FORUM: Can commercial radio make itself user-friendly? - An industry-wide initiative launched last week is aiming to make radio an easier medium to plan and buy. No mean feat for a medium that has traditionally been weighed down by a wealth of information

For all the success that commercial radio has enjoyed in recent years, and it has been remarkable, the radio industry still knows how to scrap with the best of them. At the past two Radio Advertising Bureau conferences, the afternoon debates between radio airtime sellers and buyers have been notable for the ferocity of their exchanges and these arguments have simmered over into the day-to-day dealings between the two sides.

For all the success that commercial radio has enjoyed in recent

years, and it has been remarkable, the radio industry still knows how to

scrap with the best of them. At the past two Radio Advertising Bureau

conferences, the afternoon debates between radio airtime sellers and

buyers have been notable for the ferocity of their exchanges and these

arguments have simmered over into the day-to-day dealings between the

two sides.



The problem is that a period of inflation in the price of radio spots

has coincided with a contraction in the number of sales houses.



A large part of the increase in airtime cost could be explained by the

increase in demand for radio ads. The question has been, though, could

all of it? Or were the stronger sales houses merely using their market

clout to help to drive up prices?



The sales houses have already addressed the problem of communicating

with radio stations and, from last week, the picture became clearer

still.



The RAB has managed to broker an agreement between the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising, which has been at the forefront of the

drive for more accountability, and the commercial radio industry

(Campaign, 23 May).



The agreement covers a broad range of initiatives but all these share

the same goal - making radio campaigns easier to plan and buy. Also, a

working body - to be known as the Joint Industry Commercial Radio IT

Futures group (JICRIT) - has been established to focus industry

attention on the question of accountability.



Together the moves go some way towards easing the whole radio

advertising market, Justin Sampson, the director of operations at the

RAB, believes.



’There are really two key dynamics behind this initiative. There has

been an explosion of interest in radio as an advertising medium and an

explosion in the number of stations broadcasting.



As the campaigns have become bigger, so the amount of work has

increased.



’Unfortunately, this increase is not matched by an increase in intuitive

IT solutions,’ he explains. ’This is a problem for planners who have to

cope with 130 stations.



JICRIT is designed to take all the information that is currently

available and come up with the software necessary to manage that data.

The sales points over the last year have developed systems to allow them

to talk to radio stations more easily and there doesn’t seem any real

reason why that communication can’t be extended to take in the media

planners and buyers and make their jobs a little easier.’



For the IPA’s radio spokesman, Derek Morris, the good news about the

initiative is that it shows that the consolidation of radio ownership

can actually benefit advertisers.



’It would be easy to underestimate this announcement, as it’s easy to

forget how far the radio industry has come,’ he comments. ’It was not

long ago that each ILR station was a separate fiefdom with the sole

objective of beggaring its neighbour. As soon as any form of

standardisation or packaging was introduced, someone would go out of

their way to break it up. A public commitment to the whole radio

industry to deliver an integrated standardised IT system is to be very

much welcomed.



’The medium must become easier to plan, buy and administer. We have to

find simpler ways of trading so that we can all spend more time selling

the benefits of the medium. This announcement is a major investment to

that end.



JICRIT is an example of the benefits that can come from bigger players

owning more stations. As long as these companies put their customers’

needs at the centre of their strategies, these changes will be good of

the medium.’



Some agencies have been more cautious in their initial response to the

scheme. David Fletcher, CIA MediaNetwork’s head of radio, is one who

believes the changes are not quite radical enough.



’We should encourage uniformity, but there is a real danger with any

scheme like this. The risk is that it will not make planning and buying

easier but will instead just produce more information that we will have

to wade through. It’s like when agencies get new presentation software -

the pain of using the equipment doesn’t get any easier but you feel

obliged to waste more time using the extra gizmos.



’A potential pitfall of any uniform system is that we will crunch the

numbers, the sales houses will also crunch the numbers, and the result

will just be unnecessary duplication. None of this solves the problem of

there being too much information. The fundamental problem is that the

system is built from the bottom up and is starting to creak under the

weight.’



Most clients are happy to leave their agencies to handle the minutiae of

the scheme. But Charles Dunstone, founder of the Carphone Warehouse, has

more experience of the medium than many clients and is aware of the gap

in the radio advertising market the initiative is trying to fill.



’Anything that improves accountability in the medium has got to be a

boon for advertisers. It has always seemed amazing to me that you don’t

know whether your spots have run or, if they have run, whether they did

so in the right order,’ he explains. ’That doesn’t matter if you’re a

London-based company and you’re advertising on Capital because you can

listen in, but if your campaign takes in a station like Forth, then you

just don’t have a clue.



’We have been big supporters of radio but, to some extent, we have

chosen to soldier on through this accountability problem.



We have suffered in the past from the incorrect rotation of commercials,

for example, and it has been really difficult to keep track of

campaigns. In a sense, because of the success we have had building our

company on radio, we have been prepared to stick with it and overlook

these problems. But for clients for whom radio is more of a

discretionary spend, the lack of accountability has been a real problem,

so hopefully this initiative will make life easier for them. And, with a

bit of luck, that will help the next wave of radio growth.’