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Is radio a PR person’s secret weapon?

Radio MicBroadcast radio has been welcomed into people’s homes, vehicles and offices for over 90 years. It has survived the invention of the television, the Internet and the iPod, and unlike the newspaper or the magazine, radio seems to show no signs of slowing down. Yet local stations receive little to no pitches from public relations professionals on a regular basis. So what is the best way to make a pitch to your local radio station? inVocus talked to Vocus Media Research’s Managing Editor of Radio Content, Kyle Johnson, to find some answers.

inVocus: Does pitching to radio offer any advantages over pitching to television or the print industry? Any disadvantages?

Kyle Johnson: One advantage radio has over print or even television is the ability to attract specific audiences and to do so at key times. Different stations attract different listeners, which allows for targeting of specific groups of people. If you want to attract moms, you might focus on an Adult Contemporary station, and do so at a time when moms are taking their kids to school. You might target a younger demographic when they’re preparing to go out on the weekend. Unlike print publications, which require people to stop and read that printed message, people have their radios on while preparing for their day ahead, while driving, doing chores around the house. You can even listen to the radio while you’re in the shower.

Some of radio’s advantages might also be disadvantages, depending on your goals. Because radio is a “background medium” and people are listening while doing other things, it becomes a challenge to make sure the message is heard and understood. There is no ability to “rewind” or refer back to something the way you can with printed materials. Because listeners are attracted to different types of stations, it may be necessary to pitch many stations rather than just a few.

iV: Are there different strategies to use when pitching to a station that airs music as opposed to a news/talk station?

KJ: News/talk stations obviously have more time to fill, but the best strategy is to know the station’s audience, and that includes individual shows on specific stations. Since many stations put a lot of emphasis on their morning shows, these programs are a good place to start. Stations that do play music tend to play less of it during morning drive and focus more on interviews and providing useful information for their listeners. The strategies are really the same … it’s about the content. It’s important to show the producers of the show that their listeners will learn something or benefit from what you have to offer, and not that you’re pushing a person, product, or service.

iV: During your 19 years in the radio industry, what is the most flagrant error you have seen someone make when pitching to a radio station?

KJ: The biggest mistake people make is the one mentioned in the answer above … rather than tying the pitch to something that’s going on in the news currently or explaining how this will inform or benefit listeners, too many people use pitches that are simply ads for services or products. This falls into the bigger category of not doing one’s homework. Become familiar with the shows you are pitching, the topics they cover, their audience, and the hosts/producers of the show.

iV: It’s very common to find that several radio stations in the same market are owned by a single company. What’s the best way to pitch something that you would like to have heard on all of a company’s stations?

KJ: This again falls into the category of doing one’s homework. It’s pretty easy to find out how many stations a specific group owns in a particular market. Those groups may have news directors or public service directors who do interviews for shows that air on more than one station, and maybe all of them.  If you are lucky enough to secure an interview with one of these folks who work for several stations, there’s nothing wrong with asking if the spot will be heard on other frequencies in that market as well. Avoid pitching to multiple people who work for the same ownership groups as you may end up with two people unwittingly working on the same story to be aired on the same stations.

iV: With so many stations featuring nationally syndicated talent during their morning drive-time hours, how is it possible to pitch anything local and be heard during those peak listening hours?

KJ: Even nationally syndicated shows have local “cut-ins” where hosts of a local station carrying that syndicated show will focus on local issues. In the Washington, D.C. area, WHUR-FM carries the syndicated Steve Harvey Morning Show, but during the program, the station has several “Taking It to the Streets” segments that focus on local issues and events in the community. Many public radio stations across the country carry the NPR program “Morning Edition,” but those stations also have local segments during the show focusing on local and regional news. So even if shows are nationally syndicated, you can still think local.

iV: Most public and noncommercial radio stations will offer “underwriting” as an alternative to commercial advertising. Would you mind explaining underwriting and what benefits it might serve to PR professionals?

KJ: Underwriting in public broadcasting (both public radio and television) refers to funding given by a company or organization to help keep the broadcast operating, in exchange for a mention of a product or service within the station’s programming. Underwriting can be similar to traditional advertising on commercial stations, but there are restrictions. Underwriting cannot include pricing, make any product claims, or encourage the public to buy a product or service.

Studies have shown that underwriters are perceived by listeners as acting in the public good and not as advertisers trying to push services or products. Public radio audiences tend to skew toward higher levels of education and income. But it should be made clear that public broadcasters strive to “provide educational, cultural, and informational programs independent of commercial obligations or influence.” So don’t assume that a successful underwriting venture will mean positive story placements. Public broadcasting works to protect the firewall between news and development departments to make sure underwriting does not influence news judgments.

–Interview conducted by Jeff Peterson

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