Radio and the future media marketplace

It is time to reassess the value of radio as a viable media option

Steve Cox

Traditional values of coverage and frequency for the media planner are re-examined, as the author tries to position radio in the future media marketplace. As fragmentation continues, mass coverage media opportunities will become highly-priced premium commodities. Emphasis may shift from mass coverage to controlled levels of exposure amongst highly-defined targets with radio as an increasingly attractive option. A medium that is invited into listeners' personal spaces, accompanies them throughout the day, and is regarded as a friend, offers tremendous opportunities for effective communication.

OVER THE LAST FEW years, the UK media fraternity has been coming to terms with a new buzz word - fragmentation. This refers to the apparent break-up of the traditional mass-coverage media vehicles into a plethora of smaller rivals, each competing for a share of the target market's attention and the client's budget. Of course, fragmentation to the planner is diversification to the consumer, and the media planner now has more planning options than ever before. But is this altogether desirable, and do all media stand to benefit or suffer equally? In particular, what are the implications for commercial radio?

The aim of this article is to suggest possible future scenarios for radio within the changing media framework in the hope that, as and if the scenario evolves, it may become possible more clearly to define a role for this 'secret' medium. The first step should be to re-examine the traditional values of coverage and frequency to the media planner.


Ever since media planning has existed, maximising potential coverage of the target market has always been a key objective. If you want your campaign to be successful, then make sure as many people as possible see/hear/read it. Consequently, the traditional role for the media salesman has been to publicise how many of the planner's chosen target actually view, listen to, or read his particular media product. Audience research data have grown up around the need to supply both parties with believable, robust quantitative information about media consumption, and this has become the currency on which trading takes place.

Clearly a campaign cannot hope to persuade one million consumers to try a new product if only 500,000 are ever exposed to the commercial, but is this the whole story? Suppose two exposures to an ad are enough to encourage trial, whilst one is not, which is the better campaign if those 500,000 each get the necessary two exposures whilst the one million only get one? This is obviously simplistic, but it does illustrate that planning on coverage alone will not guarantee success.

Similarly, established and trusted weights of exposure may need to be amended according to the creative vehicle and message. A memorable 60" ad will be effective at a lower weight than a less creative 10" ad, just as an ad for a new soap is likely to require more exposure than a promotion offering holidays in the US for £50. However, benchmarks have evolved in most media based on planners' past experience (although, as we shall see, these are not necessarily fully established in the radio medium).

Good media planning has always involved consideration of both sides of this equation, but coverage has tended to dominate. As a result, media owners that deliver mass coverage have generally benefited from a healthy share of clients' budgets in preference to their smaller rivals. However, recent developments have seen a definite shift away from traditional planning techniques.


Undoubtedly, clients and agencies have become more sophisticated, both in their precise identification of their target consumer, and their translation of that definition into a media-targetable 'model'. Ten years ago, targeting men or women rather than adults would have been cutting-edge, but consumers today are regularly identified in terms of where they live, what their 'lifestyle' is, what they read or watch, whether they enjoy it and so on. This has resulted both in a growth in the popularity of smaller, more targeted media vehicles, and a more scientific approach to media placement in the traditional favourites (TV, national newspapers etc.).

It is the impact of this fragmentation that is likely to inspire the next significant change of emphasis in media planning. In her IPA Media Award-winning paper last year, Marie Therese Doran highlighted the changing nature of the fragmenting television marketplace and its probable future implications, particularly for product launches. Her premise was that, as viewers are given more channel choices, average ratings on any one channel must fall - the days of the 65 rating spot are already long gone. The result of this will be that coverage potential 'will be limited due to the increasing elusiveness of the lighter viewer, while at the same time frequency will be increased against the heavy-viewing elements of the audience'. One could also argue that we may be experiencing something similar in the national press, as circulations decline gradually with the overall decline in newspaper readership.

Under these circumstances, a media planner would appear to have three choices in attempting to re-create the effect of a 'traditional', coverage-led campaign:

  • Spend more money.
  • Target and buy more efficiently in the original media.
  • Modify the media combination.
The evidence of the last few years shows that few clients appear likely to consider spending more for their media. The (so far) inexorable rise of the media independent/dependent arguably continues to focus attention on cheap media buying above media effectiveness, and clients will generally expect comparable results for comparable (or smaller) budgets each year.

As a result, planners will be forced into considering the second and third of the above options.

In fact, it could be argued that there are other pressures forcing media planning down these avenues. Increased ad literacy and cynicism amongst consumers is already encouraging planners to look beyond the quantitative. How can the commercial message be communicated to involve and stimulate a potentially disinterested consumer, already exposed to hundreds of advertisements each day? Perhaps exposure alone will not be enough? Perhaps the advertising will only be effective if exposed to a consumer in the right frame of mind at the right time?

Undoubtedly targeting will become more sophisticated. Some planners are already moving away from quantitative data in their search to communicate more efficiently with their target market (which in turn is leading to a blurring of the dividing line between account and media planning). There is clearly an opportunity here for smaller, focused media vehicles, as options for reaching this target in a new and effective way.

So the likelihood is that, if this fragmentation continues, mass coverage media opportunities will become highly-priced premium commodities, and more emphasis will be placed on achieving the desired effect elsewhere. So what implications does this have for the role of commercial radio?


Target coverage

At its most basic level, radio can benefit by default as the 'coverage gap' between TV and itself is narrowed. Commercial radio is still far from fully developed, and, unlike TV, is almost certainly still some way from reaching its equivalent of the 65 rating spot. The 'low cover medium' stigma will no longer be either as true or as valid as potential achievement in other media is eroded and radio's own performance improves beyond the 59 per cent of all adults it currently reaches in a week. (It already reaches over 65 per cent of all adults each week in London, as shown in Exhibit 1).


No network data available for 1989
Source: JICRAR 1986-92/RAJAR 93-94.