When Non-Commercial Sounds Like Commercial Radio

Bill Scott

Bill Scott

I can remember before underwriting became a big deal in non-commercial radio.  My first Christian station that I worked at in Central Florida survived by it’s on air fundraisers 100%.

Now this is crazy but many of you will understand.  As a radio guy, I still looked forward to stop sets when I was working in non-commercial radio.  I felt like they made us feel more commercial or more like real radio if we had to take breaks just like the other guys.  I wanted to be one of the big boys lol.

When non-commercial radio found out about how much underwriting could be worth to their station, it was like finding a buried treasure.  In an instant we found free money.  Our budgets were able to increase.  Money was falling from the sky.  To be honest, most stations at that point really needed the shot in the arm financially.

Thirty years later I look back and wonder what did we trade when we crossed over the bridge to underwriting?  There’s no doubt the more underwriting you do the less money you raise from your on-air fundraisers.   Some would argue that it’s worth it and perhaps they are right.  I think from a programming point of view we gave up something that no one else could touch.  Christian stations compete in the ratings with the mainstream stations.  There are so many things that mainstream is able to do that we just cannot compete with because of our smaller budgets.  However, the one thing they couldn’t compete with us on, we gave away.  We didn’t have to play commercials.  Yeah, I know it’s called underwriting but at the end of the day it’s a commercial to a listener.  Commercial stations have to play spots all day long, they have zero choice.  They cannot just play music, they have to sell time.  I would imagine commercial stations would freak out if one of their competitors stopped playing commercials or underwriting.   Can you imagine only stepping down once or twice and hour for a minute or two for underwriting?  That is something they could never compete with.  We could honestly be playing more music and providing more content than the station across the street and there would be nothing they could do about it.  This could be your secret weapon.

I travel the country each week.  I listen to Christian radio stations all the time.  I listen to stations I consult and those I don’t.  The other day I was listening to a Christian non-commercial station and in just one stop set they played 11 elements.  It was a long commercial break, even though it was underwriting.  There was 22-24 elements total in two stop sets each hour.  They were playing as much as the local Clear Channel station in their market.  The underwriting sounded very commercial.

There is a connection problem between you and your listeners when you don’t sound non-commercial.  Stations rant and rave all day long how they are listener supported but yet they sound very, very commercial.  WGTS in DC recently deleted their underwriting program and started over.  They moved business support to their web site and have limited underwriting to a couple of minutes each hour.  The underwriting they kept on the air are for other non-profits.  They even dropped their sponsors for traffic and news, that of course cost WGTS money out of pocket.   WGTS has seen an increase from listener support, why?  because they sound listener supported.  Read this article from Kevin Kruger from WGTS about why he killed his underwriting program.

I am not sure there is a right way or wrong way of doing this.   At the end of the day, I think we have given away the one thing that mainstream radio cannot compete with us on.  The purpose of this blog is to cause us to think.  Perhaps there’s a great balance that your station has found.  The bottom line is you have to do what is right for your station.  I’d love to see some comments and idea’s on this post.

December 23, 2014