We'll Be Right Back After These Messages

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 we will be back to play more music after a commercial cluster of anywhere from 6 to 13 minutes. Once you hear, "we will be right back after this," that is the cue to many of us to start hunting for another radio station. The problem is, as you punch the buttons in rapid-order fashion, you run out of stations very quickly because they all seem to play those dreaded commercials at the same time.

The radio industry has a term for the long commercials clusters. They are called "stopsets" which means the music stops when the commercial blocks are played. For the remainder of my drive to work, I was simply a captive audience to the commercials. That was it for my musical breakfast in the car. All I wanted was one more song before arriving at my final destination. It never happened!

Many years ago, music radio stations played 3 or 4 songs then a few minutes of commercials then back to the music. Then, sometime in the late 80's or early 90's radio consultants created a new idea.

They decided to stop the music once or twice an hour and play approximately 8 to 12 minutes of commercials at one time. The stopsets have now become an industry standard for the big broadcast companies that own hundreds of stations across the country.

There are some exceptions to the rule. Earlier this year, KNDD-FM in Seatle, an Entercom station, developed the "2 minute promise", which means they 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.

Scott Gentry, the President and General Manager of Summit Media, in Las Vegas says, "once you get past 4 minutes of commercial time, you start losing listeners". Summit owns a cluster of adult music stations in Las Vegas like KJUL. Summit is a small-independent company compared to the giant mega-radio companies. Gentry believes listeners will listen through about 3-4 minutes of commercials before shopping other stations. He said, "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". Gentry feels the long stopsets don't help the two major groups that bring radio owners "to the dance". He said the primary 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 3 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 an extremely successful form of media. In a recent Radio Advertising Bureau press release, it boasts that radio is still the number one mass reach medium versus other media options. It averages more than 91% of adults 18+ every week. In addition, "radio has the most consistent number of minutes used weekly across all demos versus TV, PCs, Smartphones, and Tablets. Erica Farber, President of the Radio Advertising Bureau, claims radio is still America's number one reach medium, despite the upward growth of smartphones.

Becky Brenner, a prominent 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. She also said radio advertising is not a "one size fits all". She said, "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. There are multiple ways to slice the pie".

How long are some of these stopsets? I air-checked markets in Raleigh-Durham, New York, and Los Angeles. In Raleigh Durham, I monitored 4 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 3-4pm weekday hour.

That begs the question: who would sit through 12 to 13 minutes of commercials before the music returns? Not a lot of young listeners. I conducted a survey of approximately 160 students at Meredith College in Raleigh (ages 18-24). It is the younger "demos" that advertisers desire, so I turned to them. Here are the key findings:

-A vast majority (136-19) said when commercials come on when they are listening in the car they turn to another station.

-When asked how many minutes of commercials would be a reasonable amount between the music?
80 said 1-2 minutes. 36 said 2-3 minutes. 7 said 3-4 minutes and 17 said 4-5 minutes. The rest said none with only one saying 8-9 minutes and one saying 9-10 minutes.

-A vast majority (126-25) said that if a station plays what would be considered to be a reasonable number of commercials they WOULD continue to listen.

-When asked: Have you left listening to traditional or terrestrial radio due to the load of commercials?
A staggering 115 said yes while only 31 said no. The rest said sometimes.

-More than half of those surveyed said it would be better to stop the music more often for shorter commercial blocks.

-When asked, would you be willing to pay a monthly fee for ad-free music? The answer was NO, by a 2-1 margin.

-Then the question that the radio industry fears: If you have left traditional radio, due to the heavy load of commercials, where have you gone? The answers were predictable: Apple Music, Pandora, Spotify, Sirius-XM, Amazon Prime, I-Tunes, CDs, Sound Cloud, You Tube, Iphone Music, desktop (streaming), Ipod Music Selection, Google Play, and a number of others that embrace the new technology.

Some general student comments from the survey:

-"They all play too many commercials and all at the same time"

-"I mostly listen to Sirius-XM because of the lack of the commercials. If I am in the car for only 5 minutes, I would much rather listen to music than commercials".

-"I don't listen to the radio very often because of the commercials and because I have my own music downloads on my Iphone"

There was one positive one in favor of the industry: "Sometimes commercials tell me things that I would never have know about".

Scott Gentry, of Summit Media, agrees with that student. He said, "commercials should be looked-at as a point of interest. They should be treated as information that you want to know about". He also said that when you lump so many commercials together at one time you are devouring yourself, and "when you are running 10 minutes of commercials together, you lose the listener and when you lose the listener, you've lost the client....then the advertisers say it's not working for me anymore".

When it comes to blocks of commercials on music radio stations in other countries there seems to be very little difference with a few exceptions. In South America, music is part of the culture, and people take their listening very seriously. I had the good fortune of visiting Clasica 100.3 in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This is an adult contemporary stations that specializes with an English language (music) format. The Executive Director is Juan Carlos Veizaga. He has worked in the business for about 35 years. I asked him about the transition of music radio from shorter commercial breaks to long ones.

He said, "shorter stopsets between the music would be ideal, but it doesn't work like that at this time for programming purposes......the perfect format would be two songs and one commercial but that wouldn't work here". He averages about 8 minutes per stopset but said that it depends on the season. When asked if there is a tune-out ratio like in the States he said, "yes, I know they can tune-out but I get them back because of the good music that we program". The difference between many stations in Latin America and the United States is that in countries like Bolivia there is not pressure on the bottom line to max-out all time availabilities with as many commercials as possible. There is nobody telling Juan Carlos how to program or how many commercials to put in each hour. He said, "it is based on our own criteria" and the clients and ad agencies that place the orders never seem to have a problem with what he does. Finally, I asked him if he is afraid of streaming services "eating" into his audience now or in the future. He didn't have the same level of fear that some companies have in the United States: "We are a little concerned but it's not here yet. Most people are still listening to traditional radio. You get bored when you program your own play list. Here, every minute of radio listening is a surprise and is interesting. The listener never knows what song they are going to get out of our vast collection. Also, in Bolivia, the cars are not equipped at this time to download streaming services". He also doesn't have a lot of ratings pressure because of his unique format so he basically reports to himself....unlike the "marching orders" that are dictated by "corporate radio" executives in the States.

As we look to the future, are the much detested stopsets here to stay or will they soon become extinct as an old sales vehicle that can no longer compete with the new media? With new 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 new "on demand" mentality. A few companies are beginning to embrace the new technology by starting their own digital and on-demand services that will give listeners more choice through their various 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". Then, the other threat facing the industry, "Dash" or dashboard technology in what is called "the connected car". It is nothing significantly different than regular forms of 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 and a lot of other new options, why would anyone continue to listen to commercial radio with its 6-13 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 consultant Becky 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 Scott 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". Gentry said that the real end-game in his business is how can he best serve his listeners and customers at the same time and that is not presently being done by many of his competitors in the industry by running 10-13 minutes stopsets.