Radio Advertising 101 For Small Businesses

Hundreds of millions of people listen to the radio every week in America. According to the data analytics company Arbitron, radio reaches about 95 percent of all Americans 12 years or older. Eight out of 10 adults listen to the radio in the car, and about three out of 10 listen to it at work. Radio is streamed on the Internet, enabling its reach even farther, nationally and internationally. By any reckoning, radio is an ideal medium to advertise on for small businesses. But running an effective radio advertising campaign takes a bit of know-how.

Los Angeles communications expert Bill McBee has a background in managing radio and print media marketing. In this interview, he gives a terrific overview of radio advertising for small businesses.

Give us some background about radio advertising.

Radio and print media are pretty much intertwined these days—you can’t do one without the other. Anytime you look at marketing as an ad sales person or as an advertising agency you have to look at the different aspects of what’s best for a client—because every client has different needs. To be a true marketing consultant, who is what you must consider yourself when you’re in advertising and sales, you have to look across the board into radio, print, billboards, online.

Radio is less expensive than TV and it still has a very good reach. The reach has gotten watered down over the years as radio companies have integrated Internet marketing and some print. And print, by the way, doesn’t necessarily mean newspapers and magazines because there are many different ways to cover print. One of the biggest radio stations in the Los Angeles area, which is great for reach, is Jack FM. That’s because Jack FM prints bumper stickers. So someone may not want radio advertising because he thinks it’s too expensive, but for a certain amount of dollars he can get a certain portion of radio advertising such as quick 10-second promotions. Besides, that he can get a coupon for his business on the back of bumper stickers that Jack FM gives out—say, 100,000 bumper stickers a month. So it depends on how many coupons on Jack FM bumper stickers a customer may want to hand out—a thousand, 2,000, or 5,000? So that’s targeted advertising that’s a form of print media. Plus the customer can get a 10-second promo around lunchtime that, for example, says: For so-and-so product go to so-and-so place … 10 locations. And now with smart phones, you can find out exactly where the closest location is to where you happen to be.

So you can’t define a marketing strategy through a single form of media. You can’t define it by radio or print or the internet alone—it’s all connected. Let’s take CBS Radio, where I spent some time working. How many station vehicles do they have? They say that for “x” amount of dollars we’ll give you so many radio blurbs or we’ll wrap the back of our station vehicle with your logo. You know how many thousands of people will see that logo on the road or at events? That’s all quantifiable money—that’s good marketing. It’s mixing radio promos with coupons, with wrapping a vehicle. And if you do it smart and if your consultants at, say, CBS, have your best interest in mind, they know about everything that’s available to you.

Let’s switch hats for a minute and go to print advertising. With print, you have to think what’s best for your business—should I go to Pasadena Weekly or Downtown L.A. Daily News? What’s the most local reach I can get for the money I have in the area I want? You have to ask yourself the “who, what, when where, why and the how” of advertising. That is,

1) Who do I want to reach; (target market)

2) What do I want to promote; (which item on the menu)

3) When do I want to promote (duration of advertising)

4) Where is my demographic; (what does the audience look like)

5) Why is that my demographic; (Align with right radio channel that caters to this audience because they listen to that kind of music)

6) Which methods will I use in order to reach to reach it?

So, remember, a guy who wants to sell you advertising can talk you into anything. But somebody who actually takes the whole picture and scope of a marketing plan will look at all of it. Somebody who wants to sell you $15,000 a week of just radio ads or $10,000 of print ads is wasting your money. What you’re looking for is added value. You want the most educated reach for what you want to do, and that’s why you need a true consultant—someone who doesn’t just sell you spots on a radio but support on the radio’s website, some sort of coordination with the radio’s street team. These are all things that you, the customer, have to ask for and include in your reach.

I’ve always thought of myself as someone who looks at each specific case. I’ll meet with you, shake your hand, ask you 10 or 15 specific questions and then say, “Let’s meet in a week or five days. “

There’s no better spokesperson for your business than you. That’s why whenever I met someone articulate or concise, I’d have him or her voice or write his or her own commercials because no one can talk more passionately about your business than you do. Then together we’d fine-tune it.

What if someone has a really low budget and wants to pursue a single advertising source such as, say, radio?

First of all, you can’t do radio on a low budget. And the reason that low budget and radio can’t exist in the same conversation is this: Let’s say you have a restaurant. And you have a restaurant in Burbank and one in Santa Clarita and one in Glendale. And a radio advertising rep from K-Earth 101 comes into you and says, Hey, I can put you together a package—it’s $8,000 a week. So as a businessman I would ask about K-Earth 101’s reach.

If you do your homework, you’ll know that it reaches L.A., Orange, San Bernardino. My point is that probably $4,000 or $5,000 of that $8,000 would be wasted because you’re over-reaching. People aren’t going to drive from Orange County to your Burbank location or your Valencia (Santa Clarita) location. Besides, K-Earth 101 doesn’t even reach Valencia very well. From knowing the radio market, I could tell you that the best buy for you would be 100.3 The Sound. Because The Sound reaches Burbank, Santa Clarita and Glendale.

And because they don’t reach as big an area as K-Earth 101, their ad rates aren’t quite as expensive, even thought they’re a highly rated station and have a lot of listeners. So your money would be spent better. Moreover, they have two frequencies—100.3, which is based in L.A., and 100.1, which is based in Santa Clarita. And they’re not reaching in Orange County or San Bernardino or any of the beach cities. So you’re getting more of a targeted reach.

It’s well known that commercial radio stations make their money by selling airtime to advertisers. However, their rates are still very expensive, given that more and more people now play video games or downloading movies and apps. A lot of people are very distracted by the new technologies and new media. I recently looked into purchasing a 30-second spot on Kiss FM, which is 102.7. It cost about $1,083 per spot. At a 30-second spot times 10, that’s $10,083. At such an expensive rate, how could a small business benefit?

If you’re trying to build brand recognition, 10 spots of airtime in a week won’t get you anywhere. Anybody who tries to sell you advertising for one week is not doing you any good. The minimum you want to run with anything is six to 10 weeks. Because nobody is going to even recognize your name for the first four weeks.

I do this exercise where I take a piece of paper and ask people to write down a list of television manufacturers. Some people who are really savvy can give me five, six or seven names. But do you know how many television manufacturers there are? There are 44 major ones. Most people can’t get past the top seven. And which one do you think is the highest? You would say Sony. But do you know how many millions of dollars Sony has spent to make them number one in your brain? The number one brand name in the world is who? It’s Coca-Cola. Number Two is who? Disney. And both of these companies spent billions over the years in order to achieve this level of brand recognition.

In February 1922, AT&T announced that it would start selling toll broadcasting. Business would underwrite or finance a broadcast in exchange for being mentioned on the radio. What has changed in radio advertising over the years? Advertising today is of course very different.

Back in 1922, the only radio stations in existence were AM. FM was only used in the military—it didn’t really exist. About 1967-68, a guy named Ray Donahue and his wife Rachel went to what I think was a church-owned FM radio station in San Francisco and said, Hey, let us play some records on your station. And they said, “Are you nuts. “

The Donahues said, “No, no, no, people want to hear this music on you FM station, and we’ll tell you what: So and so will give you “x” amount of dollars per week to let us play these records.” Well, the radio station was about to go broke. They accepted the offer—and as you can tell, it caught on.

Do you know who was the very first paid sponsor for FM music radio? It was the U.S. Army. They did it to recruit people. Right around 1968, automobile manufacturers saw a future in FM radio and they started putting FM radios in cars. The old cars used to have three AM buttons and two FM buttons. So the AM was way stronger and more programmable. But then the FM came in. And look at it now—you can get satellite radio on FM, and that’s a whole different ballgame because satellite radio is national. You can drive from the West coast to the East coast or from Canada to Mexico and never lose your satellite radio station. They have around 200 stations on satellite, from talk to comedy to music to religion to ethnic. And one company owns it—Sirius XM. It’s a subscriber-based system, and there are many channels within their system with commercials on it. You pay $100 or more to get satellite come to your car without commercials. So the growth from AM to FM has been amazing, especially in light of the broad scope of radio going just from talk to music to advertising.

Let’s talk a bit about reaching people through local nonprofit stations. My dad was a good friend of Rick Dees, who, back in the day was a very famous host of Kiss FM. They used to smoke cigars together.

My dad used to donate lots of food—Zankou Chicken—to the homeless through a program Rick Dees helped with. They would go out together and hand out blankets and food to the less fortunate every Christmas. What’s your take about giving back to the community through sponsored events, blood drives, etc.?

That’s fantastic. Again, it’s another way to get a lot of bang for your buck without paying a lot. Of course you have your food costs and people costs. Marketing for a good cause is a whole different issue. You have to partner with a different set of radio stations, most of which have a set cause they feel passionate about. Jack FM is tacos, autism. K-Earth 101 used to be big in the military, the veterans. Each radio station has one or more causes they stand for, and business people can target those causes.

You have limited reach—you get a couple of minutes in the morning. But it’s very tangible. In fact you might have noticed a spike in your business following your dad’s association with Rick Dees. Again, that won’t build your name or brand awareness. But it will build your “warm and fuzzy,” and there are still probably a lot of people who haven’t felt that for a while.

Interesting you said that because the first time the L.A. Times mentioned Zankou Chicken around 25 years ago in an article, our sales exploded that week. My family was in Disneyland when my dad got a great call on his cell phone and we went out and found a copy of LA Times in Disneyland, not that easy to do. I remember he was ecstatic. We had four times the revenue for a few weeks just after that, but then it died out and went back to normal.

Yes, that’s why it’s important to keep brand awareness going. Sony, for example, has maintained that top spot among TV manufacturers. They probably don’t advertise as much now—they don’t have to. They’re able to take that money while keeping their brand at the back of your mind. Another great thing for reach is radio station T-shirts. For example, K-Earth 101 does Earth Day at the L.A. Zoo every year. They have food trucks down there.

Let’s talk about jingles. The In & Out jingle, for example, is: “In & Out, In & Out, that’s what a hamburger’s all about.” A sixth-grader could have come up with that, and I actually think it’s kind of cheesy.

That’s why it works. It sticks in your head. Radio and television programming is geared toward no more than the average eighth-grader’s mentality.

General Mills was the first company that ever created a jingle—for Wheaties, the cereal during the Christmas of 1926. And they found that for a week or two after their jingle was aired, their sales soared. The twin cities ran out of boxes of their cereal for the months following this ad campaign. So how important is it to have a jingle?

It’s the most important thing in the world.

And sometimes it has to be an ad within a made up song—otherwise people tend to change the station.

A song is good. Some major musicians started their careers writing jingles. Barry Manilow—he wrote the Band Aid jingle: “I’m stuck on Band Aid because Band Aid’s stuck on me.” Billy Vera. I think Billy Joel wrote some jingles. These guys were jingle guys before they were celebrities. There was a Jif peanut butter jingle—”Moms like you choose Jif, choose Jif!” An Alka Seltzer jingle—”Plop Plop Fizz Fizz.” But the thing about jingles is, don’t put your money behind jingles if you’re not going to put the motor in the front to drive it. It’s great if you have a great jingle, but if you can’t afford to put it out there it’s a waste overall.

And by the way, on the subject of money, one of the most successful—and absolutely free—forms of advertising today is YouTube. I could think of proposing to you a three-minute video and guaranteeing a minimum of 500 to 1,000 hits on it. And you take that 500 to 1,000, who will tell a further 500 to 1,000 people, and pretty soon you’re up to 20,000 or 30,000 hits—20,000 or 30,000 people who have heard your voice, seen your shtick, and attached something to it. A smart marketer will link their radio ads to their You Tube and Facebook presence.

How about the use of a sound or just a funny line?

If you go back to the Wheaties ad, what became of it was a commercial of people sitting with their heads in their hands, looking exhausted. “Oh, you didn’t have your Wheaties today!” Which then took on a life that your life is going to be miserable without Wheaties.

Starbucks can do that now!

Well, Starbucks never put their money into TV or radio or advertising as such. They put all their money into getting into every single place they could. They got into airports; they opened a store in every corner. And the success of the Starbucks market is that when you go into one of their stores, every single one of them is the same. Every place you buy a Coca-Cola in the world it’s the same drink. And I asked a Coke executive why that was, given that water in every place in the world is different. And the answer was that Coke has a water purification system that makes the drink uniform everywhere. The only inconsistency I’ve noticed in the fizziness of the drink. The flavor’s the same.

How important is it for a restaurant to have a focused, core message in advertising? “We’re the Best Sushi in Town” or “The Freshest Lobster.”

That’s backwards thinking. Everybody has the best chicken. Everybody has the best barbeque. The print advertisers—L.A. Weekly, Pasadena Weekly—all have these “Best of” features: Best Restaurants in Pasadena 2014; Best Cafés in Los Angeles, etc. But nobody cares about “Best of.” Everybody is “best of” something. It means squat. What you have to think about is what is going to drive people to you. You don’t have to tell them you’re the best. They have to think you’re the best. Because you’re going to be the best compared to what? One customer may like your food. I may hate it.

To say you’re the best is a cliché. And clichés are to be avoided at all cost. Slogans are good, but clichés are bad. There’s a movie, Elf, with Will Farrell in it. He plays this innocent kid—an orphan—who’s raised on the North Pole and goes to New York to find his dad. He’s walking down the street and walks into a little coffee shop, and he screams at the top of his lungs, “Congratulations, oh my goodness, you’re the best coffee in the w-o-r-l-d.” And then later he goes to the same coffee shop with a date and he asks her, breathless, “How do you like the coffee?” She goes, “it’s OK.” And he says, “No! It’s the best coffee in the world.” And she goes, “This coffee sucks.” But in the front of the building, the coffee shop spent money painting a sign, “Best Coffee in the World” or” Best Cup of Coffee in New York City.”

So, you can’t tell people you’re the best. That’s a pitfall. Do you know the story about tabouleh? It was a poor man’s salad. In the old days, cooks took all the old vegetables—whatever was left over and wilted—and chopped it up really fine and soaked it with olive oil and lemon juice. That was tabouleh back then. And look at the dish now.

You have to say , “All our ingredients are fresh. All our flavors are unique. Decide for yourself.” Invite people to make their own decisions. Don’t shove your view down their throats. How many times do we tell ourselves “If I get that shoved down my throat one more time…”

But if someone else says you’re the best—a celebrity, say, like Gordon Ramsey—then you can use that quote. It’s off the hook there. Third party recommendations are always credible. Put those on your web site and plaster them everywhere.

How would a restaurant owner know which station caters to their crowd?

What you have to think about is who does that radio station attract—what demographic in terms of age, income and preference for music. Radio stations target their demographic by the music or content they disseminate. The Classic Rock station, KLOS-95.5—what do you think their demographic is? Men, 25 to 54. Their advertising is mostly geared toward men 25 to 54 years old.

I used to tell women around Christmas, You want to know what to buy your man for Christmas? Listen to KLOS for a week—you’ll get 20 ideas. Who do you think KISS-FM targets? Their market is probably leaning toward younger females, 12 to 24, maybe 18 to 24. All this information is part of the radio stations’ one sheet. Then you have to think about which radio stations duplicate each other. If you draw a pie chart you’ll see that KISS-FM, Power-106, KROQ and 97.1 AM overlap. What you want to do is get as much of a station’s unique reach, based on your own audience. Power-106, for example, has more teen listeners in a day than KROQ has in a whole week. But advertisers aren’t comfortable spending their money advertising to teens. So they veer away from that. Power-106 has 1.3 million teen listeners. That’s more than KROQ’s whole audience, which is 750,000. But KROQ’s audience spends more money. All this stuff is part of the formula.

When I look at Zankou’s age range, I would say it’s 25 to 54 years, men and women. So your basic radio campaign should look at the following factors: Who’s your core audience? How much do the stations that attract your core audience duplicate with their competitors? Is the station skewed toward men or women? What’s the income level of your audience?

One other thing: You want to have a marketing consultant who has same amount of passion as you. This whole thing should be drive by passion. Educated but passionate. If a salesperson doesn’t have a passion for what he does, you’ve got the wrong person.

What are the advantages of putting the name of a business on public radio, such as, say, Southern California Public Radio and the Southern California classical music station KUSC?

These stations have very low reach. Ask them how many listeners they have.

The other thing is that there might be stations on which a restaurant doesn’t want to advertise because they attract a certain type of audience the restaurant may not want because, for example, it doesn’t want people coming in who tag the restrooms.

That’s true. But you never want to put anybody down. I’ll give you an example of Morrissey Universal Nissan, near Universal Studios. Morrissey once wanted to launch a campaign in which they said that if you came in and test-drove an Altima you would win two tickets to a certain show. Now, Nissan is an economy car. I told Morrissey that when they do something like this they’re going to have a load of people coming in just to get those tickets and not purchase a vehicle. Maybe one out of 100 people might test-drive a car and buy one. Your sales guys would hate you. I told them it’s a bad idea. And they killed it. If they had people come in for a sweepstakes, that’s different. That way, they would keep their liability low.

Radio advertising can basically be broken down into two things: Brand awareness or direct response. You have to decide what you want. Let me give you an example. KLOS-95.5—their demographic is 25- to 54-year-old men. What do 25- to 54-year-old men in Los Angeles do? They go to jail. So who’s a good late-night customer of KLOS? Bail bondsmen. Who’s a big advertiser on Power-106 or KISS-FM? It’s usually businesses like inexpensive car dealerships—such as Galpin Ford and Nissan.

What should a restaurant’s call to action be on a radio ad? Should it give out a telephone number, a URL, or something else that ties in with the restaurant’s message?

Whatever it is that’s going to identify the restaurant—the easiest, quickest identification. Phone numbers are worthless. If you have a website that’s short and memorable, such as, say,, give it.

What are your top three Do’s and Don’ts for small businesses that want to advertise on radio?

Let’s start with the Don’ts.

  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket—the world’s too diverse for pigeonholed, scoped-in marketing.
  • Don’t expect immediate results—you’re going to be disappointed.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to try new things. If people really want your business they will partner with you to try things. If you have an idea that something will work, push for it. For example, if I came to you and said, “Let’s try this first,” you should not hesitate to say, “Let’s give it a shot.” Try different things to help decide what works well for your brand. It may take a while to figure this out.

The top three Do’s:

  • Ask the person that you’re trusting with your money and marketing what they would do while starting out, and ask them to treat the campaign as if the restaurant were their own.
  • Give people choices—a wide spectrum of ideas. I maybe able to take your photos in one or two shots, but I’d take a hundred because I maybe able to see something that you like better in the one or two shots that’s missing from the rest of the 99 or 98 shots. And if we both decide that none of the 100 are good, then we’d go back together what we figure out next.
  • My third do is being action oriented. Get out there and just do it, learn from your mistakes and grow.

It’s not just about getting a song on the radio or appearing on television. It really is about helping people change their lives one day at a time.

Yolanda Adams

I’m obsessed with radio. It’s a good start to Sunday morning.

  1. L. Stine

That was the big thing when I was growing up, singing on the radio. The extent of my dream was to sing on the radio station in Memphis. Even when I got out of the Air Force in 1954, I came right back to Memphis and started knocking on doors at the radio station.

Johnny Cash


It’s not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on.

Marilyn Monroe

Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.

William Bernbach

2 thoughts on “Radio Advertising 101 For Small Businesses

  1. Once i was in a market and when i returned, i saw that someone has pasted a sticker on my car front bumper saying that one should donate their blood. Earlier i didn’t like bumper stickers, but now i make sure that it remains there as it is because these stickers here spreading awareness.
    So just don’t mind if anyone pastes a sticker on any of your car body part.

    Liked by 1 person

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