Why The Last Contest Stands The Test of Time

Why The Last Contest Stands The Test of Time

by Tracy Johnson

In 1972, a Top 40 radio station in San Diego conducted one of the greatest radio contests in history. The Last Contest is a legendary promotion that featured larger-than-life production, imaginative staging, and incredible audience interaction.

It worked on many levels but was grounded in the mechanics of a great contest.

The Last Contest had it all:

  • Entertainment value. Each prize was a story and was promoted with the brilliant theater of the mind.
  • Larger-than-life offers. It sounded BIG, yet was affordable for the station. The incentives offered were much greater than the prize budget.
  • Longevity. The promotion was sustainable, adding brand value over time.
  • Sponsor-Friendly. This campaign is full of sponsor potential.
  • Call to Action. There were multiple daily tune-in occasions, each built with the drama of a potential winner.
  • Cume Magnet. The promotion attracted players far beyond the station’s fans via massive direct mail.

Contests work, when executed properly. When they entertain, they are a surefire way to attract and hold listeners.

What made it work? Here’s an examination of The Last Contest.

The Last Contest

Conceived by Jack McCoy at KCBQ/San Diego, The Last Contest offered a new prize package every hour every day. That’s 24 tune-in occasions every single day. Each had the potential of a massive payoff.

Each was imaginative, creative, and inspired hope. It was ingenious.

Each promo featured cinematic production and amazing copy. The promos were at the core of the promotion’s success. Incredibly, the copy was ad-libbed by McCoy, which makes the campaign even more remarkable.

The production was so good, the promos became appointment listening! Each time a new prize package was introduced, the new promo was teased in advance. When is the last time that happened at your station?

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Here’s a composite of the contest. It’s long (26 minutes), but you probably won’t be able to turn it off. And take notes. There are a ton of ideas in this montage.

Playing The Last Contest

The trigger to win was a direct mail piece that blanketed the market. Each piece included an exclusive number. Each hour, the station read a number. If it was yours, you could claim your choice of prizes if you called within three minutes.

Personalities asked callers (who didn’t win), which prize package they would choose if they won. They then used responses in promos that sounded like winners. It sounded like they were giving away millions of dollars.

Every conceivable item – fancy cars, trips, even a new house, was offered. The aspirational prizes were compelling, and everyone in the market might have the winning number. It inspired tune-in far beyond the appeal of the format.

But The Last Contest was about storytelling. Each promo was a story that pointed to the station’s brand, image, and promotion. The promos excelled in the IEI promo formula.

The Last Contest Today

I’m often asked if a promotion like this could work today. Yes, it could. Absolutely. Some stations regularly use a version of this promotion called Showcase Contests. They’re explained in detail here.

The concept is quite simple. Create prize offers with tremendous appeal, realizing the promotional value is in the possibility of winning, not the actual giveaway. Then award winners a choice of prizes.

Imagine how this could be executed using online resources and spreading it via video and social media.

But it takes creativity, dedicated resources to building the drama in hundreds of promos, and courage to try something big that doesn’t conform to today’s accepted PPM programming practices.

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And, it requires a supporting budget to generate enough buzz to reach critical mass.


Radio stations today offer some great promotion ideas. Some stations are having great success with promotions that tell stories. Z90 (also in San Diego) has a promotion series called Epic 48 that allows them to tell stories and capture the imagination.

But no matter what your station is doing, there are timeless lessons to learn from Jack McCoy’s masterpiece, The Last Contest. Every broadcaster can apply the principles in this amazing campaign.


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The IEI Promo Formula

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