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The Secrets to Effective Radio Advertising

How Can Radio Advertising Boost Your Business?

Radio advertising offers you the opportunity to deliver a simple yet powerful message to a targeted group of consumers that may be interested in your product or service.

I have found that radio advertising can be highly effective in quickly building your sales whether you are starting a new business or running an existing business.

You can write and produce the ad yourself with minimal effort and then identify the stations that best serve your market. If you are lucky, you might even find a popular radio DJ with a large following to take a personal interest in your product or service and deliver the message on air during his or her show. This will give an extra “endorsement” boost to your radio spot.

How Much Does Radio Advertising Cost?

The cost of a 15-, 30-, or 60-second radio commercial will depend upon the frequency of the ad broadcast and the time of day that the announcement runs. Morning and evening drive times are usually more expensive than middle-of-the-day or late-night spots because the radio audience tends to peak during commuting hours.

There are production costs to consider in addition to the spot expenditure. These will be determined by your need for music backgrounds, sound effects, and use of professional or amateur actors, such as yourself, to read your copy.

Related: The Secrets of Great Television Advertising

Which Radio Station Should I Choose?

Your target market should determine the type of station you choose to advertise on. If you are looking to appeal to men between the ages of 18 and 30, for instance, you might want to consider advertising on an all-sports station or an FM rock station.

In general, because you know your product or service better than anyone else, you should write the copy yourself. Make sure you communicate the benefits of your product or service in such a way that listeners will immediately identify with it.

You’re Not Buying a Commercial—You’re Buying an Audience

Radio stations sell time, and they sell access to markets. The key feature of a radio station is its format—the type of programming it features and the style of the announcers. The format determines the audience the station appeals to, and the audience it delivers to advertisers. Some of the most common descriptions are:

  • Top 40
  • All talk
  • Progressive rock
  • Golden oldies
  • All news
  • Classical
  • Adult contemporary
  • Beautiful (easy listening)

Some local stations are affiliated with national broadcast networks such as CBS. These stations have more credibility as a news source, and consequently will be able to charge higher rates.

Buying Radio Time: Pick Your Day-Parts

Radio stations design their programming to attract certain listeners, and then sell those listeners to advertisers in tiny increments. A radio station has an ad time inventory of about 18 minutes per hour, which it sells in increments of 15 seconds, 30 seconds, and 60 seconds (:15s, :30s, and :60s). But not all minutes are valued equally. Audience size shifts dramatically throughout the day, and radio rates vary to reflect the change in the estimated number of listeners you are reaching.

The day is divided not into hours but into day-parts:

A.M. drive time, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., has the most listeners. They are at their most receptive, too—ready for the news of the day, and the news of your product as well.

Midday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will have considerably fewer listeners, but they are often very loyal to a certain station. These people are listening to the radio while they work, and they follow very predictable habits in their listening. If you do too, by advertising at the same time daily with the same message, you will build awareness quickly with these people.

P.M. drive time, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., will have almost as big an audience as the morning drive time. These people may be in more of a buying mood than those rushing to work in the morning.

Radio listenership drops off rapidly once people get home and out of their cars. The evening belongs to television—unless you’re in a “shift town.” If you are buying radio time in a city where factories run around the clock, pay more attention to your local station’s Arbitron ratings than to these generalizations. Radio in the workplace is a powerful influence.

The Evening day-part lasts from 7 p.m. to midnight, and Late night from midnight to 6 a.m. At these times you’ll find fewer, but fanatically loyal, listeners. These listeners have made a conscious decision to listen to radio rather than watch TV. With the right creative approach and the right match of station format to product, the evening hours can lend themselves to breakthrough advertising. If evening gives you access to the right market, it could be your best time to buy.

Radio prices are based on the day-part, the length of the spot you run, and the frequency, or the number of times your ad will air over the course of a certain period. If you’re comparing radio to advertising in the newspaper, you might say that the day-part is analogous to what section of the newspaper you appear in, the length is equivalent to the size of the ad, and the frequency is comparable to how many days your ad appears in the paper.

Related: How Frequently Should I Advertise? 

Writing Radio Copy

You can write your own ad copy or you can hire an agency or have the radio station do it. You need to make sure that your ad:

  • Gets people’s attention
  • Gets across one or two powerful, simple, and easily conveyed messages that will drive people to buy your product or service
  • Has a call to action, such as a limited-time special offer
  • Clearly states the next step, such as the location of the store to visit, the website to go to, or the phone number to call
  • Has plenty of repetition

Even if you decide to write your own ad and it is a simple so-called talking head, I suggest you don’t read it yourself, much as you probably want to. Get the radio station to provide a great-sounding voice that works for you.


Q:Should I let the radio station create my ads?

A: No. You are better off writing the ads yourself, even if you have never listened to the radio. You know your product or service best, and, more important, you know why people buy it.

Q:Can I run an ad I create on only one station or can I run the same ad on many?

A: Most radio stations will allow you to run an ad that you have created in the studios of other stations, but you should get permission to do so in advance. Preferably, you should get this permission when you are still negotiating your deal with the radio station for advertising rates.

Q: What are some last-minute tips for writing my own ad?

A: Take one or two key selling features of your product or service and blast them repeatedly during the ad spot. Restate them slightly each time. You don’t need a fancy advertising jingle. Also, stay away from humorous copy. It is extremely difficult to get humor to work in an ad.

Q:Should I go live or use prerecorded spots?

A: If your audience really likes the on-air talent and the on-air talent especially likes your product or service, you may want to consider using live spots. Otherwise, don’t. Radio stations have enough trouble airing prerecorded spots correctly, let alone live ones.

Q:Should I be concerned if a broadcaster makes fun of my ad?

A: Amazingly, many on-air people do make fun of the advertising they present or run during their shows, even though this very same advertising provides their living. Oddly, however, the effect of their sarcastic, ironic, or otherwise deprecating remarks is often positive. It tends to make the ad more memorable.

However, there is the occasion when you may feel that a negative impact has been created. Swallow your pride and try to weigh the impact rationally. Ask other people for their opinion of the “funny” comments. If you still feel that the comments really hurt the ad, then ask the station for a “make-good,” or free, advertising space.

Streetwise Advice

Radio Advertising Can Have Spectacular Results If Everything Goes Right

Some advertising people refer to radio as the “Cinderella medium.” It can be spectacularly successful if everything clicks—the right offer, the right message, the right copy, the right stations. Or radio spots can fall on deaf ears.

Radio ads require repetition to work. A minimum run of at least 15 ads on one station during a one-week period is recommended. Furthermore, if your entire advertising run on a particular station will be fewer than 60 spots during a month, try to keep the ads within a particular time slot. This way, you will reach the same listening audience often enough to create an awareness of, and ideally a desire to buy or inquire about, your product or service. If your spots run on an erratic schedule, you might reach the full listenership of the station, but you won’t be reaching any one group often enough to motivate them to take action.

Related: The Secrets to Effective Newspaper Advertising

A great way to zero in on the same people and have added impact is to buy a sponsorship of a daily feature, such as a news or sports broadcast. A sponsorship guarantees your ad will run at a particular time and typically affords you a brief “sponsored by” message in addition to your ad spot.

Errors and Rip-offs

New advertisers are often suspicious about whether their ads have run correctly or even run at all. Advertising salespeople respond by saying, “No need to worry, our ads are recorded in our operating log as required by the FCC. To not run an ad would violate the law.”

Don’t believe the salespeople for a minute. One of the very largest Boston radio shows was subject to a major scandal a few years back because they were skipping clients’ ads on a regular basis, logging the spots, and billing the clients as if all of their spots had run as per contract.

Although skipped ads are fairly uncommon, they can happen—and happen to you. What is a lot more common, however, is an unsatisfactory ad presentation. This is most likely to occur if on-air talent reads all or part of the ad. A number of years ago, in running a series of ads that included changing short, live taglines and aired on six major radio stations, I discovered that only one station read the ad correctly. Most made significant errors in the live taglines. Some actually skipped the tagline altogether. Some ran the wrong ad on the wrong day. One station even ran half of the recorded version of an ad, abruptly cutting it off midway through the spot.

You need to monitor your ads to ensure that you are getting your money’s worth of exposure. And don’t hesitate to demand free spots, called make-goods, for significant goofs.


If your audience is fairly general and you have successfully tested radio ads on one station, you may want to consider running ads on many stations at the same time. The practice of airing television or radio ads on several stations simultaneously is called a roadblock. The advantages of this strategy are that you get multiple exposures, reach people who frequently switch stations, and are more likely to benefit from word-of-mouth or viewers talking you up after the ads have run.

I once did roadblock advertising in the Boston marketplace and saw newsstand sales of a local magazine I was publishing almost double during a two-week period. I also saw the sales slide back toward their former level about a month after the ads stopped running. As the results of my campaign show, radio ads tend to work best for firms that can concentrate a lot of money in one marketplace, with heavy coverage over an extended period of time.

Negotiating Rates Is Part of Radio Advertising

The real fun in radio advertising is negotiating rates. Try to wait until a slow season, and then call every station that meets your demographics. Tell them either how much money you are considering spending on their station or how many spots you intend to place. Also tell them nicely, but firmly, that you are only going to run ads on the station or stations that give you the best rate deals. Get one or more of them to show you their ratings book, ideally from Arbitron, and compare how many people in your target audience they will be reaching.

Get all of the bids from each station. Then call each station back and say you still haven’t decided which station to choose, and can’t they do any better? If you choose a slow time of year and are persistent but pleasant with people, you should be able to negotiate rates that are even lower than the those paid by large national advertisers that buy huge blocks of advertising time.

You will be amazed to see how much less than the published rate card price you can buy radio time for. You will also note that, from radio station to radio station, there is an enormous difference in the station’s willingness to negotiate. For example, a Boston station, which normally sold morning drive ad spots at $150 per 30-second spot, sold me a package deal costing only $10 per spot. What you should typically expect through negotiating, however, is half the published rate. If you can do this, you are doing great!

Start Streaming the Courses on BusinessTown

Learn how to start and run your business by watching the many courses on BusinessTown including Start-a-Business 101, How to Create a Business Plan, and over 30 courses covering all types of marketing. You can try BusinessTown for free.

About Bob Adams

Bob Adams is a Harvard MBA serial entrepreneur. He has started over a dozen businesses including one that he launched with $1500 and sold for $40 million. He has written 17 books and created 52 online courses for entrepreneurs. Bob also founded BusinessTown, the go-to learning platform for starting and running a business.


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Radioplayer Announces New Automotive Partnership

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Radioplayer, the non-profit radio platform backed by major broadcasters around the world, is announcing a new smart radio partnership with leading global car manufacturer BMW Group. Starting next year, Radioplayer will enhance the radio experience in new BMW cars across Europe.

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