The so-called “live read” has been a staple of radio’s advertising mix from the very beginning of the medium: The earliest documented paid radio ad in 1922 was essentially a 10-minute live read promoting a commuter train line serving Jackson Heights, New York. (Automobile ads were just a gleam in J. Walter Thompson’s eye back then.)
Fast forward to present day, and radio stations are more willing than ever to take advantage of an ad format generally regarded as 50% more effective than the standard sixty-second spot. The increased performance, however, tends to come with a significant CPM premium.
Thanks to the rise of satellite, podcasting and streaming radio applications, major-market radio stations are leaning even more heavily on their on-air talent to increase response and stabilize ad revenues. According to Greg Kahn, senior VP of strategic insights at Optimedia, “The marketplace is too sophisticated now, and it’s very evident if someone’s just an actor saying words.” Kahn adds that live reads are often worth 1.5 times the average 60-second spot and work best as part of an integrated marketing campaign.
LIVE READS TODAY: THE STATE OF THE TACTIC
Ad Week’s, Katy Bachman calls live reads “the most successful form of radio advertising with recall-and-response rates higher than recorded commercials,” and notes radio stations are bringing live reads to their digital properties as well. “Offering the commercial format to advertisers in digital online and mobile streams could help boost what is already a growing revenue stream for radio stations,” writes Bachman.
This rationale drove CBS Radio’s decision last May to insert live reads into select online and mobile streams. Said a CBS spokesperson, “Our local personalities have brought to life many an advertiser’s product in a way that no other medium can replicate, seamlessly integrating commercials into programming in a way that feels natural and unobtrusive.”
Seamless and unobtrusive for the most part, that is.
LIVE READS ON SPORTS RADIO BROADCASTS – AT THE SATURATION POINT?
Nowhere else is the inexorable rise in live reads more evident than sports broadcasts. In fact, a recent New York Times article documented the phenomenon. On sports radio live reads are called drop-ins and can be heard branding almost every element of the game. In a typical Yankee game the first walk prompts listeners to “walk into their local CityMD pharmacy” and every post-game wrap-up is sponsored by who else but Reynold’s. The amount of drop-ins you’ll hear in a given broadcast is directly linked to the rights fees to air the game paid by the radio station. In New York City, Yankees’ games are far more saturated than Mets’ games thanks to the Steinbrenner family’s higher rights price.
Don’t expect the market for sports broadcast live reads to weaken anytime soon. The Hollywood Reporter agrees: “Advertisers also like sports radio because it can be localized or regionalized to match up listeners with specific products or commercial pitches. Sports radio talent is usually available to personalize it even more by doing the commercials, including live reads that can allow for very topical content.” Research also suggests that along with growing ad revenue, sports radio is also taking market share from other formats, including music and political talk.
WINGMAN ON LIVE READS
Back in 1992, our co-founder, Rich Kagan, then an account executive at CBS Los Angeles, approached Larry Miller owner of Sit ‘n Sleep mattresses about buying time on “The Howard Stern Show.” Given the show’s racy content Miller initially balked, but Stern’s straightforward style and respect for his clients eventually appealed to the up-front, honest Miller. The success of the venture became legendary with Miller’s sales surging immediately by 50%. Miller would go on to use the extra revenue generated from Stern’s live read to invest in television exposure, which has driven the business to its current dominant position in the Southern California market.
As with all advertising, the live read is no magic bullet for marketing success. According to Wingman Advertising’s senior media supervisor Jason Zimmerman, “A live read has the best chance of working when the personality has built significant credibility with their audience. It will also drive more calls when paired with an additional incentive.” To help boost the credibility of live reads, Greg Ashlock, president-market manager for Clear Channel Radio Los Angeles, has his DJs fill out a personality profile that lists the types of products that interest them most and they’re handed over to the sales team for client lead generation. “If the advertiser sees how passionate the jock is about its product, in many cases it goes beyond a spot buy because they’re already part of that person’s life,” he said.
Zimmerman has found that a live read can actually be less successful than a pre-recorded commercial when, “You have a higher frequency with an already branded client.”
WITH GREAT CREDIBILITY COMES (USUALLY) GREAT COST
Leveraging the celebrity and credibility of an on-air talent can be more expensive than a traditional commercial with a generic announcer. According to Zimmerman, “If there is an implied endorsement by the talent, the read comes at a higher premium.” In addition, “Endorsements include talent fees on top of premium rates which can either be a one-time cost or per month, depending on the talent.”
This isn’t to say that an on-air endorsement from a major personality can’t be worth every dollar of the investment, but with great possible return comes the accompanying greater financial exposure. In determining a radio advertising mix of live reads versus standard spots, its important to have an an analytics methodology to test and evaluate performance versus cost.
IS A LIVE READ A GOOD USE OF YOUR RADIO AD BUDGET?
It’s no surprise that the answer is “it depends.” At Wingman, we use a combination of long experience and hard metrics / testing to determine whether a live-read campaign makes sense for our clients. From choosing the right on-air talent and day parts to setting up split test series against standard spots, to negotiating budget and CPMs with stations, constructing live read campaigns that perform is both art, science, and, occasionally an exercise in lightning-in-a-bottle management — as we discovered the hard-but-elated way with Howard Stern and Sit ‘n Sleep.
It’s no secret that live reads and radio fall squarely in the “old school” category – which isn’t to say that can’t be both cool and effective.