The nation's radio audience is at an all-time high. With almost 44 million listeners, radio is a medium that reaches more than 90 per cent of all adults in the UK each week, a far greater proportion than those that buy national newspapers.
So surely embarking on a radio PR campaign would appear to be one of the most effective ways of ensuring your client message reaches the widest possible audience.
But how can PROs be entirely sure just who's listening? They must be able to give quantifiable and credible results from radio campaigns to their clients, who are demanding ever-greater impact for every PR pound they spend.
The radio industry measures listener numbers via Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research), which is jointly funded by the BBC and commercial stations.
Its figures are generated by researchers who keep a pen-and-paper diary of what they've heard. But this method has been described as misleading by its opponents.
The debate surrounding the effectiveness of Rajar figures has been sparked by high-profile criticisms of their accuracy. For example, media maverick and Wireless Group owner Kelvin MacKenzie says Rajar ratings are 'misleading' and 'inaccurate', because people don't always remember what they've listened to, or will mistakenly write that they have had one station on all day when it's actually been another.
MacKenzie also believes Rajar misses many legitimate listeners because it only counts those who listen for more than four minutes at a time.
He has now been backed by market research company Taylor Nelson Sofres, which agrees changes should be implemented.
While Rajar itself accepts that electronic measurement will inevitably replace the diary system, managing director Jane O'Hara says 'just not yet'. Recent Rajar tests on two electronic gadgets - one a wristwatch-style device and the other a pager system - concluded that the technology was not yet good enough to provide a better result than that provided by diaries, and both manufacturers have been invited to come back with improved systems.
The Wireless Group has since served Rajar with a legal letter demanding that the details of these trials be made public. However, Rajar insists they must remain confidential to protect the interests of the two companies who contributed.
Even those working across the broadcast PR industry who support Rajar believe it is an outdated system. 'If there's another way, it would be great, but I don't think there's anything more accurate than using weekly reach figures,' says Grant Levy, managing director of Broadcast PR Consultancy (formerly Radio Results).
Lack of recognition
Markettiers4DC managing director Howard Kosky also describes the radio ratings system as archaic, but doesn't see any alternative on offer at the moment. He believes that radio is still regarded as something of a poor relation to print and television, and both he and Medialink group marketing manager Matt Burgess agree that radio is seriously under-recognised as a PR tool.
'There's a tendency to be a little bit too blinkered and focus mainly on print, and our frustration is that PROs can be too easily pleased when it comes to coverage on page 26 of a national newspaper,' says Burgess. 'So we're certainly interested in some shaking up of the figures or interrogation of the data.'
Nevertheless, the effectiveness of a campaign rests just as heavily on who is listening, and the quality of coverage, rather than just the number of people tuned in at the time.
'The value of radio is about the campaign actually working, and whether it's one person or one million people listening, have you communicated your client's brand message to them?' asks Kosky.
As neither radio stations' own listener profile statistics, nor the Rajar numbers - whether right or wrong - measure listeners' attentiveness or level of interest in what they are hearing, the PR industry is having to devise its own ways of measuring radio's effectiveness.
Some consultancies use a formula to determine how much of a station's Rajar-assessed audience they have reached with a particular item, by saying, for instance, that if a story has been used in five news bulletins in a single day, it has reached almost all that station's listeners.
Arnold Broadcast managing director Tim Arnold believes it is safe to say that 60 per cent of a station's audience is tuned in at breakfast, with most of the remainder listening in the evening. More weight is therefore given to morning coverage, and to news bulletins at certain times of day, such as the 11am Sunday news on commercial radio.
Media analysis consultants such as Metrica can measure the strength of message in radio coverage, rather than just the amount, as they are not necessarily related.
A recent study conducted by Echo Research for Credo Communications, for instance, found that Melody FM could have a greater impact on certain CEOs and board directors than Radio 4, and that business leaders in different sectors had vastly varied listening habits; Virgin FM and Radio 1 had the strongest reach with IT directors, while SME owners preferred Radio 4 and Radio 2.
Other campaigns show that if the message is strong and relevant to an audience, a narrower focus can lead to more widespread coverage.
Indeed, wastage is often high because there is a tendency to choose too broad a spread of coverage across many radio stations.
In September, for example, the Today programme was the only broadcast outlet College Hill Associates targeted with the results of its British Chamber of Commerce survey on businesses struggling to get broadband internet access.
College Hill Associates consultant Olly Scott says: 'We were given five minutes of premium air time, and from that one broadcast interview (and one exclusive in the Financial Times), we got something in the region of 30 to 40 articles, plus we had a lot of businesses say they were really pleased that this issue had come out.'
Coverage often missed
Something similar followed Arnold Broadcast's placement of a story for closed-circuit TV consultants Data Compliance soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The story focused on the finding that, by law, all security cameras that weren't centrally registered would have to be turned off. The story ran on Radio Five Live, was picked up by Radio 2, and spread from there. Hits on Data Compliance's website grew almost overnight from 250 a day to 5,000.
It soon becomes apparent that radio coverage is often missed because campaigns are not tailored either to the medium itself or to the station being targeted.
The reach and influence of regional or local radio, especially, is underestimated.
In many areas, more people are listening to their local BBC station than the nationals, and, it can be argued, are more likely to be influenced by a presenter who is more familiar to them and therefore more trusted. On the other hand, argues Credo partner Nick Rappolt, one hit on Radio 4 might be better than ten regional hits if you're focusing on your target.
PR consultants, therefore, need to take care to guide clients towards the stations that not just have the best audience for their campaign, but will be interested in the story or approach they are taking.
Kosky says: 'On one hand some clients say, "I want to target 18 to 35-year-olds, but I want nice BBC-style chatty interviews". Or, people say, "I only want stations that have a reach over X".'
Five Live's Wake Up to Money programme is one of clients' most popular requests - even if it is not the best target for a particular campaign - and everybody wants to be on Radio 4's Today programme. 'Especially between 7.30 and 8.30am, you just can't buy advertising to talk to the people who are listening then,' says Scott.
Radio PR therefore needs to strike a balance between what clients want to achieve and what each station is likely to want to use during a programme - whether it's a national news story, competition, or a live interview.
Local radio, for instance, clearly needs a local angle, even on a national issue. For example, a campaign organised by Arnold Broadcast last year to publicise a trade deal signed by the Port of London with Thailand was turned into a local story for BBC London, and also an international story for the World Service.
While it is hardly startling news that music and entertainment stories work best with music-led or younger stations, and that a sports story or competition will usually work best on a sports station, these elements are often forgotten in the clamour to get the big nationals on a results report for a client.
The national stations, however, are becoming increasingly choosy about what campaigns they will use.
'Even ten years ago, national radio was very "do-able", but now it's hard even to get through to forward-planning radio people with a proactive story,' admits The Yes Consultancy managing director Tina Fotherby. 'Gone are the days of selling in something vaguely interesting. You've got to go in with a strong proposal.'
Assessing for yourself who has actually heard your client's message - and perhaps more importantly how much notice they took of it - is not only a complicated process but a very expensive one. While a press item might cost £1 to monitor, the labour intensity of listening out for, say, a five-minute interview on Radio Sheffield, can mean that a report on a single radio item can cost up to £60.
Conversely, the radio campaigns themselves can be put together for very little cost.
The Yes Consultancy, for example, ran a radio campaign for Tesco and Northwest Cherries in July, in which amateur bands were encouraged to join an online contest, Northwest Cherry Pop Pickers. For an outlay of £1,500, plus the hiring of a music expert who became the campaign's frontman, the contest was covered on 26 stations and drove 275,000 visitors to the Pop Pickers website, with more than 100 entries submitted.
Whether the Rajar figures are ultimately supplanted by a new system or not, one thing is clear: the debate has brought about a degree of scrutiny that will undoubtedly lead to more research into the effectiveness of radio PR. This will enable more informed and targeted planning and balance between what the client wants and what the radio stations can deliver.
AT A GLANCE - WHO'S LISTENING?
Radio 1 - Most popular among 15 to 24-year-olds, who account for almost a third of the station's audience, while 25 to 34-year-olds are the next-biggest listeners. It has slightly more male listeners than female, and counts housewives with children as about 20 per cent of its audience. Rajar 9 million, or 20 per cent weekly reach 1
GfK 12.9 million 2
Radio 2 - Is most popular among people aged 55 and over, who account for more than 40 per cent of the audience, with about double the number of male listeners than female. The 35 to 54-year-old group accounts for most of the remaining audience.
Rajar 13 million, or 27 per cent weekly reach
GfK 16.4 million
Radio 4 - Listeners are predominantly ABC1 adults, with just over half aged 55 or over. The 45-54 age group accounts for another quarter of listeners, with slightly more men than women tuning in.
Rajar 9.7 million, or 20 per cent weekly reach GfK 18 million
Radio Five Live - Two-thirds of listeners are men, with about one-third aged 55 or over.
The 35-44 age group represents a further 20 per cent of the audience, about the same as all under-35s put together.
Rajar 5.8 million, or 12 per cent weekly reach GfK 8.4 million
Capital FM (London)
The majority of the audience are either 15 to 24-year-olds or mothers at home, with each of these audience segments accounting for just under one-third of listeners. There are slightly more female than male listeners, and only ten per cent of listeners are 55 or over.
Rajar 2.6 million, or 25 per cent weekly reach GfK
No figures available
Listenership is fairly evenly spread between the sexes, with almost equal numbers of listeners in the 15-24, 25-34 and 35-44 age groups, although ten per cent of listeners are over 55.
Rajar 2.8 million, or 5.8 per cent weekly reach GfK 4.3 million
Is heard by four times as many men as women, and is equally popular across all age groups. The split between ABC1 and C2DE listeners is about even.
Rajar 2.2 million, or 4.5 per cent weekly reach
GfK 6.3 million
Listeners are predominantly ABC1 adults aged 15 to 34. Over-35s account for only one-third of the audience. Slightly more men tune in than women.
Rajar 437,000, or 4.2 per cent weekly reach
GfK No figures available
Red Dragon (South Wales)
About 75 per cent of the audience is under 45 years old and is fairly evenly spread between the ages of 15 to 44. Slightly more popular with women than with men, and about a quarter of the audience is women at home with children.
Rajar 301,000, or 34 per cent weekly reach
GfK No figures available
Half of listeners are aged 55 and up, with most other listeners in the slightly younger age bracket. The male-female split is about even.
Rajar 6.6 million, or 14 per cent weekly reach GfK 6.1 million
Most popular among 15 to 24-year-olds, but the next biggest listener group is the over 55s, closely followed by those in between.
About one-third more women listen than men.
Rajar 588,000, or 29 per cent weekly reach GfK No figures available
1 Rajar figures apply to Q2 2003.
2 GfK figures are for the period May 19 to August 17 2003. Wireless Group owner Kelvin MacKenzie has signed a three-year deal with research company GfK to produce monthly listening figures gleaned from electronic devices used by 2,000 people. The Wireless Group is the only media owner to subscribe to the GfK data so far.Weekly reach figures apply to all adults with access to the station.