Advertising on Community Radio

If you want to get it right – get a writer

Advertorial: Stella Hayes

As a literary consultant and editor, I spend most of my time assessing new fiction and recommending writers to agents in the hope they can secure a publishing deal.

It goes without saying that the key to success in fiction is all in the ‘writing’. Recently, as part of my lectures for an undergraduate course in creative writing, I have come to focus on what could loosely be packaged as ‘creative commercial writing’.

Rather than being written to entertain, though often that should be a goal in itself, the key aspect of ‘commercial’ writing revolves around the prompt to buy… to purchase whatever product or service is being advertised. It is, essentially, the role of the copywriter.

Nowhere is this more acutely relevant than in radio advertising. I say this because in radio, words stand alone, with only sound to help emphasise key messages. There is no visual content as such, which allows us to examine in more detail what it is that makes a successful radio commercial.

Radio can generate impressive revenue for business owners. It’s trusted, targeted and cost-effective. Yet whether you are a global, national or local advertiser, creative execution has a big impact on a client’s ROI.

The radio spectrum across the UK has changed dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. Many local ‘independent’ stations were swallowed up by bigger organisations, such as Global and Bauer. Some, though not all, lost their local identity in being forced to remould under a more regional or national brand.

This, as much as anything else, led to an explosion in ‘community radio’. With so many areas losing their ‘local’ stations, Ofcom allowed the formation of community stations up and down the land. What goes around tends to come around and now many of those ‘community’ stations are filling the void left by the demise of independent commercial radio.

There are many different types of community radio stations. Some are extremely local or geared towards a particular niche audience, yet many more are run as ‘commercial’ stations broadcasting under a ‘community’ banner.

This is largely down to survival. For those who don’t have generous benefactors, running a community radio station as a professional business is often more necessity than choice.

In taking a look at how these radio stations were fairing, I discovered some diverse results when it comes to securing and maintaining commercial revenue, which many will ultimately need to thrive.

Some of this centred around the very word at the heart of the matter: ‘community’. It is pivotal to each station’s ethos, but the more successful stations don’t let the word ‘community’ distract from their professionalism.

Just because many staff might be volunteers or part-time workers, doesn’t mean they can’t be professional in their approach. So many community stations can, and indeed need to, thrive commercially to continue to entertain and inform the community they serve.

In examining what it is that makes some stations commercially successful, and leads others to struggle, I decided to take a look at how they operate. What ‘best practice’ can community stations follow, and just as importantly, what should they avoid?

I spent many hours listening to a variety of radio commercials and jingles from a large number of community stations who have regular ad breaks.

As many a radio guru will tell you, the ‘commercially’ sponsored section of output is an integral part of overall programming. It needs to sound as professional as possible to attract new business.

I’m reminded here of my trips to the cinema way back when. Those of a certain age may well remember that the slick ‘Pearl & Dean’ adverts were sometimes followed by a locally made commercial which often stood out in comparison. I grew up in Watford and the commercial I recall at our local cinema was for a nearby Tandoori restaurant. It was a ‘funny’ ad with its off-key music, poorly spoken voiceover and shaky camera work… But it wasn’t meant to be funny, and was, in reality, pretty ‘awful’.

I’m afraid to say I have heard a fair few radio equivalents over the airwaves these last few months being broadcast by community radio stations. However, I have heard some mighty impressive ones too!

I wondered why there was such a discrepancy in content and quality. At first, I wondered if it might be for budgetary or cost reasons, but this seems not to be the case. The price of creating and producing a radio commercial is still less than a tiny box ad in a local newspaper. So why is this happening?

The more I investigated and spoke to those working in radio, the more I realised that the key mistake many were making was either not sufficiently understanding the importance of the creative writer, or ignoring their role altogether.

When I spoke to some community station MDs they told me that the market was swamped with what some call ‘lowest common denominator’ advertising. Community stations it seems are a target for what we might colloquially call ‘ads made on the cheap’, which means of course that something somewhere along the line is being cut.

The trouble is what is being cut is the writer, which makes no sense at all… It’s like flogging a car without an engine. It might look okay at first glance but it simply won’t work.

When a radio commercial is, in effect, no more than someone reading out a newspaper advert to some background music, then something has gone very wrong indeed.

Successful radio campaigns are far more subtle and work because they engage with the listener. Good commercial writers ensure that the key points of the message are in the ad and that they are delivered in a way which engages.

Community radio stations can be just as effective at broadcasting successful campaigns as commercial stations. There are those who do this regularly but many others it seems simply aren’t aware that it can be done.

It will surprise many I’m sure to discover that two community radio stations have broadcast commercials which have been nominated for national awards. That means they were competing against not only local and regional stations but national commercial stations too.

I wanted to find out more about these commercials. They were broadcast by community stations Seahaven FM in Sussex and The Voice in North Devon. Both had used a production company called Sounds Sorted. However, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t the ‘production’ alone that made the ads outstanding; it was more down to the writing of the scripts.

I spoke to the Creative Director at Sounds Sorted, a former television drama writer, Tim Cooke. I asked Tim how he had come to create the commercials, and how he had journeyed from writing episodes of shows such as London’s Burning and The Bill to creating local adverts for community radio stations.

Tim told me “When I moved out of London I wanted to continue the advertising copywriting I had been dovetailing with TV scriptwriting. I had always enjoyed writing radio commercials but the landscape in radio was changing. I’ve been in North Devon a number of years now and it’s one of those areas where a popular independent commercial station, namely Lantern FM, was swallowed up by a larger entity, in this case Global. But many local listeners weren’t amused, and some wanted to fight back. It took a while but with perseverance, some very determined people got a new station up and running. It began broadcasting on a community licence but from the off was very professional in its output. That’s how I started writing ads for community radio”.

Tim told me he was determined to make commercials and jingles for community radio of the same standard he had been making for regional and national broadcast. “We simply amended our costs to suit the more local budget”, he adds.

A couple of years back Tim attended a CMA conference and met the owner of community station Seahaven FM, Nick Mallinson. Nick was keen to see if he could generate more revenue for his station by improving the quality of the commercials broadcast on air.

Nick Mallinson ads “We get bombarded with offers to make and produce commercials at cut-price rates… But what’s the point when they are often ill-conceived unprofessional commercials that simply don’t work. We don’t pay for this service, our clients do, and they expect their investment in our airtime to make a difference to their business.”

Tim Cooke agrees. “If you don’t put the effort into the writing of the ad, and make sure the client’s key message is not only included but delivered in a memorable way, then you are letting everyone down. All that happens is the client doesn’t renew his airtime, and the message soon spreads in the community that ‘radio advertising doesn’t work. Other businesses then stop wanting to advertise and the whole thing spirals downwards.”

Nick Mallinson explains it from the radio station point of view, “These days anyone with a laptop can produce an ad, get a voiceover, put a bit of background music behind it, etc etc, but that doesn’t make for a good commercial. What makes a good commercial is the script, and that’s why using an experienced copywriter is so important”.

There are plenty of good writers out there that I can be pretty confident of. It would even be nice to think I may have taught one or two as part of my creative writing course! In any event, it is clear that many radio professionals agree that the actual writing and creative idea behind a commercial is the key ingredient of its success.

In researching further I read blogs by the respected radio commentator Simon Rushton, who often rams this point home. If you get the chance ‘Rushton on Radio’ is well worth a look. Former UKRD stalwart Mike Bersin is another respected radio professional who values the role of the writer. His books on the subject are detailed, amusing and informative and most helpful in breaking down the key ingredients of a successful radio commercial.

So if your community radio station wants to generate commercial revenue they should listen carefully to the likes of Simon, Mike and Tim. The single most important question any community radio station should ask themselves is this: it’s not who is producing your commercials but who is writing them?

Local businesses place their trust in you and invest in your airtime, and the least you can do for them is to make sure that their commercial is well written. This means that the content, or ‘message’, and the communication of it or ‘creative’ needs to be spot on every time. They will then be far more likely to see a return on their investment, far more likely to advertise again, and far more likely to recommend you to others.

Community radio stations can and do thrive using this model and for those setting out, or wondering how they might increase their commercial revenue, it’s worth remembering the mantra - ‘if you want to get it right, get a writer’. Words this literary professional is always happy to endorse!

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Well said Stella!
I write ads because I was so horrified at the off-pat same-old-cliche scripts that are being used - even by the Nationals and big Groups.
But I’m not a professional writer - just a passionate listener and an experienced exponent of the English language

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Really useful and constructive article. Anyone running a Community Radio station who needs commercial revenue should be aware of this. Radio advertising and sponsorship can keep a station going, but it needs to be done by professionals who know what they are doing. It’s cost effective if you get it right and your business community will support you if you do. Like the article says make sure you know who is WRITING and CREATING your commercials as well as who is producing them!

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