Silicon Valley will pitch and yaw like a roller coaster through economic boom and bust, but the federal government remains a constant; in the best of times, it's busy and growing, just like in the worst of times. When economic signs are bad elsewhere, they're so-so in Washington; when they're good elsewhere, they're great in Washington.
Thus, advertisers and the media have come to view the capital as an insulated market-and expect the kind of year-over-year growth many other markets dream of; 7% or 8% growth is no cause for D.C. excitement.
"We've got double-digit growth going right now," says Tom McKinley, VP-general manager of WTOP-AM and WASH-FM. "And my perception is that D.C. is as close to any market around to being recession-proof. It has an upscale population, as well as the economic help from tourism, and there is the federal government, which makes it less vulnerable than other cities to things like factories closing."
Advertising moves in the same direction as consumer confidence, Mr. McKinley argues, and when the latter is strong, so, too, is the former. "Consumer spending comes from general confidence, and here you never hear about events like layoffs or the daily dose of [bad] economic news."
While other markets are making strides this year, Washington is outperforming them, Jim Duncan, president of Duncan's American Radio, says about the nation's seventh-largest Area of Dominant Influence. "D.C. has been excellent this year-it's been that way for 20 years, really. Last year revenues were up 13%"
Mr. Duncan believes the economic stability provided by the federal government is key. "By far, that is the most important factor in Washington's health as a market."
Mr. Duncan projected radio revenue in D.C. this year to top $172 million. He says the area boasts of 22 viable stations-not surprising for a market where the average household income is $48,100, and where Hispanics (5.9%) and blacks (25.4%) form signficant population blocs with their own competing media.
"It's so fragmented here with several urban-format stations as well as several Adult Oriented Rock and rock stations," says Nicole Hammes, senior media planner/buyer, Abramson Ehrlich Manes, Washington. "It's so culturally diverse, and the age demographics are across the board."
Ms. Hammes also believes another reason that radio in D.C. is flourishing is that the station competition helps keep rates down. "The lowest rate for TV is one of the highest for radio-late-fringe cost of about $200-$300 for 30 seconds would be among the highest at the highest-rated radio stations.
"Radio offers more value added in promotional possibilities," she adds. "If I buy for a mall client, I can get them to broadcast live from there and maybe have ticket giveaways."
An advertising booster that might be overlooked-if not totally unknown-to most other major markets is the "issue" advertising aimed at affecting legislation or other governmental issues. The airwaves in Washington and the political/government publications that flourish here are filled with messages from one interest group or another, and sometimes both.
Melanie Morgan, vp-corporate broadcast director at Earle Palmer Brown, Bethesda, Md., calls the D.C. market "very hot right now"-so hot, she says, that some stations are running 30%-40% ahead of last year.
Ms. Morgan says there's been such an inundation of issue-advertising and healthcare advertising that "some stations are walking away from issue advertising just to keep some inventory for their regular customers."
She notes the market began to heat up in April, and that 1994 might end up being the best year since 1984, which featured both a presidential campaign and international Olympic games.
"And what's odd is that right now Philadelphia is so wide open you could drive a truck through it," she adds. "And Baltimore is not nearly as hot. The key is the fragmentation."
"Nowhere is radio penetration or usage greater than in D.C., even New York," she says. "The average commuting time here is only one minute less than in New York. And there are more cars per-mile, per-commuter here than anywhere.
"The commuters might not be traveling distances as great as in some other market, but there is a huge commuter audience, and it is an affluent one."
Because Washington consumers are wealthier than most, and because they spend so much time behind the wheel, they become a coveted captive audience for marketers, Ms. Morgan says.
"Between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., there are almost as many cars on the roads around Washington as there are during rush hours."