Radio Advertising: A short history

Radio advertising has a long history.  WEAF is the New York radio station that is credited with broadcasting the first ever paid radio commercial, on 28 August 1922, for apartments in a building in Jackson Heights, Queens.  However, it is possible that other US radio stations may have sold advertising airtime to advertisers a couple of years before WEAF in an effort to finance the increasingly expensive business of running a continuously broadcasting radio station.

Long before the term “media campaign” was even invented, companies were looking to advertise their business (advertise, incidentally, comes from the Latin “ad vertere”, meaning to “turn towards”), to persuade consumers towards buying their products and to generate increased sales.  Modern advertising was created by the tobacco companies of the 1920s, but the origins of advertising began with the Egyptians, who used papyrus to make sales messages and wall posters.

The period from the 1920s to the 1950s is known at the Golden Age of Radio, that era before television took over from radio as the broadcasting medium of choice in the United States.  During this period, radio was dominant and people regularly sat down, as a family, to listen to their favourite programmes.  Radio advertisements were different than they are in modern broadcasting, with advertisers simply sponsoring programmes.  Programmes often aired with a message at the beginning or the end thanking “sponsors” for making the programme possible.

In Britain, the domination of the radio airwaves by the BBC meant that the first commercial radio station was not founded until the 1970s.  The network was dubbed “independent local radio” and the first ILR station was LBC, followed a week later by Capital Radio, both in London in October 1973.  The first ILR station outside of London was Radio Clyde in Glasgow on 31 December 1973.  A further sixteen new ILR stations were launched in the following two years.

The first radio advertisement heard in the UK was for Birds Eye but radio advertising got off to a bit of a slow start perhaps because, initially, no one realised the huge potential.  However, a marketing body for commercial radio, the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) was founded in 1992, and it has since been their job to help advertisers use radio more creatively, and as an effective part of any media campaign.  They now provide a free consultancy service to national advertisers and help them optimise their use of radio.

It is not a matter of record how well those apartments in Jackson Heights sold after the radio commercial advertising them but it is well known that the radio industry has come a long way since the 1920s.  Surveys show that around 90% of people still listen to the radio every week and the audience for internet radio is growing.  Radio offers an ability to target audiences effectively, reach people at relevant times and places and reaches out in an increasingly “ad avoidance” world.  Where will the media campaigns will take radio advertising next?  Tune in next week to find out…