Media buyers wary of network radio and its poor accountability record

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Network radio-a $1 billion ad market-is the latest major media to find itself fighting off accusations of fraud.

Regardless of how the litigation between Westwood One's Metro Networks and its two former employees shakes out, it's no secret network radio, while cost effective for many national and local advertisers, has long been a problem child when it comes to accountability.

In a recent Radio Advertising Bureau study of advertisers' and media planners' attitudes toward radio, network radio ranked ninth out of 11 media in accuracy of audience measurement-only out of home fared worse. Additionally, agencies ranked it last in affidavit confidence, below network and spot TV, newspapers and spot radio.

Radio networks face intrinsic challenges. They rely on station affiliates, from sophisticated large-market stations to rural mom and pops, to comply with orders, and enforcement often depends on the strength of those affiliations. Sometimes ads are bumped for legitimate editorial reasons-a breaking news conference or an overtime sport broadcast-and sometimes for commercial reasons, like a local ad bringing in more money.

And then there's the mind-bending volume of spots-a single order for a client can amount to a million-plus spots running on hundreds of stations. "Imagine trying to account for that level of data-it's impossible," said Natalie Swed Stone, U.S. director-national radio at Omnicom's OMD. "You have to trust that what they tell you is running really is."

TIPPING POINT

The tipping point for Ms. Swed Stone was waiting seven months to receive an affidavit for one of her client's campaigns. There's got to be a better way, she wrote in an email to the network. And, she said, if the networks didn't do something, she would. Facing pressures of accountability to her own clients, in fall 2003 she hired Verance, an outside verification firm, to spot check several of the networks with whom OMD does business. On average, she found about a 70% rate of schedule integrity.

Verance's technology is based on digital audio watermarking, much like the kind Arbitron uses in its personal people meters. Agencies encode the ads with inaudible watermarking and Verance digitally monitors stations to verify where and when the ad ran. On Monday mornings, Ms. Swed Stone opens her email inbox to hundreds of documents that marry OMD's orders with what was actually delivered.

Premiere Radio Network, a subsidiary of Clear Channel, latched onto Verance in August 2003 after meeting with Ms. Swed Stone. Premiere's president Kraig Kitchin said the network's schedule integrity rate has risen to 99%.

"Our goal is to find out on a same-day basis, if not a same daypart basis, if a commercial didn't air," said Mr. Kitchin, president of Premiere. "If it didn't air, we then try to have the ad rescheduled before the flight is over so it's still effective."

But Verance has its critics as well. "The promise of those technologies is great, but the delivery is tough," said Matt Feinberg, senior VP-radio, Zenith Media, part of Publicis Groupe.

Issues can arise when an agency buys multiple networks that run their syndicated shows on the same local station. If the local station gets a spot that's watermarked from Westwood before it gets the same spot, albeit watermarked differently, from ABC, it may play only the spot Westwood sent, making it look like one network over-delivered while the other under-delivered.

Maribeth Pepuga, senior VP-director of local broadcast at Publicis' MediaVest, said as a whole "there's been a lot work done in the radio industry in the last five years and especially in the last two focusing on compliance." Recently three more networks, joining Westwood One and other major networks, signed onto Arbitron's RADAR-at a significant investment, Mr. Kitchin said. By merging respondent data from Arbitron's diaries with some 3 million "clearances" (a.k.a. affidavits, the legal documents radio networks provide to agencies to prove spots ran), RADAR right now is the sole provider of national audience ratings for specific network programs and commercials.

Additionally, the growth of electronic ordering and affidavits will eliminate the human error on the front end of ad buys, as agencies send their orders to networks who then relay those to the station affiliates. Most stations owned by major radio groups are equipped for such a procedure, though the challenge is making those systems jive with the agency's processes.

What hasn't aired

Of course, Ms. Swed Stone said, she needs to know not only the spots that aired, but also those that didn't air. While no perfect solution has surfaced, all the networks recognize the need to do better-or lose precious ad dollars.

"In the conversations I've had with ABC or Dial Global or Jones, they all recognize the industry hasn't done the best job of showcasing our electronic advances in commercial clearances," Mr. Kitchin said. "We've done a lot of work in the backrooms, but we don't showcase that like we do our ratings or programs. I see our competitors talking to the more established advertisers about the industry needs."

Until then, Zenith's Mr. Feingold said, "that's why network radio is priced the way it's priced-you buy it for efficiency and the personalities. You have to assume 100% delivery is going to be difficult. But we've been in the business long enough to know who the usual suspects are."

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