Build A Commercial-Free Strategy To Be Proud Of

Build A Commercial-Free Strategy To Be Proud Of

by Tracy Johnson

Many radio stations build their strategy around being “the most music”. But that claim doesn’t hold up when listeners compare stations against all other forms of entertainment, not just other radio stations. That’s why broadcasters should rethink commercial-free tactics.

Commercial-free sweeps can work well as a tactic in The Ratings Game. But how does the claim of 45 minutes commercial-free to kick off a workday stack up against streaming providers that play few if any commercials? Exactly.

Still, commercial-free can work, as long as conditions are right and it’s managed properly.

Should You Be Commercial-Free?

There are pros and cons to a commercial-free programming tactic.

There’s no doubt that the #1 cause of listener tune out is commercials. Removing the thing that drives listeners away should cause TSL to increase. Studies show that fewer, longer commercial clusters generate better performance than shorter, frequent stops.

It seems like a no-brainer. Clear out commercials in the most listened to times and load them up when fewer listeners are available to listen. Then sell those ratings to unsuspecting advertisers. But is it?

The Dark Side Of Commercial-Free

Most managers are open to programming commercial-free segments as long as the commercials are moved, not eliminated.

The ratings earned do nothing to enhance advertiser value or the effectiveness of those commercials.  Since most simply redistribute the commercial load, commercial messages are relegated to less listened-to time. There, they are  surrounded by even more commercials. How does that impact advertiser ROI?

I think you know.

Still, I’m not a sales consultant, and this isn’t a commentary on enhancing revenue streams. It’s about programming a station or show to build the biggest possible audience and attract the most attention for a personality.

So let’s keep it focused on programming and I’ll get off the rant about the overall well-being of the radio industry.

Commercial-Free In The Morning?

Typically, stations promote commercial-free segments to launch the workday. That may make sense in some situations, but how about mornings?

The tactic is attractive because in-car listening is when radio stations are most vulnerable to tune out. Changing stations are within arm’s reach. It’s not as easy to change the channel at home or at work. Taking out the commercials removes a primary off-ramp for listening.

Plus, the average P1 listener tunes in their favorite morning show just 6 quarter-hours per week. Increasing that by just one quarter-hour per day and one day per week could Double Your Ratings.

But it won’t work for every station. Here’s who should and should not consider it:

  • Stations with a music-intensive morning show competing with a talk-heavy show. On such a station, the vast majority of listeners tune in for music. Being commercial-free (with little talk) removes invitations to tune out.
  • The opposite is somewhat true. It can work for a show that plays little music and is heavy on talk for the same reason. The fun continues, and there are no off-ramps.
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In both cases, the benefits of being commercial-free is offset by anything other than the primary driver for listening. Listeners tuning in for talk are turned off by music and vice-versa.

That’s why it usually does NOT work for shows that have a balance of talk and music. There are too many reasons to tune out, whether the listener tunes in primarily for music or talk.

Maybe You Should Not Promote It

This sounds like a crazy recommendation. Why wouldn’t a station want to take credit for the benefits provided a listener?

Well, because it’s not that much of a benefit. Save promos for things that advance the station’s position. Other than non-commercial stations (many Contemporary Christian stations, for example), radio simply can’t win an image for being a low-commercial option. Sure, you may win it against other radio stations, but against Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music? Seriously?

Stations measured by meters should just do it and not promote it. This is a tactical, not strategic, move. It’s about removing things that cause the audience to physically tune out (commercials).

In a metered market, keep listeners on the frequency and time spent listening is earned. So why promote there are no commercials during a commercial-free sweep? Isn’t that counter-productive? The message itself could be (and almost always is) perceived as a commercial. To many listeners, the promise is broken.

The goal is to retain folks listening right now for one (or two, or four) quarter hours. With no reason to leave, we should earn that listening.

Promoting it really doesn’t help.

When A Station Should Promote It

Building a long-term strategic position around a claim for playing fewer commercials and interrupting the music less often makes sense.

Research proves listeners aren’t against stations playing commercials. But they hate that there are so many. Building a position that addresses this concern is valid, and commercial-free periods can be a part of it.

Here’s when it makes sense:

  • Promote it as a way to demonstrate a bigger strategy. Commercial-free is strong proof of performance for a broader claim.
  • Actually remove commercials. Don’t just redistribute them to other time periods.
  • It’s also effective to go commercial-free as a short-term campaign. Listeners soon become numb to stations that promote a 90-minute commercial-free launch over and over. Making it a short-term campaign is actually heard, adds excitement and maintains the image for playing fewer commercials.

Best Practices

Here are a few more thoughts on the topic:

  • Promoting a commercial-free sweep doesn’t attract new listening. Listeners that are not attracted to the programming won’t listen because of the absence of spots.
  • The technique does not drive new listening to a time period when listeners wouldn’t ordinarily tune in. Nobody will adjust the availability to listen because a station happens to be commercial-free. it only works for those already listening.
  • In diary markets, perceptions are important. Because ratings credit is based on recall, getting credit for commercial-free sweeps has value, but only if the core product truly supports it. Don’t violate a claim of having fewer commercials if spots are just redistributed. Listeners aren’t ignorant.
  • You can’t fool them into thinking you play fewer commercials unless you actually DO play fewer commercials. But that’s a different discussion. If you want to build a brand identity around fewer interruptions, dump some spots.
  • Some stations actually program weaker material in commercial-free periods, thinking the lack of commercials is a strong attraction. They saving the strongest content for times when commercial loads are higher. They believe listeners will tolerate commercials if there is better content. It doesn’t work. Play only the best material (content or music) in times with fewest disruptions for the best chance of maximizing a commercial-free period.
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Commercial-free programming is popular, mostly because broadcasters think they can address a major listener complaint by throwing them a 45-minute bone. This is not a good strategy in the long run. However, there are situations that make sense as a programming tactic against direct competitors.

Ultimately, radio must face important decisions. We can’t continue to thrive with abusive commercial loads. The audience will not tolerate it, and it’s just a matter of time before advertisers figure out it’s not working for their ROI.


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