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Radio’s first commercial – 90 years ago


Thanks go out to John McDonough of NPR for his article, “First Radio Commercial Hit Airwaves 90 Years Ago” (August 28, 2012).

It got me thinking. And so I pulled out my lens of Web 2.0 marketing relationships, and here’s what I saw.

Popular Radio, Dec. 1922 from glowbugs.conus

Popular Radio, Dec. 1922Step back in radio air time: 1922

A New York City resident, you tune into WEAFN  (66AM), owned and operated by AT&T Western Electric. (Yes, the same people who placed your long-distance calls.) Someone named H.M. Blackwell comes on the air, introducing his radio program. Over the next ten minutes (people had longer attention spans back then) you hear something no one has ever heard before: a commercial advertisement.

Mr. Blackwell tells you about a new apartment complex in Jackson Heights, Queens that’s close by NYC’s new underground subway system. Except for telling how lovely and convenient the residence is, that’s about all you get to know, thanks to Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of Commerce and soon-to-be 31st US President. No price…no deals…no events.

With no context for absorbing the programming, how might you respond? Would you hop on the train and check out the new real estate? Or would you turn off your set, proclaiming the end of radio? (Think how you feel when Justin Bieber hashtags his favorite cause.)

O.K. Back to real time Web 2.0

Why the low-sell in radio’s first commercial advertisement? How did AT&T get in the middle of all this?

AT&T, owner of the airwaves, had airtime and a bottom line. In Selling Radio Direct (1992), Michael C. Keith describes how they invented for-profit airtime sold to advertisers. Marketed as “tollcasting,” the rest is commercial history.

Keith goes on to credit Commerce Secretary Hoover with shaping the context/content of the new airwaves. Unlike direct marketing pioneer Claude C. Hopkins, Hoover held direct selling in low regard. He would allow “sponsored programming,” however. As consumers, we reap the legacy in TV “soap” operas sponsored by CPG companies like Procter & Gamble. It’s become so much a part of our culture, that it’s become transparent.

So the first sponsored program was born and New Yorkers looking for real estate heard something new: sponsored airtime for the new apartment building in Jackson Heights, NYC. The complex still thrives 90 years later. Imagine the ROI: 10 minutes of airtime for $50. Hopefully, there was a real estate agent on site, asking potential renters, “How did you learn of this new property?”

What made the first radio ad work

What made radio’s first commercial work, long before focus groups, testing, and behavioral targeting? To begin, the blue ocean of uncluttered airtime didn’t hurt. It’s also a bit ironic that the first commercial radio ad appealed to New Yorkers’ sweetest spot: real estate. Content-wise, it sold the benefit of convenience.

To our media-saturated eyes, ears, and fingers, it’s hard to imagine. Would you have welcomed the information and the change? Obviously, something worked as radio, the first broadcast medium, changed rapidly. Surely, there was a curmudgeon, hunched by the radio, who rocked back in horror, witness to the crack that would become the great divide between public and non-public (i.e., commercial) broadcast media.

Close to a century later, the impact of radio is clear. Except now you’ve got digital radio and traditional broadcast. Wherever you have access, you’ve got the sound. As consumers, we love our radio. So do advertisers. According to the Internet Radio Advertising Impact Study (© 2011, TargetSpot, Inc.):

Online ad recall and response rates significantly increase when combined with Internet Radio use (Figure 2).

The data reveal that users who listen to Internet Radio are twice as likely as Internet-only users to respond to an Online ad.

Chart: Internet Radio Use Increases Online Ad Response

So, it wasn’t just beginner’s luck or a blue ocean that made the first radio commercial work. Radio, it seems, has a unique power to capture our imaginations, no matter how few or many the tasks at hand.

One Comment
  1. 01/16/2013 10:25 am

    Great insight and post!

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