In the 1970s, Philadelphia radio exec Jerry Lee handed out 50,000 radios in supermarkets, barber shops, and department stores that could be tuned in to only one station: 101.1, a station of which he owned 49 percent.

"We'd give a radio to anybody with two ears," Lee, 81, said on Wednesday. 101.1's audience soared with the publicity.

Now Lee has a new shtick: helping radio stations churn out better on-air ads.

Today's uninspiring ads, Lee says, threaten a flat-sales-growth industry such as  television, while digital and social-media platforms take bigger bites out of the national-ad pie. "We have mediocre commercials," he said. "Why not make them great?"

To move the industry in that direction, Lee financed studies by consumer-market researcher Dan Hill of Sensory Logic, who videoed subjects' facial reactions to good and bad radio ads.

Jerry Lee, longtime radio executive in the Philadelphia area.
Jerry Lee, longtime radio executive in the Philadelphia area.

Hill distilled the data into a 30-minute webinar, creating 18 principles for engaging radio spots. Lee says he's offering this information free to advertisers who spend a minimum of $12,000 a year on radio ads in the Philadelphia market. There are about 800 of those advertisers in the Philadelphia, according to industry data. Lee is the chairman of the company that owns 101.1, or WBEB, an adult-contemporary format station marketed as More FM.

And in what Lee says is a first for the radio industry, Hill and the staff at Sensory Logic also will critique for free a radio ad before it airs — in effect, offer feedback within 24 hours.

One caveat: An advertiser must spend at least some ad funds, though not the whole $12,000, at 101.1. "We're not a charity," said Lee.

For the last several years, Lee charged advertisers and ad agencies for the webinar. But he had few takers. Then in late April, a 101.1 salesperson began offering it to advertisers for free. Two clients that jumped at the free offer: Hershey Entertainment and NRG Energy.

"When you give it away for free, everybody's interested," Lee said, noting a call on Wednesday from a major New York ad agency that would like to make the webinar and related feedback available to clients outside of the Philadelphia area.

This isn't rocket science. The No. 1 principle for an engaging radio ad is to grab a listener in three seconds. No. 12 is to tell a story.  No. 15: "Don't (or never) lead with price. Price is not a core emotion. Anyone can undercut your price."

Lee said that his intention was "not to throw copywriters [for radio ads] under the bus," but a realization that "there just hasn't been any system to help them."

Dan Price, president of Oink Ink Radio, a firm that creates radio ads, said Lee's observation of the questionable quality of many radio ads is spot-on and has been a concern for years.

"It's not like it's all of a sudden, we need to stop the bleeding," Price said of radio-ad quality. "When you go to an agency, the creative people are assigned to television or billboards. Junior people get thrown at radio because there is a feeling that it's not that hard of an art form."

Price listened to the webinar and said it contained "all the expected thoughts to keep in mind. The ones I feel are missing are those connected to spontaneity. People who are good at this just know what feels right. They know how a listener will consume the spot and react to it. … They just know.  Just as a singer knows when she nails it; like when a comedian brings down the house; when the Phillies were on a roll in 2008."

Radio remains a personal medium for advertisers as people listen to it in the car, radio executives say.

"Social media is like the yellow pages on steroids," Lee said. "People go to social media to find information on the product. Social media does not create the desire to buy; it fulfills the desire to buy."

As for television, it presents a picture to a viewer to replace imagination.

"But in radio, everybody sees their own environment," Lee said. "They imagine themselves instead of looking at another person."

Tips for good radio ads

Here are the 18 principals for engaging radio ads developed under research financed by 101.1 More FM's Jerry Lee:

  1. Three-second rule: Pull the listener in quickly.
  2. Keep it close to home by playing off what is familiar.
  3. Always have personality.
  4. Mirror the values of the listener.
  5. Provide a sense of membership.
  6. Be sensitive to a gender gap.
  7. Relevancy drives connection.
  8. Always sell hope.
  9. Branded solution as hero.
  10. Make it memorable.
  11. Create suspense.
  12. Tell a story.
  13. Keep it believable.
  14. Promote intimacy.
  15. Don't lead with price.
  16. Paint a mental picture.
  17. Vary pace and intonation.
  18. Guard against dead spots.

Source: Sensory Logic