FOCUS: BROADCASTING; Tuning into local airwaves’

Local radio stations are booming and, as Robert Gray reports, their reception of PR-generated material has improved

Local radio stations are booming and, as Robert Gray reports, their

reception of PR-generated material has improved

It’s all too easy to be dismissive of local media. After all, the words

‘national’ and ‘campaign’ go together so well, having the ring of

importance that encourages some slapdash operators to target only media

that give country-wide coverage.

But to neglect the local media is foolhardy in the extreme. While it’s

true that the regional newspaper sector is in long-term decline, the

reverse is true of local radio.

Only those who have been tuned out of the media landscape for quite some

time will have failed to note radio’s dramatic growth during the past


There are now over 200 local radio stations in the UK. At the last count

there were 168 Independent Local Radio (ILR) stations plus 38 run by the

BBC - or 41 if you count the national services for Scotland, Wales and

Northern Ireland the BBC also provides.

Many of these services have higher audiences, within their own

transmission areas, than their national counterparts.

‘In the majority of cities the local commercial station is listened to

more than the national stations,’ says Howard Kosky, managing director

of specialist radio agency The Market Tiers. The same holds true for

some of the BBC’s local stations.

Indeed, taken as a whole, BBC local radio attracts an average weekly

audience of 7.5 million listeners a week. Put another way, that’s over

20 per cent of the adult population, a hefty number in anyone’s book.

‘PR firms are taking a much greater interest in us these days and it

makes sense for them to do so,’ says BBC Radio York editor Geoff


The prime reason behind this upsurge in attention has been the greater

amount of airtime available for placing stories. In a reaction to the

success of ILR’s music-driven format, BBC stations have sought to offer

a pronounced alternative. Talk-based programming has become ever more


Whereas in 1990, speech-based programming across the BBC local network

accounted for an average of about 50 per cent of airtime, today it is up

at about 80 per cent. As each station is on air for an average 18 hours

a day, one can see there’s a lot of airtime to be filled. The question

for broadcasters is how best to serve their listeners with speech-based

programming? While for PR practitioners, the goal is to deliver their

message in the most effective way.

‘At Radio York, syndicated tapes go straight in the bin,’ says

Sargieson. ‘If we’re going to do a story we’ll do it ourselves.

‘There is a growing tendency for PR firms to set up a guest speaker in a

studio with ISDN lines. To be frank we are extremely wary of that. The

fact that the firm is making it easier for us makes us suspicious.’

BBC Radio Lancashire editor Steve Taylor takes a less cynical view.

‘People have caught on to the fact that ISDN is helpful. And if you put

on your release that you’ve got ISDN you stand a greater chance of

getting on air.’

BBC Radio Stoke editor Phil Ashworth comes down somewhere between his

two counterparts. ‘I’m happy with ISDN as long as I retain full

editorial content over the information,’ he says.

‘There are various organisations trying to place clients on local radio

and they won’t be successful if they try and take the editorial control

away from us. We want help and assistance - not the finished product.’

As so often in PR, it all hinges on building trust with editorial


‘We find local BBC radio very happy to deal with us,’ says Scope

consumer division director Karen Croft. ‘If issues come up on which our

clients can comment they are quite happy to contact us. We find it a

very effective medium for clients like WH Smith and Pedigree Petfoods.

In many cases local radio reaches audiences that other media can’t


In May, retailer Comet targeted local radio to support its World of

Sport in-store promotion, using its consultancy Elizabeth Hindmarch PR

and radio specialist Radio Lynx. Des Lynam, TV sport’s smoothest talker,

was brought in to Radio Lynx’s studio for half a day of down-the-line

interviews, answering questions on sport-linked research Comet had done

and promoting Des Lynam’s Armchair Guide to Sport on TV, available at

Comet branches.Coverage was achieved on Radio 5 Live and 11 local BBC

radio stations. There was an average of just over three brand mentions

on each station and a total reach of 619,000 adults over 15.

‘As a result of this successful radio campaign we will certainly place

more emphasis on the value of radio as an effective PR tool in the

future,’ says Comet corporate communications manager Sandie Skevington.

‘Gone are the days of the old-style, syndicated tapes,’ says Radio Lynx

associate director Claudia Downes. ‘Clients want guaranteed daytime

coverage on the stations that are worth talking to, giving clients

editorial control and quantifiable results.’

Radio Lynx has done over 1,000 down-the-line interviews already this

year. But while down-the-line is generally accepted as the best

technique for getting editorial exposure on local radio, there are times

when other methods may be effective.

‘There’s a lot of debate about whether syndication is a viable

technique,’ says Andy Nash, account director at broadcast-specialist PR

consultancy Media Enterprises. ‘A lot of stations say they don’t take

syndication but they will take it if there’s a strong enough story or if

you’ve got a celebrity they’ve no other way of getting.’

Nash cites as an example a syndicated tape featuring an interview with

pop star Maxi Priest that Media Enterprises ‘pre-sold’ to 40 radio

stations for client Virgin Records. Two versions of the tape were made,

one with the interviewer’s voice, one without (the latter enabling

stations to record the voice of one of their regular presenters asking

the questions, giving it the feel of an exclusive).

In the main, then, down-the-line is preferable to up and down the

country. But opting for down-the-line doesn’t necessarily guarantee

success. Arranging an interview is just the start, one still has to

understand how each station works and what it is looking for.

‘You’ve got to know which DJs and presenters are amenable to the fact

that the only reason you’re doing it is to get a product mention

across,’ says Nash. ‘Doing a lot of radio you get to know which

presenters know the game.

‘And if you go in with a piece of pure puff they’ll immediately shy

away from it.’

Countrywide Communications considers good relationships with local radio

to be a ‘critical part’ of its community relations strategy for client

Blue Circle Cement. ‘It sounds obvious,’ says Countrywide director John

Orme, ‘but we ask ourselves what sounds a story has. The sound can

either be a good spokesperson with variety in their voice or something

good to say, or good sound effects.’

With radio you have to think of more than the message. You must consider

the sound of the message as well.

Radio voice: Capturing the local airwaves

Retailer Office World opened a store in Banbury on 1 June this year.

Local radio played a key role in the promotional activity linked to the


Office World’s Beaconsfield-based PR agency, WSM Wordsworth, worked with

radio specialist The Market Tiers on the promotion, known as the Office

World Supply Squad. It ran during the last two weeks in May on ILR

station Fox FM and had an airtime cost of pounds 3,500.

‘Office World knows that radio contributes to the success of a new store

launch,’ says WSM Wordsworth managing director Chris Wright. ‘However,

while straightforward advertising has a part to play, we find that by

sponsoring programming activity we can not only involve the audience in

the brand but also deliver a high-quality message with the effective

endorsement of the radio station.’

To draw attention to its product range, Office World was keen that all

the prizes offered in the promotion should be goods available at its

Banbury store. The drawback with this, of course, was that stationery

and business equipment are not glamorous.

A workable scenario was proposed by The Market Tiers promotions manager

Simon Sanders. The decision was taken to keep the promotion rolling on,

giving away lots of small prizes as a means of ensuring prominence for

the Office World name.

‘The Office World Supply Squad idea focused not on a once-daily

competition spot with a big build-up, but on a rolling format with

regular ad hoc updates awarding smaller, bite-size prizes throughout

office hours,’ says Sanders. ‘We suggested to Fox FM that this would

enable the activity to be delivered in a style that suited all

interested parties - the station the listener and the client,’

Listeners were asked to write to or fax Fox FM presenters with details

of any items of stationery they needed urgently. Their reasons for

needing emergency supplies from the Supply Squad were read out on air,

which meant that a wide range of stock items were mentioned.

During the promotion, 30 winners were despatched emergency supplies.

Finally, all the faxes received were put into a draw and one listener

picked up the larger prize of an all-in-one fax, phone and copier.

‘The presenters kept the promotion bubbling by reading out faxes and

these gave them a reason for giving the a name-check,’ says Fox FM

promotions manager Andrea Worrall.

Added value: Radio stations broaden their band widths

When Capital Radio swaps its grim tower in Euston for the pleasures of a

new building in Leicester Square later this year, there will be other

advantages aside from the more salubrious accommodation and prime West

End situation. For the radio station is opening its own branded

restaurant in the building.

Not only is this one more building block in the development of Capital

as a strong media brand, but it also gives the broadcaster another

option when considering how to add off-air value to on-air sponsorships

and promotions.

‘Earlier this year we a did an on-air Hawaiian promotion with Bounty,’

says Capital London director of sponsorship Tim Smale. ‘If we did that

again we could theme the restaurant to look Hawaiian for a week and then

promote that on air.’

Virgin Radio, meanwhile, has 10 branded Vauxhall Montereys at its

disposal which can be used for product sampling promotions throughout

the UK. The team of drivers can wear their own Virgin uniforms or wear

customised livery to help highlight the brand.

‘There is no limit to what you can do with sponsorship,’ says Gordon

Drummond, sales director of Emap-owned London dance station Kiss 100.

Kiss is among the frontrunners when it comes to spinning off its brand

into other media, with the recent launch of its magazine The Lick and

television show, Kiss TV, which is carried by the Mirror’s cable

operation Live TV. Sponsors and promoters on the airwaves now have the

option to extend their presence into the publication or the TV show.

Kiss has also used more traditional methods of adding value, such as its

joint sponsorship with Levis of a free concert at last summer’s Notting

Hill Carnival featuring Shaggy, whose song was used on the jeans-maker’s

commercial of the time.

There is of course also the tried and trusted roadshow formula, which

can be given a fresher spin by some of the funkier stations.

Long Wave Radio Atlantic 252 earlier this summer arranged a Schott’s

Alcoholic Seltzers roadshow around ten nightclubs hosted by their DJ Dr


The total sponsorship of the radio station package came to pounds

290,000, of which pounds 100,000 went on the roadshow, pounds 60,000 on

on-air promotion and pounds 130,000 on airtime commercials.

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