produced", March 18,2005,
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ See RAB, supra.
  30. ^ Id.
  31. ^ See Kobliski note, supra.
  32. ^ Id.
  33. ^ Id.
  34. ^ See RAB note, supra.
  35. ^ Id.
  36. ^ "RAB Shop/Radio Advertising Bureau/Training Certification/CPCC". Retrieved 2008-09-05. "RAB's Certified Professional Commercial Copywriter (CPCC) training and accreditation program was developed in cooperation with copywriting veteran Dan O'Day"  
  37. ^ Id.
  38. ^ Allen,D., Journal of Radio Studies, November 2007,
  39. ^
  40. ^ Scarborough
  41. ^ Id.
  42. ^ See RAB buy/sell terms, supra.
  43. ^
  44. ^ See RAB buy/sell terms
  45. ^ Id
  46. ^ Id.
  47. ^
  48. ^ Brokaw, Curt, "Radio: Listen Closely", Madison Avenue Journal 2009,
  49. ^ Vasquez, Diego, "Busting the Myth of Ad-cluttered Radio", Media Life, November 17, 2006.
  50. ^ Williams, Roy,
  51. ^ Needs citation.
  52. ^ Wilkerson, David B., "Clear Channel: Ad Cuts a Success", Marketwatch, February 9, 2005.
  53. ^ Allen, David, Journal of Radio Studies, November 2007,
  54. ^ See RAB buy/sell terms, supra.
  55. ^ See Williams article, supra.
  56. ^
  57. ^ See Berman article, supra.
  58. ^ See Edison Research Study, supra.
  59. ^ Id.
  60. ^ Id.
  61. ^ Id.
  62. ^ Thomas, Linda, "Radio Endorsements- Credibility for Sale?", May 8, 2009.
  63. ^ Smith, Erika, "DJ Endorsements on Indy Stations Move Into Heavy Rotation", January 25, 2009,
  64. ^ See Allen article, supra.
  65. ^ See Edison study, supra.
  66. ^ See Media Week article, supra.
  67. ^ Id.
  68. ^ Strategicmediainc
  69. ^
  70. ^ See Edison Study, supra.
  71. ^ Id.
  72. ^
  73. ^
  74. ^ See Edison study, supra.
  75. ^
  76. ^ Id.
  77. ^ Id.
  78. ^
  79. ^
  80. ^
  81. ^ See FCC.
  82. ^ Id.
  83. ^ Id.
  84. ^
  85. ^
  86. ^ See FTC.
  87. ^ Needs Citation.

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