He who pays the piper calls the radio’s tune

Attracted by lower costs and lighter regulation than TV, brands are now turning to advertiser-funded radio. But if the sponsor doesn’t fit the show, listeners will switch off, says Caroline Parry

The development and acceptance of advertiser-funded programming (AFP) has long been sought after by marketing agencies, but progress is proving slower than its advocates originally thought. However, radio at least is beginning to catch the imagination of marketers as the natural home for this form of brand message.

Ostensibly, AFP involves the client and its agency helping to develop programming in return for brand exposure tied in with the editorial content. There are examples of this in television, such as food giant Heinz’s work with North One Television (formerly Chrysalis TV) and Five on Dinner Doctors, a show aimed at helping mothers find new ideas for their children’s meals (MW May 15, 2003).

However, there are stringent guidelines for AFP on TV, and Dinner Doctors was referred to the Independent Television Commission for breaching the Code of Programme Sponsorship, though it was cleared of wrongdoing. Radio, on the other hand, has less restrictive rules and the cost of making radio programmes is low compared with television. The medium is also helped by the development of extensive sponsorship and promotions work at a majority of stations.

Insurance company Prudential is the latest to explore the idea of funded editorial content. It has teamed up with GWR-owned national commercial station Classic FM for the 26-part Composers’ Notes series, to run from April 17 (MW last week). The show will be supported by a series of advertorials on the importance of financial planning.

However, the Pru deal may not quite herald the opening of the floodgates for AFP on radio. Observers say that the scope for the strategy may be limited, pointing out that so far it has worked best on niche stations and speech stations, such as LBC. The latter is currently working with Direct Line on a property feature called Property Supplement.

MindShare head of radio Howard Bareham says that AFP is difficult to execute on most of the major FM stations, because they are music-based. He says: “There is a lot of talk about AFP but it is difficult to execute on music stations. Media owners are reluctant to be seen to be ‘sullying’ their content.”

The blurring of the line between advertising and editorial has fuelled industry concerns that advertisers will keep pushing the boundaries until listeners lose faith in radio as a medium.

The Ofcom code on APF on radio states that editorial control of the show has to remain with the station, although sponsors can contribute to the content. Advertisers are not allowed to sponsor news but can get involved with feature pieces on business, current affairs and finance. Anything that could be construed as commercially specific advice is banned. TV has tighter rules, aimed at ensuring editorial independence and a clear distinction between programming and advertising.

Some have questioned whether the deal between the Pru and Classic FM is a step too far, with one insider describing the link between brand and programme as somewhat tenuous. Others, however, believe that, providing it is done in a humorous way, the show will not look out of place on the Classic schedule and should appeal to its audience.

Richard Brinkman, sponsorship and promotions director at Chrysalis Radio-owned speech station LBC, says that the UK radio sector has to be careful not to go the same way as its counterpart in the US, where sponsorship and AFP are much more prevalent. He says: “It is still a very young field and there isn’t much research on it yet. We are doing it in what we think is the best way, but we have to keep looking at it. We have to gauge the mood of the moment.”

Steve Leavesley, director of radio consultant Radio Lynx, says that, provided the show is delivered in a slightly irreverent way Composers’ Notes should still appeal to listeners as well as giving the Pru the brand campaign it is looking for. “It is very important that the process is driven by the advertiser but to the benefit of the listener,” he says. “If the content is not relevant to the listener, it shows.”

Successful AFP remains interesting and relevant to the listener while giving the advertiser the exposure and impact it is looking for. However, the programming department also needs to be kept happy. For this reason, says Dave Roberts, head of radio at content specialist Drum PHD, it takes a broad-minded client to make good AFP.

He explains: “The media owner has to be impartial and can’t be seen to be unduly influenced by an advertiser, just because they are paying for the show. There simply cannot be a large number of messages buried in the content; it just has to be a compelling show that pulls in the right audience.”

The Radio Advertising Bureau does not collect a figure for AFP separately from sponsorship and promotions. That category was worth &£75m last year, and sources estimate that AFP is currently only worth up to ten per cent of the total.

Graham Bryce, managing director of Xfm, which has a Sunday evening show, The Third Place, funded by Sony PlayStation, says that even on stations such as Xfm there is limited scope for funded programming. “In reality, AFP works on very few occasions.” he says. “Listeners are wise to marketing messages and understand when they are being sold to. You have to be careful not to underestimate that.”

The fragmentation of the radio market, as digital stations such as EMAP-owned Kerrang! begin to develop bigger audiences, offers the biggest opportunity to advertisers wishing to get involved in content. Digital broadcasting allows media owners to offer more niche stations with targeted music and content, and through that more segmented audiences. Yet, listeners have very personal relationship with their radios and media owners and advertisers should be careful not to lose sight of that.

And the jury is still out on the effectiveness of AFP in any medium. Media Planning Group head of broadcast Andrew Canter says clients and media agencies are keen to push the strategy, owing to the proliferation of channels and the growth of TV recorders such as Sky+, that allow viewers to skip ads. However, he warns: “The real area of interest is what AFP will actually do for a brand. This is a model that has yet to prove itself.”

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