Boston radio station cuts down ad 'clutter' – to one sponsor

If there's one man you can credit (or blame) for the way rock bands, radio stations, and advertisers are cooperating nowadays, it's Jay Coleman, the president and CEO of a New York marketing company called EMCI.

"We were the first company to show Madison Avenue how to connect with the teen/young adult," Mr. Coleman claims. His first major coup: Hooking up a 1981 Rolling Stones tour to, of all things, the Jovan fragrance. (The Stones were semiscruffy then.) Now, with U2 partnering with Apple for iPods, and rock songs powering every other ad on television, a generation doesn't see any conflict at all between rock and commerce.

Coleman's latest innovation: Finding a radio station willing to take on one – and only one – sponsor for six weeks, and a sponsor willing to spend $2 million-plus for the privilege. The match was made in Boston.

You might say that a radio station with an infinitesimal ratings share can afford to take a chance – as can a bottled-juice and iced tea company.

WFNX-FM, an alternative rocker with sister stations simulcasting in Maine and New Hampshire, has partnered with Snapple. Through July 4, New England-area listeners who tune in will not hear any other product promoted on WFNX's airwaves. Instead, they will get up to 55 minutes of music every hour and Snapple-related DJ chat (but no real ads), about Snapple-sponsored concerts and events. Both partners also benefit from the media stir that this one-of-a-kind arrangement has created.

Coleman calls it "brandcasting."

The radio/Snapple deal began to germinate last year with a question, Coleman says: "What if we could create a concept where we could eliminate the 'commercials,' and whatever branding we have, keep it at a minimal level, keep it promotionally oriented, and fit it into the fabric of the station?"

Enter WFNX, owned by Stephen Mindich, for whom Coleman had once sold ads. The station was intrigued, and bought into the concept. It began by going to its other advertisers to explain the 40-day lockout – and to say that they felt the station's signal strength would be much greater when they return because of an antennae move.

Snapple saw it this way. "We're known for doing alternative media," says marketing vice president Holly Mensch. "It's becoming harder and harder to reach consumers – they so easily tune you out. We thought this was so 'breakthrough.' It's still getting the Snapple message across, but it's not being forced on the consumer.''

"This was a totally unique approach," says Katy Bachman, senior editor at the media/ad trade magazine Mediaweek. "Certain radio specials will sometimes have one sponsor, but to sponsor the station is groundbreaking."

Radio ad revenue fell 4 percent in April compared with a year ago, Ms. Bachman points out. "A lot of analysts have downgraded their expectations," she says. Satellite radio and iPod jacks and CD changers in cars have put pressure on commercial radio with its ad "clutter."

Other Boston stations are paying attention. "It's amazing, extremely innovative," says Mary Menna, general manager for sales at KISS-108, a contemporary hits station. "We would absolutely consider it, especially if Snapple sees a lift in sales or return on investment. Although the price tag would be a little different." (KISS-108's audience is five times that of WFNX.)

Karen Benezra, editor of the marketing trade magazine BrandWeek, says that while radio stations do promotions all the time with advertisers, the WFNX/Snapple deal is unique. It reminded her of when Target bought a whole issue of The New Yorker last year, which "created a big stir.'' She adds: "It's ideal for brands to get involved with the content of a show. Call it 'branded entertainment.' ''

Other attempts to change audience perception of radio have included the No. 1 chain, Clear Channel, cutting ads back to 11 or 12 minutes an hour in January 2005, down from 20 minutes, and a National Association of Broadcasters campaign where recording artists explained how they got their start on commercial radio – a jab at the XM and Sirius Satellite networks with 10 million-plus subscribers. (The commercial radio world estimates an audience of about 230 million across the US.)

The senior editor at Billboard Rock Monitor, Mike Boyle, says he's spoken to ad agency people who think the deal was brilliant. "You had buyers going, 'FNX who?' Now, they know." Will it be the wave of the future? Ask Snapple and WFNX on July 5. Will Bostonians be slurping more Snapple? Will WFNX's old advertisers return? Will bigger stations want to get in on the act?

"I think they should," says Mediaweek's Bachman. "Radio needs to look at its business and try different things. It's a totally different media world out there. Radio's got to keep up."

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