Public Radio vs. Commercial Radio

Public Radio vs. Commercial Radio

Over 272 million Americans listen to the radio every month, translating to 92% of the population. Radio remains popular with listeners for many reasons, including the fact that it is free and easily accessible through car radios, stereos, laptops, phones, computers, and smart speakers, and there is a station and genre for everyone. For marketers, it provides the ability to reach a large audience with their marketing message. There are two distinct types of radio stations with much different operational methods: public radio and commercial radio. 

What's the Difference?  

Commercial radio is likely what's played in your car on road trips, listening to your music preference or a well-known local disk jockey. Commercial radio stations make money by selling advertising. Having a large listening audience leads to more advertisers. The more advertisers a station has, the more it can charge for its advertising.   

National Public Radio stations represent public or non-commercial radio. Public radio does not air commercials, rather, it airs sponsorship messages from businesses or organizations that support the station. The Federal Communications Commission strictly specifies that non-profit stations cannot broadcast commercials for for-profit businesses. Instead, businesses can sponsor public radio following messaging guidelines.  

Public radio listeners view sponsors differently than advertisers on commercial radio. A typical commercial radio listener may change the channel when they feel a commercial is intruding on their entertainment, while public radio listeners do not. Public radio sponsors can leverage the positive association and shared values attributed to them as station supporters. 

Who's Listening?  

U.S. radio stations are a powerful advertising medium. There are 15,451 commercial radio stations and 1,041 public radio stations. Online radio is increasing the already vast reach. There are not only different ways to access radio today but differences in listenership between public radio vs. commercial radio. 

Public Radio 

The demographics of public radio show that male and female listeners make up 53% and 47% of the audience respectively. Seven in 10 listeners have college degrees, compared to 31% of the wider U.S. population. The majority are employed, with a substantial number of listeners working in private institutions or government. Public radio audiences tend to be affluent, engaged, influential, and passionate about their communities. (NPR Audience Insights 2020) 

Commercial Radio 

Commercial radio has many formats that attract a variety of listeners. News and talk radio generally attract audiences over the age of 45. Contemporary hits or Top 40 stations' listenership is predominantly 18-34 years old. The 35-44 female demographic tends to favor adult contemporary, while males from 45-54 favor classic hits. The genre with the most stations is country, with a wide range of listeners from 18-54 and over.  

How Can I Share My Message?  

Though there are some specific FCC guidelines for sponsor messaging on public radio, it is very effective and works with the fundamental distinction between audiences. The differences in public radio vs. commercial radio can be summarized as follows: 

  • Commercial radio ads are centered around a call to action meant to influence the listener, while public station messages resonate with the listeners who act on the information provided.
  • Commercial ads are designed to drive sales compared to public radio sponsorship messages that inform and improve lead generation. 
  • Commercial radio ads are often viewed as intrusive, while sponsorship messages are perceived as more philanthropic and beneficial for supporting causes the listeners identify with. 
  • Commercial radio airs up to 15 minutes of advertising per hour, while public radio stations typically only run 2-5 minutes of sponsor messages per hour, resulting in more listener enjoyment of programming and less channel hopping.  

The key takeaway is that listeners trust sponsorship messages. The savvy public radio audiences value information they can assess and act upon. They don't want to be "sold" but instead want to be informed. Sponsor messages inspire action, resulting in 95% of public radio listeners acting upon a sponsor recommendation. 

Reach an Influential, Loyal Audience With a Public Radio Sponsorship 

As an advertiser, radio is an ideal marketing vehicle for your message. It has a vast reach, covering a wide range of age groups with multiple formats. Radio advertising can accommodate virtually any marketing budget and provides an excellent return on investment. However, there are some differences when it comes to public radio vs. commercial radio. 

Commercial radio listeners are quick to switch channels when commercials interrupt their listening. In contrast, public radio sponsorship messages are seen as information from a trusted source that shares similar values. Listeners pay attention to sponsorship messages because they don't feel they are being pushed to take action. Sponsorship messaging is seen as informing, not selling. 

The result is that public radio listeners extend their trust to the sponsors. When the listeners are informed of a sponsoring brand, they take action to learn more about the brand that supports a station and causes that they feel passionate about. To learn more about the advantages of a public radio sponsorship, contact Market Enginuity 

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