On my way to work a few months ago, I was driving the other car, meaning the one without satellite radio. I was on my own, trying to function in the world of terrestrial radio, basically whatever I could find on my push-button radio.
I was about halfway into my 30-minute trip when this unidentified voice came on and said, “9 in a row” right after this. In radio terms, the phrase “right after this” means you’re about to hear a commercial cluster of anywhere from 6 to 13 minutes. For many it is the cue to start hunting for another station. The problem is, as you punch the buttons in rapid fashion, you run out of stations quickly because they all seem to play those dreaded commercials at the same time.
The radio industry has a term for the long ad clusters without music: They are called stopsets. For the remainder of my drive to work, I was simply a captive audience to the ads. That was it for my musical breakfast in the car.
Many years ago, radio stations played three or four songs then a few minutes of commercials then back to the music. Then, sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s radio consultants had an idea. They decided to stop the music once or twice an hour and play 8 to 12 minutes of commercials. The stopsets have now become an industry standard for the big broadcast companies that own hundreds of stations across the country.
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There are some exceptions to the rule. Earlier this year, KNDD-FM in Seattle, an Entercom station, developed the “2 minute promise,” which means it will never run more than 120 seconds of commercials at one time. The alternative music station is ranked 9th out of approximately 35 stations surveyed.
“Once you get past 4 minutes of commercial time, you start losing listeners,” said Scott Gentry, the president and general manager of Summit Media, in Las Vegas.
Summit, a small, independent company, owns stations in Las Vegas. Gentry believes listeners will listen through about 3 to 4 minutes of commercials before shopping other stations.
“When you lose a listener, it may take them 20, 30, or 40 minutes to come back and if you make them too mad with long stopsets they may not be back for a long time,” he said.
Gentry feels the long stopsets don’t help the two major groups that bring radio owners “to the dance.” He said the question in the industry should be “am I serving my listeners and advertisers equally – for the right purposes or am I just throwing the commercials away – saying I’ve got your money, see you later!”
There is another side to the argument. Despite the long commercial clusters that sometimes put three similar advertisers back-to-back (like car dealerships), and despite what would be described as a big tune-out rate during the stopsets, radio remains a successful medium. A recent Radio Advertising Bureau press release boasts that radio is the No. 1 mass reach medium . It averages more than 91 percent of adults 18 and older every week. In addition, “radio has the most consistent number of minutes used weekly across all demos versus TV, PCs, smartphones, and tablets.”
Becky Brenner, a radio consultant with the firm of Albright, O’Malley, and Brenner, agrees.
Regarding the long stopsets she said, “with the success that advertisers have with radio, they clearly work so someone is listening and digesting the information and taking action on it.”
But she added: “I think every station and every format, depending on the competition and what’s happening in the marketplace, has a different level of tolerance. It’s about finding a happy medium. No one really knows what the true ideal is. It is all about tolerance and ratings.”
How long are some of these stopsets? I checked markets in Raleigh-Durham, New York, and Los Angeles. In Raleigh-Durham, I monitored four popular music stations. The commercial breaks ranged from a low of about 9 minutes to a high of 12. In L.A., the average was about 9 minutes, but in NY, Z-100 surpassed the others with a 13 minute stopset that I logged in a 3-4 p.m. weekday.
Battling ‘on demand’
As we look to the future, are the much detested stopsets here to stay? With digital options that are challenging traditional radio, it has become a circle the wagons mentality for the big radio companies that own hundreds of stations across the country. Some are starting to work together to battle the on demand mentality. A few companies starting their own digital and on-demand services that will give listeners more choice through their products. For example, iHeartRadio has introduced My Favorite Radio that enables listeners to create their own personal station. The fancy term for this is curation.
The other threat facing the industry is Dash, or dashboard technology in the connected car. It is nothing significantly different than regular streaming with the exception that now everything you have been able to do outside of the car, you will be able to do inside the car. Now that we are in the age of the radio apps andother options, why would anyone continue to listen to commercial radio with its 6 to 13 minute stopsets? Obviously, some don’t want to pay for content or deal with new technology, particularly in cars, but some are leaving commercial radio, not yet in mass numbers, but there is a slow and constant exodus like we are seeing with the decline of cable TV.
When I asked Brenner to look into the future of commercial radio there was a long pause. Then she said, “I’m not sure, I wish I knew, but so long as advertisers still see results, people will still be buying radio. The decline hasn’t been huge, it’s been small. I know there will be a breaking point but, for right now, it’s still a pretty good cash flow business. ... So when will the turning point be?... When we are no longer making money with this ... but I don’t know when that day is going to come.”
Radio station owner Gentry is not as optimistic, claiming that the problem that he sees with radio is that it is reacting to all kinds of outside influences.
“It’s kind of like what Coke did when they thought the taste was bland and they sometimes forget what made them great. Now, we are looking for ways to combat Pandora so they go to a system of programming where they’ll play 45 minutes of music and then 10 minutes of commercials. That is not using radio correctly. The music is what got us here and I see stations abusing it all the time. Radio is a mood and programmers forget this. When you break that mood, you have lost the confidence of the listener and when that happens they go away and look for something else.”
Doug Spero is an associate professor of Mass Communication at Meredith College in Raleigh.
What the students say
160 students, age 18 to 24, at Meredith College in Raleigh were asked about their listening habits:
▪ 136 students said when commercials come on in the car, they turn to another station.
▪ One said 9-10 minutes of commercials was reasonable; the rest preferred much less time with a majority, 80, say 1-2 minutes.
▪ 115 said they had quit listening to traditional radio because of the commercial load