How to Write and Place Radio Spots for Maximum Marketing Return at Lowest Cost

Step-by-step guide to preparing successful radio commercials.

Just as in a public service announcement, a radio commercial must effectively reach listeners. You can be as simple or extravagant as you want, but keep the message focused and understandable. Your wording should be concise and to the point, just like a good PSA–but you can and should be more blatantly commercial. You are competing in the background with whatever the listener is doing, and people will not retain everything they hear. So stay away from $100 words, and repeat the most important information. Repetition allows the listener the chance to grab a pencil and jot down the details.

Jonathan Price, a former radio employee, urges you to mention your business name at least twice per ad: once toward the beginning, and again at the very end, with contact information. Repeating this information at the end cements the listener’s identification of the product with your business, rather than with the generic idea of using the kinds of products or services you sell. In other words, if you run Heavenly Heat Hot Tubs, you want to not only tempt the listener into trying a hot tub, but coming to you, rather than a competitor.

Remember, again, that your format must fit the length you are buying: usually 15, 30, or 60 seconds. 30 seconds probably affords the best value-short enough to save money, but long enough to get the message across comfortably. Finally, get right to the point. There’s no time for small talk in half a minute.

Also (this should be obvious) gear the tone of your ad to fit in well with the tone of the show where your ad will air. A loud, brassy, hard-sell commercial would be jarringly out of place-and ineffective-on a classical music show, while a soft, elegant commercial would get lost amidst the noise and aggressiveness of AM top-40. Reverse the placements and these two examples would both work a lot better.

If you are advertising to a carefully targeted audience on a specialty show, you probably want to start very simply: an ad with one voice reading text. Either the show’s announcer can read it in the midst of the broadcast, or you can use a prerecorded tape with your voice or the voice of a professional announcer. It may be most effective to have the show’s personality read it, so it appears to the listener as an integral part of the show. Listen to Paul Harvey’s nationally syndicated show to see how he presents the ads as just another piece of information in his highly personalized news report. Having the host narrate your ad works if you’re advertising on one specific show, with one voice. However, if different announcers will be reading the spot over several weeks, you should tape it so it sounds the same each time.

There is no additional production cost to do an ad that’s read by the announcer; it’s just a sheet of paper with words on it. (You do still have to pay for the airtime, of course.) And if the people who are listening already know and use the kinds of products you sell–and if you don’t have a lot of local competition–you can be very straightforward. You won’t need gimmicks. Just tell people who you are, where you’re located, and what you sell; they will reward your support for their program and their culture and seek you out. For example, on an Armenian program:

“The Armenian Grocery is here to serve you. Offering a full line of Armenian breads, pastries, dried fruits, music, and fashions, we are located at 1362 Broad Street, South Falls, where we’ve been serving the Armenian community for over 20 years. We are open every day from 9 am to 6 pm. The Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls. 555-9009.” [~25 seconds]

If your audience is not quite as selective, you can still use an all-talk, one voice approach, but put a little more sales flair into it. Try this one on an international folk music show:

“Have you ever had a homemade bourika, straight out of the oven and still warm? At the Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls, that’s just one of the many wonderful pastries we serve. And they’re all delicious. If you’ve never had Armenian cooking, you’re in for a treat! Armenian music, clothing, and lots more too. The Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls. 555-9009.” [~30 seconds]

As your audience gets more general, add a second voice and aim to be more engaging:

First Voice: “Oh, I’d like to eat out for lunch today. But I’m bored with the same old restaurants.”
Second Voice: “Have you ever tried Armenian cooking?”
First Voice: “No–what’s it like?”
Second Voice: “Really great. The Armenian Grocery has a terrific lunch menu: pastries filled with cheese and meat, whole grain cracker breads, stuffed grape leaves…”
First Voice: “Wow, that sounds delicious. What was that restaurant?” Second Voice: “The Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street in South Falls. They have cookbooks and authentic ingredients too–I know you love to cook.”
First Voice: “1362 Broad Street, South Falls. Will you join me for lunch?” Second Voice: “Sure.” [~30 seconds]

Advanced Scripting Techniques

An ad campaign might repeat one ad many times, or continually vary a series of ads. And since in radio you don’t have to supply any visuals, you can be very creative and still incur only minimal production costs.

Note the subliminal message in the last ad we looked at: your social life will improve if you patronize this business. Advertisers often use subliminal techniques to boost customer response. Other advanced techniques include recorded or created special effects (abbreviated as SFX), personification of objects, humor or satire, a snatch of music, and/or multiple voices. Singly or in combination, these approaches can all work to professionalize your production. They serve to:

  • attract attention and provide drama and human interest
  • increase listener interest
  • portray your business as clever
  • create a perception that the spot is longer than 30 seconds (so much is going on that you get more for your time)
  • make you stand out in a crowd

Two concerns: First, if you use music, be sure to secure permission. You will have to pay a fee to the appropriate music rights clearing house (ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC), unless the station you’re airing on already has blanket permission to use music in commercials. Different stations have different agreements with these publishers’ representatives. Second, make sure your cleverness complements your message. Don’t get so hung up on writing brilliant copy that you forget to sell the product, and don’t get so obscure that the average listener can’t follow you. Using our fictitious grocery again, here are some examples:

Music: Khachaturian: “Sabre Dance” (a fast-paced, distinctive piece of music). Music begins loud, dims to be heard faintly over voice, loud again at end.
Narrator: “Find your favorite Armenian classical and popular music at the Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls. We carry a full line of Armenian records and tapes, food, clothing, and craft items.” [time will vary depending on how the music is used. Text is about 17 seconds]

Simple and to the point. A natural for a classical or ethnic music show.

SFX: key turning, door opening.
Child: “Mom! Dad! I made dinner tonight!”
Parent: “Great! I’m starved!”
SFX: sounds of eating.
Parent (dislikes it but trying to be nice): “This is very, um, interesting. What gives it the crunch?”
Child: “Egg shells. I read they have lots of calcium. I made up the recipe myself.”
Parent: “I see. Jamie, do you remember that yummy lunch at the Armenian Grocery on Broad Street? Now that you’re interested in cooking, maybe we should buy you one of their cookbooks.”
Narrator: “The Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls. For the finest Armenian cooking, food, and cookbooks.” [~30 seconds]

This ad is subtle, but effective. It uses gentle humor and a familiar situation (inedible food) to appeal to almost any listener–with a particular “hook” for parents.

Now, here’s an example of getting too clever and less effective:

SFX: Jet landing on a runway.
Importer: Beautiful landing. I can’t wait to get through customs and bring these fresh apricots to the Armenian Grocery.
Apricots (several voices): “Help! We’ve been kidnapped! We belong in Armenia.”
Importer: “Hey, apricots! I brought you to America so everyone can find you at the Armenian Grocery. They’re lonely for good Armenian food! We need you!.”
Customs Inspector: “Okay, buddy, what have you got in that suitcase?”
SFX: suitcase opening.
Apricots (sing): “Mean Mistreater.”
Customs Inspector: “Wise guy. You’re under arrest.”
SFX: handcuffs being fastened.
Narrator: “The Armenian Grocery, 1362 Broad Street, South Falls. Food so fresh it talks back.” [~30 seconds]

It’s funny, but it doesn’t sell. The only product mentioned is readily available at any grocery store. The claim of freshness is a minor selling point, buried in the clever pun. There is nothing about the diversity or uniqueness of the store’s product line. Make sure yours does better.

For more marketing advice see: the marketing page.

By Shel Horowitz, marketing/frugality consultant and author of Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World, Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant’s Pocketbook, and other books. Visit Shel’s 350+ page Website,, for free advice and monthly tipsheets on frugal marketing and frugal fun, as well as Global Arts Review, Global Travel review, and Down to Business magazines.