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As researchers, we’re often asked what do listeners perceive as the ideal number of spots in a commercial break: do listeners prefer shorter, more frequent breaks, or longer, less frequent breaks?  As consultants, we’re constantly advising our clients on the ideal clock structure to maintain time-spent-listening and minimize tune-outs.  Regardless of whether we’re looking at this situation from a researcher or a consultant’s perspective, the data has been conclusive in asserting that playing “too many commercials” is a major justification as to why a listener changes the station or stops listening. 


The underlying challenge in all of this is that our beloved radio industry is heavily reliant on a revenue model where the goal is to “sell out” an inventory of 30 and/or 60-second spots.  For some stations ranging from Los Angeles to Lisbon to Lima this can mean as much as eight, ten, twelve…sometimes even eighteen minutes of commercials per hour.  While this may have been acceptable to consumers as recently as ten or so years ago, this is not the case anymore as our industry competes with non-radio entities like Spotify, Pandora, Deezer, et al, who don’t abide by the same revenue model.  Listeners realize that they don’t need to sit through endless commercial breaks and are finding themselves less attached to radio than they used to be. 


Sadly, our industry’s approach to this problem may be “too little, too late.”  Initiatives like Clear Channel’s “Less is More,” which launched in 2004 and originally called for Clear Channel stations to reduce their ad inventory so that they could deliver a better radio listening experience, or its one-second “Blinks” that debuted in 2006, failed to make much of an impact as the media giant had to change its stance on this policy in order to address falling ad revenues.  The push toward event marketing, digital sales, and building up non-traditional revenue (NTR) was designed to reduce the industry’s reliance on the traditional spot-based revenue model, but these initiatives have not fully addressed or solved what we firmly feel is the radio industry’s “Achilles heel.”  Radio stations across the world continue to saturate their airwaves with excessively long commercial breaks, creating a less desirable experience for the target customer—a customer that’s faced with an ever-increasing list of other options for his/her leisure time.


The fix for this problem may come by looking outside of our industry, both to the TV business and to digital.  According to a recent study from Nielsen, TV has been airing increasingly shorter commercials over the past three years.  In fact, the traditional commercial lengths of 30 and 60 seconds are being replaced here in the US by 15’s and 10’s.  Interestingly, Fox recently launched a series of six-second ads for this year’s “Teen Choice Awards” (clearly, they realize that their younger target has little-to-no patience for sitting through anything much longer than that).


The rationale behind this move seems to be coming from the digital world.  Just last year, YouTube capped its pre-roll ads at six seconds, forcing marketers to get to the point even faster with creative and compelling campaigns like this one for Campbell’s Soup in Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGtYgVFO1-s


Regardless of the threats that radio faces from digital competitors like Spotify, its traditional revenue model will struggle to prosper in a world where people have increasingly limited attention spans and are becoming accustomed to shorter ads.  Getting a listener, especially a young one, to sit through a 30-second spot, much less ten minutes of commercials, is getting harder and harder.  In response to this trend, Pandora is advising its clients to create a range of shorter and longer form ads, touting that shorter ads, 10 seconds, are ideal for grabbing attention especially with younger listeners who ad execs say are most receptive to short ads. 


To keep our product and industry competitive, particularly for now with younger audiences, moving toward a revenue model that has shorter breaks with six or ten-second spots is a wise strategic move, in our opinion.  The challenge is educating the advertiser as to why this is a better means of showcasing their brand.  For the people creating these shorter spots, the challenge here is getting them to think about how to use the first three seconds as this period is crucial in capturing people’s attention in an increasingly cluttered environment.  Audio branding cues and better jingles will inevitably become more important for radio advertisers under this new revenue model, and we, as experts in audio production, are the ideal ones to share this knowledge. 


We reached out to a good friend and industry veteran, Leon Clark, for some comments on these initiatives.  Clark, who is currently Vice President/General Manager of E.W. Scripps Company’s TV and radio properties in Tucson, Arizona, has overseen sales for some of the biggest radio groups including Emmis, CBS, Radio One.  Here is what he had to say:


Global Media: In your opinion, how good a job has the radio industry here in the US done in trying to address this issue of reducing the average length of commercial breaks or average spotload?


LC: I think they have done a decent job in trying to make this happen. The question of spot length has been something that radio has been addressing and moving forward with for almost ten years. The challenge has always been how radio stations' spot loads will sound and how that will affect the consumption of radio listening. It has had some success and remains a work in progress here in the US.


Global Media: Do you think an initiative to reduce the length of commercials, like what we are seeing in digital and TV, to some extent, will work in the radio industry?  What are some of the obstacles to getting this to happen? 


LC: We have already adopted the mindset of shorter length spots. With the right creative, shorter lengths can be more effective than 60's, BUT the biggest obstacle is the having the right creative. Today people are conditioned to think in shorter intervals. The attention span of the average listener is shorter than ever before. If you can get a great message out in fifteen seconds, it is more memorable.


Global Media: You are an avid traveler and have even given some consideration to doing what you do overseas.  Who are some radio groups either in the US or that you’ve encountered in your travels that you think are addressing this issue well by reducing or changing their emphasis on the traditional revenue model of selling 30 and second-spots?


LC: I like what ARN (http://www.arn.com.au/) and Southern Cross Austereo (http://www.southerncrossaustereo.com.au/) are doing in Australia. I also like what Capital FM (http://www.capitalfm.com/london/) is doing in London. In terms of the US, I think Scripps (http://www.scripps.com/radio), Emmis (https://www.emmis.com/what-we-do/emmis-radio/), and IHeart (https://www.iheart.com/) are all doing a good job in addressing this.


If your station/group has been able to achieve success with shorter ads or by reinventing the revenue model, we’d love to hear from you (Stuart@GlobalMediaRCP.com).  I’m sure this is only part one in a series of blog posts on this topic, so we’ll be sure to spread the word of your success.