Audience wanted: how to get the locals listening 

27 June 2024


Cover of Radio Month

From Radio Month for November 1981

Any local station in the UK would claim that it promotes itself actively in its transmission area. But what is meant by promotion and what its objectives should be, its philosophy even, differs very much from station to station. From a sample of stations, both BBC and ILR, it is not clear that managements have always thought these matters through, or adopted a comprehensive strategy as opposed to following an ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants policy.

The differences between stations are not simply due to the fact that some are commercial and some are owned by the BBC. Indeed the BBC stations, traditionally too fastidious or impoverished to thump the tub in the market-place, have plainly learned a trick or two from their ILR competitors. They are fighting back with sharper weapons than a mere temporary incursion of the Radio 1 Roadshow.

As Tim Manning, head of the publicity and information team at the BBC’s Radio WM (formerly Radio Birmingham), puts it: “If a station is going to relate to the community, it’s got to make sure that when it’s involved in community projects, the community gets to hear about them.”

He is not one of those put off by the cost of promotion. As he puts it: “The people who think of promotions as always being expensive are perhaps not thinking imaginatively enough. If you think carefully, you can often produce something that genuinely serves your audience and promotes your station in one and isn’t going to cost four-figure sums.

“Everything we do we have to be sure will be cost-effective, because we don’t have the odd £100 [£375 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] to play around with and say ‘Let’s do this – wouldn’t it be fun!’”

Manning has a full-time assistant, a part-timer and a secretary and reports to the station’s programme organiser. His brief covers three areas of external publicity: press publicity, the planning of major station OBs, and community projects.

Under the OB heading, he says: “We have a policy of going to things where we’ll be a major attraction in our own right.” There is no promotions vehicle as such, but a van is used to carry the station’s Marler-Haley exhibition stand to location sites. Its size – 30 feet wide by 20 feet deep – catches the eye and has people looking round instinctively for the TV cameras. The unit does in fact include a 48-inch projection TV set and VDU apparatus for putting up captions, such as words for a singsong, or showing people close-ups of what is going on.

The mid-morning 206 Team programme, which includes feature material, phone-ins and a swap-shop as well as music, can be mounted as an OB from one of the shopping centres. Sometimes, reversing the usual order of things, Manning arranges all the OB facilities, for example with the local Ideal Home Exhibition, and then offers the facilities to programmes.

In addition, the station sponsors events across a broad front, not always related to radio, but as far as possible self-financing. A two-month dance season paid its way. An award was given for the best new play at a theatre festival. Pub jazz concerts were promoted, of which Manning says: “People are generally prepared to pay for these. Sometimes they distrust things that don’t cost anything.”

On the community side, his unit looks after public service announcements and the 206 Contact Line which gives off-air help and information to the disabled. Information on community events is collected via 40 Birmingham libraries.

Is it all worth the effort? Research around Walsall has shown a very significant difference in audience appreciation of the station following a period of conscious promotional effort there, compared with areas which had had no promotional visits. “If you don’t provide a public face,” says Manning, “people aren’t going to listen.”


A man stands beside a radio car

LBC’s Dickie Arbiter out with the radio car: promotion and programmes go hand in hand


His unit was set up a year ago when the station adopted a new logo, new schedules and a new approach to promotion. It faces a further challenge now that the station is being rechristened, with new transmitters to improve its signal, and a major publicity drive costing “something over four figures”, including another re-designed logo, bus and railway station posters and newspaper advertising. The new transmitters come on-air on 23 November, and Manning’s campaign starts the week before – with a number of its features borrowed from the successful Radio London relaunch earlier this year.

Manning’s opposite number at Radio Trent, Chris Theobald, conveys an air of equal energy, but, unlike the other promotions people quoted here, offers the additional ingredient of analysing his task as scientifically as he can in marketing terms. Not for nothing are the letters MInstM, and MIPR after his name!

He sees his function as being threefold: 1 To help position the station as a leading force in the regional media; 2 To promote its involvement within the community, across the broadest possible spectrum, in a commercial, leisure and community service context; 3 To enhance its overall image through identification with events having high publicity appeal and visibility.

A BBC station might not worry about the first of these roles or simply assume that, being part of the BBC, it was “a leading force” by definition. It would agree with point 2, and, if it had a vigorous sense of self-promotion, with point 3.

“On-air promotion,” says Theobald, “is a powerful marketing tool, not only for advertisers but also for projecting the image of our station. Where we really score is the ability to provide a back-up in physical presence, demonstrative to that profile of individual we wish to appeal to. Hence specific appeal promotions.”

These are events designed to appeal to a precise socio-economic or age group – for example the Saturday club at a Nottingham assembly hall which is aimed at C2DE boys and girls aged up to 16, or the English National Opera lunch-time concerts for which the target audience consists of BC1&2s aged 50+, the only people judged both interested and available to listen at that time of day.

Theobald’s second weapon is promotion overlap. This is the effect created when, by specifically appealing to a particular socio-economic group, one also reaches members of other groups. For example Trent organised and promoted a motor racing week at Donington Park, broadcasting from the track, interviewing drivers in public discussion forums and sponsoring its own race at the European Formula II championships. Teams also did a display drive through the centre of Nottingham, so that in all 50,000 people, not only racing fans but many others, saw the station’s involvement.

The station was similarly involved in the world canoe championships at the nearby National Water Sports Centre (20,000 people reached), a sponsored horse-race at Colwick Park (10,000 people), promotion of boxing bouts, and regular support of Nottingham Panther Ice Hockey team (12,000 people a month). National sports personalities attended a fund-raising dinner for a sports aid foundation at which up-and-coming athletes received a Radio Trent Sporting Endeavour Award.

“In each case,” says Theobald, “the promotion overlap achieves a spread of appeal which will have a lingering effect upon the hard core of enthusiasts but at the same time demonstrate our diversification of interest to the more casually involved individual.”

With the station receiving some of the gate-money and selling extra ads related to events, Theobald is able to say: “In all the above, the costs have been virtually self-liquidating.” All the time too Trent was picking up free press and, in most cases, TV publicity from coverage of events.


An open-top double decker, with an inset of a smiling man

2CR’s bus: at an early stage of the game. Inset – Chris Theobald: strong on marketing theory


On the community involvement side, he says, “the station demonstrates its civic sense of responsibility, but at the same time provides a vehicle for publicity for a vast crosssection of community interests.” Presenters attend over 300 charitable and community events a year, ranging from after-dinner speaking engagements to hospital visits. There is also a road safety competition to find the driver of the year. The head-count is not forgotten – 200,000 overall.

A Christmas carol service is mounted from Nottingham Old Market Square, and money is raised by Christmas charitable appeals – £18,000 [£67,000] for the disabled last year when 500 people took part in a 30-mile walk and £5,000 [£19,000] in one day in a space invaders championship.

On the commercial side of community involvement there is what Theobald calls “a leisure service to a complete cross-section of tastes and interests appealing also across the broadest possible age and socioeconomic groups.” What with shop openings, in-store promotions, a disco roadshow, rock, country, jazz and classical concerts, exhibitions, listener trips abroad and a free fall parachute team for carnivals and fetes, no one can be unaware of Radio Trent.

By analysing events according to the sub-groups reached, he can be sure that the total range of audience is effectively covered. The steady flow of activities retains a relationship with the existing audience, particularly the decision-makers and opinion-formers, while also reaching out to the new generations of young adults and new arrivals in the Trent area.

Theobald works with the permanent help of one secretary, plus presenters brought in for relevant events and outside staff, such as hostesses, hired ad hoc. Apart from a small budget for programme support give-aways, such as car stickers, coffee mugs or pens, the whole operation is expected to pay for itself – “PR which costs us nothing.”

At Bournemouth, a smaller ILR station, 2CR, is at an earlier stage of the game – making sure, as Katharine Farmer, in charge of promotions, puts it, that “every single person in the area knows about us and has tuned in at least once.”

After that, if people don’t like 2CR, it is primarily a programming problem. Promotion then has the role of educating listeners to know when the things they would like to hear are on.

The station’s first JICRAR figures revealed that its area would be harder to conquer than it had imagined. There are numerous small communities in the New Forest to the north-east of Bournemouth. They wouldn’t come to 2CR, so 2CR had to go out and woo them. Few changes were made in programming, but a promotional effort was mounted from February to June and the second JICRAR report showed a strong improvement.

“A major factor in increasing awareness,” says Katharine Farmer, “was undoubtedly the in-house newspaper, 2CR News, which was distributed to over 200,000 homes in the area during February. This was backed up by a sticker campaign in March during which a £5 [£20] cash prize was given each day to a car spotted with a 2CR sticker. A similar promotion was run in May on sun visors.

The station also bumped up its sponsored activities, including concerts to full houses by the 2CR Big Band. This is made up of local professional musicians paid for out of the station’s live music budget. Entry has been free at all but one of its concerts. The paying event broke even and the station plans to promote self-financing concerts by name bands from outside in the future.

The February-June campaign also included 45 personal appearances by presenters, ten matches against listeners at sports ranging from skittles and darts to shooting and lacrosse, twenty roadshow functions, a five-day stint at an exhibition and the staging of the Miss 2CR contest as a heat of Miss England.

The station van is driven round local centres by Farmer’s assistant, Lucy Walton, who talks to the public and gives out programme schedules or stickers in the summer and visits clubs or institutes in the winter. The outlying areas have been its particular target.

A Bournemouth bus decorated with 2CR advertising plies an ordinary route round the town, changing it periodically so that as many people as possible will see it. It would be too expensive to have it on full-time hire to the station, but it is taken on for special occasions such as shows and carnivals.

Other activities since 2CR opened have included sponsorship of a coast surfing championship and of City of London Ballet performances. The 2CR parachute, manned by breakfast show presenter Simon Ward, has made over 200 jumps at fetes and carnivals. On-air promotions have included an auction in December which raised over £10,000 [£37,500] for 42 charities and a lucky-number programme schedule promotion in the summer.

Though Katharine Farmer does not talk marketing theory like Chris Theobald, the variety of activities in which 2CR has involved itself may well have brought it to public attention across as broad a socioeconomic spectrum as Trent’s purposefully planned promotions. However, Trent’s stress on self-financing suggests that its promotional effort may be cheaper than 2CR’s. With costly initial items like 2CR’s newspaper drop out of the way, it would be interesting to see if the station will use its second year on air to make promotion pay for itself.

At Radio Leeds the promotional problem has been different – the advent of a commercial competitor, Radio Aire, in a part of Yorkshire which has largely been a BBC local radio preserve. Station manager Geoff Talbott has had to hit back promotionally to preserve his listenership.

“The fine philosophical differences,” he says, “between what a commercial and a BBC station are doing sometimes get a bit lost. Sometimes the station which shouts the loudest is perceived as being the most successful. It is wrong to underestimate the importance of competing in terms of publicity.”

His promotional counter-attack has been helped by the fact that, purely coincidentally of course, his station added stereo to its transmissions from 1 September, the day that Radio Aire opened. For two months and at an unstated cost, 100 buses in Leeds and Wakefield proclaimed “Stereo Radio Leeds – the voice of West Yorkshire.” Aire also took part in the battle of the bus-sides. “But I think we won it conclusively,” declares Talbott. The design of his ad was much clearer, he considers. He paid no huge consultant’s fee for the artwork, but simply knocked it up himself at his desk with Letraset.


Logos of BBC Radio Leeds


Space is being taken for ads in the new Thomson directories for Leeds, Wakefield and later Bradford. The logo, car sticker and letterhead are being redesigned. At present the logo features what Talbott calls “a cosy owl,” the municipal symbol of Leeds. But the effect is divisive since his station’s brief now covers the whole of West Yorkshire, not simply Leeds.

Meanwhile the station has continued the normal promotional visits to events, with a caravan and presenters at occasions ranging from the Great Yorkshire Show to small local do’s. Radio Leeds has always been strong on concerts, notably the Great Radio Leeds Feast, a series of public performances covering classics to jazz and folk. “We aim to make it self-financing,” says Talbott, who agrees that shortage of cash has given BBC local stations a reputation for being self-effacing. If an event can be self-financing, he thinks, there is no excuse for this.

He likes to run promotions linked to programming, such as an angling weekend in Scotland for angling programme listeners or a rail expedition to London for shoppers linked to a consumer phone-in. But at the moment he has to be his own promotions manager, though he is considering recruiting a full-time specialist.

The station has the highest turnover and profits of any BBC station from the sales of shop goods such as T-shirts. Talbott’s hope is that he will be able to earn enough from station sales and events to pay for a promotions staffer and Radio Leed s advertising as well.

Down in London, LBC, the largest of the stations considered here, has no promotions department as such. However Dickie Arbiter, the organiser and presenter of special events and outside broadcasts, in effect supplies the promotional input. He has not been given any general policy brief.

“The nature of the station doesn’t dictate any general brief,” he says. “I mean, how do you promote news? We depend a lot on goodwill and word of mouth to attract listeners.”

It is easier for a general entertainment station which broadcasts music, he argues. People will gather round when they see presenters putting out a music show, but are much less likely to gather round an LBC radio-car reporting the news. All the same, LBC’s Newsmobile, a Ford Transit van equipped as a studio, registered the station’s presence outside the Scarman inquiry [into the 1981 Brixton riots – Ed], likewise its radio-car at the Iranian embassy [during the 1980 siege]. Another problem is the vastness of London. Arbiter shudders at the cost of leafletting every household, as 2CR has done. Also, if LBC promotes itself at public occasions, many of the people it reaches will be out-of-towners unable to hear the station and many more will be exist-ing listeners.

Nevertheless LBC makes its presence felt with live broadcasts from such occasions on the principle that it is good to be seen as well as heard. It takes a stand with studio at the Ideal Home Exhibition from which it does some 16 hours a week of broadcasting for four weeks with personal appearances by presenters for live programmes. It also goes to other exhibitions, the Royal Tournament, Trooping the Colour, Cruft’s dog show, the Easter Parade and New Year’s Eve in the West End.

A snag about using a radio-car on promotion is that it is always liable to be whisked off to cover news. However Arbiter used to go out with one to supermarkets to chat with shoppers about prices, shopping or the topic of the morning phone-in. “Our radio-car is there to be used,” he says, explaining that he does not get a special fixed budget for promotional coverage. His activities contribute to programming and fall under its budget. He is supplied with a stock of stickers, badges, photos, carrier bags, etc, for distribution during his OB trips. T-shirts are sold at the station, which gives out free to callers, or people sending the postage, a poster featuring the London teams in the Football League.

Of the other motions of promotion, such as organising competitions for schoolchildren or running auction appeals to raise thousands for children at Easter or the elderly at Christmas, Dickie Arbiter’s one-man unit comes across as a limb of programming rather than an independent support operation like the units at Birmingham and Trent.

Why does LBC not organise or sponsor promotional events related to speech programming? It cannot be below the dignity of a news station – not if its radio-car can go to a Miss England heat and Arbiter be a judge. There must be sponsor-worthy sports occasions. And what about mounting conferences or public debates? “You’re talking about extra staff and money,” comments Arbiter.

Perhaps in a station which is more labour-intensive than the rest of local radio and where the journalistic ethos predominates at all levels, improvement is taken to be synonymous with hiring more journalists. Raising the quality of news output is worth doing. But as Tim Manning at Radio Birmingham [sic – Radio WM] said: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth shouting about.”


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