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How to buy Radio Advertising – Tips and Tricks from a Radio Insider

After 26 years in the radio industry, I’ve taken my experience building brands, creating big ideas and managing projects to start my own consulting business. What originally began as a farewell post to radio quickly turned into an insider’s look on how to buy radio advertising. Skeptics may tell you that radio is dead. Those skeptics are wrong. I’ve seen literally thousands of businesses thrive using radio advertising. If you want it to work for you, you need to use it correctly. Here are a few observations on how to do it right from someone who spent time on the inside. (that sounds like jail.)  

Where to begin

Each radio station in town is built to reach a target audience. Some of the stations are built to reach an audience as narrow as one gender in a ten-year age range. (Example: Women, 25-34). The stations are focused in this way, so they can deliver a specific demographic to their advertisers.

As the advertiser, you can cut down the sea of stations to consider by knowing the age and gender of your best customers. There are stations for young men/women, middle aged men/women and older men/women. Which one is the best fit for you?

You’ll probably end up with three or four stations to consider. Narrowing the market from 30 to 4 is a great head start.

Contacting the station

Go to the station’s website or call their front desk and ask for their sales manager. Tell the sales manager that you are going to buy a radio “schedule” and you’d like to be assigned to a sales representative. They’ll assign you to a sales person and they will most likely contact you within 24 hours. One aside: pay attention to the sales person’s handling of details. If they don’t get back to you or are sloppy with paperwork, then call the sales manager back and ask for a new rep. The sales person will be the one inserting your orders, handling your billing and supervising your commercial production. You’ll deal with this one person for all aspects of your advertising. Make sure they’re a pro.

Now that you’ve got your own account executive, ask to see a “trend” rating report in the audience you are targeting. The ratings report will list the stations, a defined time of day and the target audience. It’s kind of like Clue: Col. Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick. So, you’ll ask your sales representative that you want to see a “trender (slang) for all stations, Monday-Friday 6am-7pm with Adults 35-64 (or Women 18-34 or whatever demographic you’re targeting) from the last 12 months.” If you casually drop a line like that on your sales rep they will know instantly that you aren’t a guppy. You may be a guppy, but, it will show them you’re not completely uneducated.


Now you’ve got valuable intel. You’re going to see the first, second and third place stations in your target demographic. Get in touch with those stations and get an account executive. Nothing gets value for a radio advertiser like stations competing for business. And believe me, they WILL compete.

What you’re looking for in the ratings is consistency. Any station can show you one or two reports where the station popped up. You’re looking for consistent delivery of your target audience.

The ratings information they share is the unbiased and raw information showing the general size of their audience. This will help you compare apples to apples once your sales rep shows you your advertising schedule. Compare one station against the other for the number of commercials and times of day they run.

Use it right - Frequency

THE MOST important factor in the success or failure of your radio campaign will be frequency. You could have the greatest commercial in the world, run it only seven times in a week and go down in flames. It depends on the station – and your sales rep will help you compute the numbers – but, I would recommend hitting a few dayparts (mornings or afternoons) heavily for weeks. Your audience won’t even “hear” your message until they have heard it for the third time. Now is not the time to skimp. My rule of thumb is that you should be sick of hearing your own commercial on-air before you think anyone else has ever heard it once.  


Buy :15 and :30 commercials. Stations will sell :10, :15, :30 and :60 commercials. I’d encourage you to run a simple message more frequently than a longer, complex message fewer times. Shorter commercials are less expensive, and you can increase your frequency using them.

Use sound – sound effects, jingles, music, anything that draw attention and makes the commercial jump out of the radio.   

Keep it simple. Pick one or two things to communicate and commit. Do not cast a wide net offering the audience your services for “all your car care needs.” If you read the commercial for a team member and they can’t tell you why you’re running the spot after the first listen, then it’s too complicated.

Would you buy TV commercials so you could see yourself on TV? Would you buy digital media just so everyone could admire your face? No? Then don’t buy radio spots so your friends hear your voice on the radio. Bazillions of radio dollars are wasted because business owners LOVE to hear their friends say, “Hey, I heard you on the radio.” Demand a terrific voice talent from the station and demand that they passionately perform the commercial. If it sounds like they didn’t care, make them do it again. A simple radio commercial can be made in 15 minutes. Demand perfection. There is one tiny caveat to reading your own commercial. For industries that rely on personal trust for a large investment you may be able to get away with reading your own commercial. For example, real estate agents or money managers can get on air and sell their expertise and trust. If YOU are the brand, it’s ok. Pizza shop owners should hire the pros.

Extra Credit - Adjacencies

One particularly great piece of inventory is the adjacency. If you’re buying a news/talk station (which I would, btw), make sure to ask for an adjacency which means your commercial is placed next to a valuable piece of programming content. For example, you could “sponsor” the traffic report and get an adjacent commercial. When it plays, the traffic reporter will say “this traffic is sponsored by Small Step Solutions.” At the end of the traffic report, they will play your commercial. This double name mention will raise awareness for your business. And, it’s a sneaky way to make sure your commercial is the first one played in the commercial break.

Secret Sauce

Radio stations are sometimes sucked into discounting and bonusing their inventory to close deals. Use it to your advantage. Simply ask your sales representative if they could “bonus weekend or evening commercials to increase the frequency.” It probably won’t be a ton of additional weight on the schedule but every little bit will count.

Another option is to ask what kind of promotions are going on at the station. If your brand strongly aligns with the station’s brand they may be engaging with your customers in a way that would help you, too! For example, the station is giving away tickets to a hot artist that your customers love. You could ask to sponsor the promotion, or, give away tickets at your store. Super-secret tip: big advertisers can ask for free tickets for themselves, too. It’s not a guarantee, but, they will consider the request. 

The best deal in radio advertising right now is adults 55-64. Radio has traditionally fought over the adults 25-54 demographic. It’s the most popular demographic for many agency advertisers. If your business loves customers between the ages of 55-64, you could get a great deal from some stations that effectively reach that group. 

Audience size matters but it isn’t everything when buying radio. Stations with a larger audience tend to be priced higher. You can still get great results with stations that are lower down on the audience ranker because you can amp up your frequency. Look for the station that fights for your business and will play your commercial with intense frequency.

Money talks. Big advertisers get better rates. If you know you’re going to commit to a 6 or 12 month plan then tell the advertising representative right up front. The “annual” deal is the holy grail for radio sales representatives. In the negotiation for an annual deal, they will be very aggressive offering promotions and preferred pricing.

Big Finish – Commit

Beyond the station, the commercial or promotions, the radio advertisers that make an impact are the advertisers that commit to the medium. If you’re not ready to commit to a consistent, ongoing schedule then don’t invest in radio. Please do NOT buy a week or two to “see how it goes.” Commit to the strategy.

I love radio. I love the people in radio. I’ve seen it work. Do it right and it will work for you, too.

Still confused on how to buy radio? Shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to help you buy your first radio schedule. It’s the least I can do for an industry that has done so much for me.