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
‘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.