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Spot streaming? Stop screaming! Radio's online AD insertion is becoming CONTENT insertion.

Updated on January 5, 2009

Old radio goes bye-bye: watch as New York City's legendary WOR crashes its old radio towers to Earth

Radio's "olden days"...a few years ago

As far back as 1999 and 2000, the radio business was trumpeting non-traditional revenue (NTR) through ad insertion. The industry gave lip service to this budding technology, then came the Internet bust.

Now, nearly 10 years later, stations are beginning to start paying serious attention to filling all the online commercial slots often wide open in every hour.  

These open online slots are made possible by the phenomenal advertising success of terrestrial radio in the last half of the 20th Century. However, matching terrestrial radio’s prowess as an ad medium to Internet radio remains a tall order. Thousands of stations continue to sell some, but far from all of the available ad slots in an hour created by their terrestrial sisters. While online listening skyrockets in every market, there are new technologies in handling online data, synchronization, and spot sales while more programmers search for ways to add more content into these breaks.

All radio spots are born in production studios like this one (KBAY & KEZR, San Jose, CA)

Hey, where's the audio?

Engineers adding online spot insertion to their list of daily areas to understand are leaving the very domain in which they built their careers: audio.

“Often, engineers find most bewildering the environment in which they’re now working,” commented Thomas G. Ray III, VP/Corporate Director of Engineering for Buckley Radio, a group of 20 stations in NY, CA, and CT, most notably WOR 710 AM radio in New York City and the WOR Radio Network. “Engineers used to be in an all-audio environment, but now it’s frequently all-data.” He explains, “When the announcer speaks into the mic, that audio becomes data as it enters the studio’s digital console, and it stays data from the console to the processors to the streaming encoder to the internet to the listener’s computer. There’s no audio being sent, it’s all data. ” He continues, “Those engineers comfortable with managing the audio chain are realizing there’s no longer any audio there to manage…just data.”

Ever seen radio towers fall over?

Now's your chance.  In 2007 after WOR had gone all-digital and began transmitting from all new high-tech towers, they arranged a planned demolition of the old towers you can see in the video, above...and nobody got hurt!

Explore WOR's newly-revised web site and listen to their online stream here.

Meg Ford, WXCI radio, Danbury CT

Dynamic, online sales at higher rates

Stations are filling unsold inventory in a number of ways. One is by direct sales, the most traditional path to a new medium, where local radio account executives work with local and regional advertisers to conceptualize marketing campaigns which include increasingly higher percentages of online spots.

A second method of selling online time is to allow third party spot providers your open inventory in which their advertisers are placed, dynamically, as open avails exist. This does not necessarily mean ‘remnant’ inventory or low-rate spots filled by an online auction house (the third method), because that implies nights, overnights, weekends and other fringe times of the broadcast week. Instead, these new third party spot providers are allowed to sell, at higher, non-distressed rates, online spots which may occur in weekday drive times or middays.

Online, you know EXACTLY how many listeners are there

Although the terrestrial model of selling cost per spot continues online, some station groups are becoming indoctrinated with more effective ways to guarantee spots are heard on the station’s stream, specifically CPM (cost per thousand). Online spots continue to play until they reach the desired number of listeners, instead of simply playing a specific number of times. That’s because Internet metrics always show the precise numbers of listeners at any time. With online spots, advertisers and station sales reps no longer have to guess at how many people heard an ad campaign.

There are new dynamic and Web-based ad insertion technologies which continuously poll your automation system to see if slots in a station’s online spot breaks are still open as that break approaches. When this happens on Internet streams, the new systems can automatically insert one or multiple spots or other content as needed, offering a new level of interaction and cooperation between the station’s local sales and the third party ad sales company.

These new online technologies are suited to handle content insertion from multi-station operations or radio network hubs, where studio switching and signal (data) routing has to be carefully tracked as well, so that the station’s encoder is always being sent the station’s content from the proper studio.

Kwame Dankwa, I-98 (WILI-FM) radio

Online burnout leads to tuneout

There’s also the nagging issue of spot break content when sold spots are not present to simulcast during the time the terrestrial station is airing commercials. Listen to most any online stream for any length of time and you’ll hear that the old model of filling breaks with endless PSAs, station promos or music beds becomes quite tedious quite quickly, even to the untrained ear.

In Internet radio, many stations load a handful of PSAs and a few station promos and leave them to rotate forever. Let’s say there are 7 PSAs and 3 promos in the stack, that’s 10 elements. If the station format clocks allow for 15 commercial minutes an hour but few spots are present, those 10 elements begin repeating within 40 minutes or so. At first, your listeners note the high repetition with annoyance which can quickly turns to listener fatigue, burnout, and tuneout if left unchecked.

Online CONTENT insertion ideas

Engineers, talk with your PD. Many programmers realize unfilled online breaks will not be 100% sold out anytime soon, so they have numerous opportunities every hour for more CONTENT. Not just filler elements, but real station content like: 

(a) MORNING SHOW BITS in other dayparts which can only be heard online,

(b) LOCAL CONTENT produced as 30 or 60 second elements by other local talent,

(c) SYNDICATED CONTENT like the many 60 or 90-second features from national syndicators like United Stations, Dial Global or Westwood One.

(d) NEW MUSIC / DEEP CUTS to fill 3 or 4 minutes spot holes, hosted by local talent. 

Sure, there’s ad insertion going on, but just from the above list, it’s clear lots of what going on during online spot breaks should more appropriately be “content insertion”, only some of which are spots. 

Online ads can be sold using either CPS (cost per spot) OR the more online-effective CPM (cost per thousand) method

Become a "flexible flyer" online

Mangers need to be flexible with local advertisers because most don’t understand cost per thousand (CPM) at all, and are comfortable with cost per spot (CPS) buys [see screen shot in gray box above]. “We have to explain to advertisers why we’re now charging extra for online spots, which used to come free as part of our terrestrial package,” says Jason Finkelberg, VP of Pamal Broadcasting’s four Hudson Valley stations in New York. “So, we keep pricing modest and flexible. For example, if an advertiser places an ad buy in the 5 figure range, we will add an excellent online matching campaign for a few hundred extra dollars.”

Once it’s time for the spots to stream, WOR’s Ray cautions that engineers not get sacked by a spot system where spot breaks must be fixed and non-variable, but be willing to accept a “flexible system for handling online spots so the talent or producer can change spot breaks on the fly and say, ‘let’s move the last spot into the next break because we’ve got the Governor on the line’, even while that spot break has already begun.”

This dynamic ability of station people to change the spot break length at will is critical, and web-based systems should be automatically able to accommodate changing spot breaks dynamically and delay non-matching rejoin times with Tivo-like smoothness until one ‘catches up’ with the other.

Online CONTENT insertion is far more than just AD insertion

The realization that online ad insertion is just one part of online content insertion will help make future online breaks more tolerable, and filled with even more spots.


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