The thing about radio broadcasting listeners hate most are the seemingly endless commercials. I was keenly aware of this fact because radio advertising revenue enabled my career and my weekly paycheck. The production and playing of radio commercials were activities I did each and every day of my years in radio. Commercials were such a common part of my life, that they have been overllooked and are a forgotten part of my personal history.
Most radio listeners and television viewers have the vague notion that commercials are a necessary “evil” in order for programming to appear on the air. There is a massive amount of overhead expense in terrestrial radio broadcasting. Of course there are salaries for management, office workers, and talent. There are the costs of heating, cooling, and maintenance of the studios and transmitter buildings, equipment, towers, and so forth. Electricity makes it all work.
I once stumbled across the monthly electricity bill for one of our transmitter buildings and its tower lights. The amount was $4,000. Add on the electricity bill for the downtown studio building and the other monthly expenses, and we’re talking about an expensive proposition, just to put a signal on the air.
The only way to pay for it all and hopefully turn a profit is to sell the only product you have, air time. Advertisers are usually sold 30 or 60 second commercials, sometimes 15-second spots are included in special bonus packages. If one operates a public radio station or network, commercials are not sold.
Listener funding is recruited during funding efforts that must be endured for several minutes per hour for as long as a week. Those funding drives may happen two or more times each year. Reliance upon listener fund drives would kill listenership of commercial radio by driving people away in droves. That means radio commercials are the default form of paying the bills.
Radio commercials are today’s topic because today is Radio Commercials Day. It’s the commemoration the day when the first radio spot was broadcast in the United States. The commercial for Queensboro Realty hit the airwaves on August 28, 1922 on New York City’s WEAF.
Radio commercials can be a fun part of popular culture when they’re produced well. The message is easier to administer when the medium is sweet. Some people enjoy finding examples of old commercials on the Internet as entertainment. The secret is to produce contemporary ads that people will enjoy today and good enough to be enjoyed many years from now.
When I wasn’t on the air, a large portion of my first job at a commercial radio station was copy writing. I had an actual office in the northwest corner of the studio building equipped with a desk and typewriter. (Well, it was 1974.) Most of the ad orders in the small town were for grocery or department stores. They were primarily lists of weekly specials.
I had to cram as many specials into 30-seconds plus two or three mentions of the store name as is possible within a 30-second timeframe. The producer then had to enthusiasticallyread the copy and not sound rushed. To make them unique, we mixed in a music bed. Some advertisers purchased a jingle package at extra cost to make their spots sound more professional and distinctive. If a jingle was used, I only had, at most, 25-seconds to fill with a message.
Once in awhile, one of our salespeople had the good fortune of selling an advertising package that needed more creative spots. These were my favorites. I was able to collaborate with the buyer of the spots and compose something truly creative, fun, and “ear-catching”. This type of spot is like a mini-drama or a mini-comedy depending on the approach needed. Radio talent and radio listeners liked these much more than spots that were just crammed lists of specials.
In those pre-digital audio days, we “cut” the spots to open reel tape, then dubbed them to cartridges that resemble 8-Track tapes. The professional name for the cartridge is “cart”. If time was of the essence and there was only one commercial to be recorded, we often recorded the spot directly to cart with no preliminary reel to reel recording. Good direct to cart spots were examples of experience and mastery of the art form.
The finished spot was usually played over the phone for client approval, then, if OK, was delivered to the control room for live broadcast use or placed into a cart carousel for automated station playback. The spots were then aired at the scheduled times according to the log (schedule) in time slots that were specified by the client.
Now that nearly every radio station uses digital technology, tape and carts are no longer used. Music, commercials, public service announcements, along with station promotional announcements and other audio elements are stored and used in networked computer servers. Specialized audio software is used to produce and edit radio commercials. Spots that are OK’d are then “inserted” into the audio stream.
When the commercial is to be aired, “daypart”, determines how many ears will hear it, thus, how much the client will be billed for each commercial. A 30-second spot during the morning “drive time” daypart is worth considerably more than a spot airing at 2:00 in the morning. In rural-agricultural markets, a noon hour daypart spot is much more expensive than a midnight daypart spot. Most advertisers rarely spend money on overnight daypart ads.
During Radio Commercial Day, today, I hope you’ll tune into your favorite terrestrial radio station. When the next commercial comes on, remember that somebody put creative effort into it and somebody else is paying for it so the radio station can remain on the air.