by Bill Goodwill

Editor's note: The following article has been updated with newer information since it was originally published in Government Communicator Magazine.

Radio has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the past few years. Although no one can pinpoint why more Americans are turning to a low-tech medium in a hightech era, its portability and its ability to cater to specific program tastes may be two underlying factors for its success.

One thing that contributes to much bigger radio audiences is that it is the medium that often keeps people entertainmed while commuting. People are spending more time than ever in their cars - daily vehicle trips are up 110% since 1970, and the number of cars on the road is up by 147%. For most people stuck in traffic, the only media options are radio and billboards. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, radio reaches more people than any other medium except for cable TV.

There are more than 11,000 radio stations in the country today. About half of them use public service announcements (PSAs). Before mailing PSAs to stations, however, there are a variety of details to consider when preparing your radio PSA plan:

  • Producing engaging messages that create a theater of the mind, using professional voice over talent, actors and music.
  • Developing a packaging concept that attracts the attention of public service directors and encourages them to use the PSAs.
  • Determining material formats that most radio stations want and obtaining costs for replicating materials.
  • Selecting stations that reach your primary and secondary target audiences.
  • Getting packaging elements designed, printed and mailed.
  • Developing an evaluation procedure to help you measure campaign impact.

    Offer Programming Options

    Most radio stations broadcast a variety of different programs during the course of their programming day and if you give them more options in terms of the types of PSA messages you offer, that can greatly increase usage. For example, if you use adult contemporary or rock music in your background, that is not going to fit very well with a C&W station. For a campaign we distributed for the March of Dimes, they produced four different types of radio PSA messages to fit with various radio program formats. It was the most successful radio PSA we ever distributed.


    As with all PSAs, you should provide a minimum of 3 spot lengths for radio - a :15, a :30 and a :60, as the availability of time is completely random and if a :15 spot opens up but you do not have that length in your package, you lose. The capacity of a CDR is 70 minutes, yet PSAs typically only fill about three minutes of this capacity. Accordingly, think of other types of audio programming you can put on the CD such as two-minute Audio News Releases (ANRs) on various subjects your audiences maybe interested in hearing. For more information on ANRs click here

    Criteria for Selection

    The number of stations to target is influenced by many factors, including budget, demographic considerations and previous usage practices of the station. Our typical distribution plan is 3,500 stations, which includes all previous users and provides uniform coverage across markets and program formats. However the true reach of this plan is about 6,000 stations due to the fact that many stations own more then one station and only want one CD PSA package.

Selecting Stations

Unlike television, which is a general interest medium, radio programming is aimed at listeners with particular interests, making it easy to segment stations by ethnicity, age, educational level and lifestyle. Two program formats - Country & Western and Christian Hit Radio - have enjoyed particularly strong growth in recent years and reach vastly different audiences.

The list below includes the major radio program formats and the approximate number of stations in each format:

Adult Contemporary  1,899
African - American/Urban 153
Beautiful Music 238
Classical 409
Country/Western 2,630
Educational (high school/college) 113
Jazz/Big Band 153
Middle-of-the-road (MOR) 875
Oldies 580
News/Talk 667
Religious (Gospel/Christian) 660
Rock/Album Rock 1,011
Spanish 594
Top 40 369

Packaging Format

CDs are the standard format for distributing radio PSAs, but it is very important to send packages in a format that will meet the U.S. Postal Service automated handling equipment, such as the one shown below which is called the Flex Mailer package. This packaging concept has several components: the Flex Mailer cover, the CD with a four-color label; facts on the issue which can be printed on the inside left hand panel, and an evaluation business reply card.


Until a few years ago, the only way radio usage could be tracked was via business reply cards (BRCs), which are discussed below. However, the A.C. Nielsen Company, noted for its media audience data and ability to track TV PSAs, now has a service to track radio PSAs on about 1,200 stations (about 10 percent of the universe). Our software has been modified to be able to downoad electronic radio usage data and it is reported as a separate source on our Executive Summary and detailed radio usage reports.

Regarding BRCs, they can be a fairly accurate method of obtaining radio usage data, if they are properly designed. We have seen a number of radio BRCs that ask open-ended questions that result in meaningless usage data. For example, if you provide a blank on the radio BRC that asks: "How often did you use the PSAs?" The station may enter "ROS," which means Run of Station, or 'TFN" Till Further Notice. Obviously a computer does not know what that means, so essentially the usage data is meaningless.

To obtain accurate and meaningful usage data, we design questions that force stations to provide very detailed data. The critical pieces of information include:

  • What spot length was used?
  • How often were the PSAs used by spot length (number of times per week)?
  • What time frame were the PSAs used by spot length (number of weeks)?

To make it easy for stations to complete the survey card, we use a design with simple check-off boxes for each of these questions. We also put a second label on the bottom of the BRC so that the public service director does not have to fill out station call letters, address, etc., saving even more time. Once completed, they put it in the mail and we pay the return postage.

In addition to usage data, the BRCs, help us keep our database current with the correct names of public service directors and any changes to station addresses or call letters. Finally, there is space at the top of the BRC to add other questions such as "can you accept PSAs via digital downloads?"

Usage Levels

For most radio PSA campaigns, you can expect an unaided response rate of about 15 percent, meaning that 525 stations will use your PSA when 3,500 are targeted. Given an average dollar value of $1,350 per station, a typical radio PSA will generate in excess of $700,000 in airtime value. However, as shown from our latest benchmark data, radio campaigns can perform much better, based on the issue, the quality of the production and when they were distributed.

Follow-Up Surveys

Although the vast majority of targeted radio stations do not respond, that does not mean they are non-users. No matter how simple you make it for stations to respond, there is a fairly consistent number - about 30 percent - that use but do not respond to a PSA mass mailing.

To capture some of this additional usage, we often employ postcard reminder surveys. Designed as a two-part postcard, we usually pick up some of the artwork that was used on the original radio package sent to stations so it might remind public service directors of the campaign we are trying to evaluate. The reminder postcard includes a short note to the public service director and a response card that is identical to the one sent with the original package. These cards typically will add another 7-10 percent in usage data.

Some organizations also employ telephone surveys to increase reported usage rates. However, we have found they have drawbacks and should be carefully considered. Busy station personnel often consider telephone surveys a serious nuisance, when could affect ultimate usage rates if public service directors get annoyed at the intrusion. Also, it is very difficult to get the person who received your PSA on the phone, since most of them have collateral duties and cannot be interupted.

Anyone other than the one to whom your PSA was directed probably cannot tell you if your PSA was used. For these reasons, we recommend minimizing phone calls to stations and sending reminder postcards, which are both cost-effective and less intrusive.

The Take-Away

Radio PSAs can be one of the most cost-effective mass communications techniques avaible to get your message out both to general audiences and discrete populations. They offer message flexibility, and they permit you to reach audiences both in and out-of-home. They are comparatively inexpensive to produce, and they provide a good return on investment IF you package and distribute them properly.

(Updated 9.16.16)