What is the best way to get your client’s message across - by
shouting it at full volume from the rooftops or by whispering it softly
into the public’s ear?
There is something to be said for the latter approach - tell somebody
something personally and they are likely to value it more.
This is the strength of radio as a PR medium. Radio has a high degree of
intimacy with its listener. It is often used to provide companionship
while the listener gets on with mundane tasks.
Add to this radio’s local focus, its flexibility, its
cost-effectiveness, and its potential for interactivity through
phone-ins, and radio’s credentials as a commercial medium are firmly
But radio has traditionally been under-valued as a commercial medium in
this country. It has for some time taken just two per cent of national
advertising spend in the UK, compared to countries like Spain, where it
is closer to ten per cent.
Commercial radio started late in the UK, in 1973, and the scarcity of
available frequencies has meant the number of stations has grown very
In the last decade, however, all this has changed. The success of the
commercial sector has led the BBC to free up more frequencies and the
Government has issued more commercial licences. Whereas there were just
50 commercial local stations 15 years ago, today there are more than
The increase in the number of stations means radio can be used in a much
more targeted fashion, as different audiences have stations dedicated to
PR agencies have been reluctant to fully exploit the potential of radio,
according to Nick Bone, head of radio at Countrywide Porter Novelli,
because column inches have always had the appeal of being more
’Radio has been thought of as the poor relation because you cannot see
it,’ he says. ’PR agencies have tended to steer away from it, or think
they can cover radio with a press release or syndicated tape.’
Former Capital Radio marketing director and founder of the Braben
Company Sarah Braben has seen the problem first-hand. ’The relationship
between PR and radio had to change,’ she says. ’There was a lack of
understanding among PR agencies as to how to target radio stations. We
used to get the same press releases as magazines, and they had nothing
to do with what we wanted on our programmes. The relationship is
improving, but it is still nowhere near as good as it could be.’
But PR agencies are starting to get wise to the opportunities offered
both by commercial radio and the BBC stations. The increase in airtime
available due to the increased number of commercial stations means there
is more opportunity for agencies to place their messages, and the
increasing professionalism of the radio sector means producers are more
alert to the benefits of working with agencies.
Broadcast PR specialists with high-quality studio facilities linked to
radio stations have become coveted as clients seek to capitalise on the
opportunities radio offers.
Companies like Airtime Communications devise programme items around a
client’s brief, which they then sell in to the stations at which they
Typically, an interviewee might be interviewed ’down the line’ by dozens
of local stations across the country, appearing to the listener as if
they are in the local studio. Doing 15 interviews in one morning
back-to-back might reach 2.8 million listeners, according to Elle Hyde,
an account executive at Airtime.
She emphasises that this kind of success can only be achieved with
careful targeting. ’Success is not achieved by blanket faxing of
stations,’ she says. ’You need up-to-date information, influential
contacts and the ability to motivate decision makers at the
Claudia Downes, an associate director at radio specialist Radio Lynx,
says that for an item to be played on radio, it needs to be catchy.
’Radio is theatre of the mind, and we pride ourselves on coming up with
great ideas,’ she says.
John Rosborough, head of programming at Downtown Radio in Belfast, says
the ideas he most likes to receive are those with a local slant, but
with a national relevance, ’ideally featuring someone who listeners
already know, and something entertaining with information value’.
Quirky editorial ideas often catch the attention of breakfast shows,
according to Downes, who cites the example of the campaign run in
support of Diet Coke involving the actor from the ’Diet Coke break’ TV
advert being made available for interview.
But stations will often be reticent to accept commercial promotions
unless they are buried deep within good editorial. In the recent case of
the Diet Coke man, Devon Daley, who produces the mid-morning show at BBC
Radio Nottingham, was only half-convinced. He turned down the idea in
the form it was offered, but wanted to use the item in another way.
’We ran it as a news story,’ he says. ’If the Diet Coke man is in
Nottingham, that’s a news event for us, so we interviewed him. It was
commercial too, of course.’ The item still worked perfectly for Radio
Lynx and its client.
The BBC, with five national stations and 39 local stations, still
commands around half of all radio audiences, and BBC stations are now
increasingly being used for PR purposes as agencies understand more
fully this side of the market.
Daley says: ’Rather than simply trying to book interviews, PR agencies
are realising how to work better with the BBC’s commercial sensitivities
- items cannot be blatant plugs,’ he says.
When Airtime Communications wanted to promote B&Q stores opening on a
Bank Holiday Monday, they carried out a survey on gender differences in
DIY behaviour. They found that more women did DIY than men and promoted
the story to radio, giving a B&Q spokesman a chance to slip in the
stores’ opening hours.
But promotional opportunities on radio should not be ignored. These are
as numerous as the imagination, but generally involve either
tactically-run competitions in which goods or services are given away in
return for a mention on-air; programme sponsorship (including
advertiser-supplied programming); or off-air activity, like involvement
Andy Kinloch, a director of promotional agency Billington Cartmell,
believes it is radio’s interactivity and its immediacy that makes it so
useful as a promotional tool.
He says: ’Involvement with radio is crucial because of the interactivity
it gives you. We worked with Hula Hoops and the national English
Basketball Association, giving listeners free entry to games if they
arrived with a bag of Hula Hoops. The local station ended up doing
outside broadcasts from the games. Radio stations want to be leaders of
the community so they are interested in that kind of activity.’
Kinloch adds that radio represents good media value in terms of
’If you have an innovative promotion, the DJ will often improvise and
you get 25 or even 50 per cent more mentions than you were
Radio can also fill in holes in a wider campaign. The Braben Company, a
PR and marketing agency for media owners, is building a radio campaign
in support of the Radio Times’ sponsorship of the BAFTA Television
’We wanted to build awareness of the sponsorship to a broader audience
than Radio Times readers, so we are using radio,’ says managing director
’Rave with the Daily Star’ is a spot created by The Braben Company which
goes out for three minutes every Friday on Kiss FM in Manchester. The
show simply takes copy from the newspaper’s showbiz gossip page and
presents it in a lively way for radio. The station likes it and the
paper gets its plug.
With the increasing number of stations on air, some of which are small
and on tight budgets, there are always opportunities to provide
interesting programming they can use. Now that PR agencies have found
the medium to be highly effective, it is likely to become even more
RSL: THE BENEFITS OF SHORT-TERM LOCATION-SPECIFIC RADIO
Setting up a radio station in support of a short-term event to target a
captive audience is not as difficult as it might first sound.
In the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the Radio Authority was charged with the
responsibility of issuing short-term, very local, licences for
organisations wanting to do just this. Licences are issued for up to 28
days and have a broadcasting radius of around 10 miles.
Typically, these restricted service licences (RSLs) are used for
community events like the Notting Hill Carnival. They operate like
normal local stations, selling air-time to advertisers, whose adverts
play alongside music, news and information programming.
In some circumstances, RSLs can also be run for commercial purposes.
For example, a shopping centre might run an RSL to advertise its
opening, or a season of special offers.
The Radio Authority is unwilling to license RSLs comprising exclusively
promotional programming, but services which provide some sort of public
service alongside commercial information can be acceptable.
The machine tools and manufacturing technology exhibition MACH, for
example, has diversified the content of its own radio station, Mach FM,
by allowing exhibitors to sponsor shows and advertise their stands to
delegates. The station broadcasts a mixture of news, views, weather and
travel, all centred on the exhibition.
Matt Way, a radio development executive at Milestone Pictures, which has
been organising RSL radio for clients for four years, says: ’Mach FM is
a shop window for the exhibition. Radio like that is the perfect medium
for PR, as it is vibrant and gives you the opportunity to promote
product in an entertaining way.’
Restaurant chain TGI Fridays also gained an RSL licence to help it
support its three outlets in the Manchester area. To tie in with the
all-American theme of the company, the station included programming
direct from US radio stations, as well as local features, such as
The RA issues RSLs upon application, subject to the editorial proposal
being acceptable and there being a suitable spare frequency
Only one licence can be issued in each location to any single
organisation each year.
A Radio Authority spokesperson explains that for a proposal to be
suitable, the service should preferably have some news or information
service involved in the project. ’We would want some unique news and
information, features on local issues, events coming up, or traffic
around the area,’ he says.
With things like shopping centres or exhibitions, there are a whole
range of things you can do.’
SUPPORTING ROLE: EMR PUTS RED NOSES TO THE FORE
Broadcast specialist EMR has ten years’ experience helping PR agencies
use radio. In support of this year’s Red Nose Day, a radio campaign was
put together which secured 1,805 items of coverage and more than 111
hours of air-time across the UK, both on commercial and BBC radio
stations - despite Comic Relief being a BBC project.
The campaign began in February with a five-week build-up to Red Nose Day
on 12 March. EMR sends a CD of feature material to radio stations every
week as a matter of course. In the run-up to the day itself, these
featured items such as Jane Asher giving recipes for Comic Relief Day,
which all featured a ’red’ theme, such as cherries.
Interviews with the charity’s celebrity supporters, such as Ruby Wax,
were offered to stations either live or in pre-recorded form. On Red
Nose Day itself, 300 items were offered for broadcast.
But it’s not just charity campaigns which can be winners on the
Another successful PR initiative was the CIC Video Radio Campaign.
Countrywide Porter Novelli ran the campaign to support the launch of CIC
videos onto the rental market. It developed a radio package called CIC
On the Air which involves the production of a CD-ROM each week
containing promotional material for radio stations.
Radio stations are able to lift interviews with the actors from the
package and present them as their own, and also use audio clips from the
films being released on video in preview programming. Trivia, gossip,
and ideas for competitions are also included on the CD-ROM.
Nick Bone, head of radio at the agency, says: ’Live radio gives the
campaign much more credibility than, say, advertising in local
newspapers. We get DJ endorsement, and people trust the DJs, because
they think of them as friends. We also make the CD as accessible as
possible by tailoring it for different stations.’
The project has been running for five years, involving about 25 films
each year. Recently, the package supported the video release of The
Truman Show and achieved coverage on 92 radio stations, reaching an
audience of 6.5 million.
The campaign is also used as a marketing tool by CIC’s sales force,
which is able to point to the local radio coverage when selling its
videos into stores.
DEEP IMPACT: DIGITAL IS COMING
While digital television has already made its mark on UK broadcast
audiences, it is only now that digital radio is about to have an
The advantages of digital radio are clear - it offers better clarity of
signal (the improvement is especially noticeable when the listener is
mobile) - but it is only recently that digital receivers have become
available in hi-fi-tuner form. The first portable versions are not
expected until next year.
Although there are already BBC radio services broadcasting digitally,
digital radio is set to take off later this year when the first bespoke
digital commercial services start.
The advent of digital will bring about an increase in number of
services, allowing more opportunities for PR agencies to offer material
to fill air-time. But as the number of overall listeners is unlikely to
increase radically, this could be of dubious value, with the same
audience simply spread more thinly.
However, the emergence of digital is also likely to lead to more
services aimed at niche audiences, allowing better targeting for PR
There is also the possibility of displaying visual information via a
small screen on digital radio sets, which could be adapted to be
Digital licences are being issued by the Radio Authority in bundles
called multiplexes. There are seven multiplexes available for digital
radio - each one can carry about six services. One of the multiplexes is
reserved for the existing BBC national services, another will be used
for existing national commercial services, and the remaining five will
mainly be for new local, commercial services.
The Radio Authority has already awarded the national multiplex to
Digital One, a consortium comprised of the GWR radio group and NTL, the
cable operator born out of the old Independent Broadcasting Authority.
The ten services Digital One is planning will come on air later this
Three will be existing national services - Classic FM, Talk Radio and
Virgin Radio - and seven will be new digital services such as an evening
service dedicated to drama and literature.
The Radio Authority has awarded the local Birmingham multiplex to a
consortium comprising EMAP and Capital Radio, and the same group is the
sole applicant for the Manchester licence.