Campaigns are investing more than ever before in new digital technologies—and for good reason. The Internet and smartphones have changed the way campaigns organize, raise money, persuade voters, and get-out-the-vote. Online is where many of us live our lives.
But as consultants and campaign managers scramble each cycle to find the next-best-thing, they’d be well-advised to remember that radio (the old-best-thing) still matters, especially when it comes to reaching local audiences.
According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of Americans (age 12+) listened to the radio at least once a week last year. And while online streaming or Internet services like Pandora have become increasingly popular, the number of people listening to broadcast radio has not changed much over the past decade. Millions of Americans still tune in at home, in the car and at work.
At a time when voters are more distracted than ever, radio listeners are remarkably focused and attentive. For many Americans, once the kids are dropped off, the morning and evening commutes are the calmest part of the day, a brief reprieve from life’s craziness. Even in the Internet age, there’s a very real and important place for radio in any comprehensive communications plan.
A brief case study to illustrate the point: the 2012 race for Missouri governor. I managed Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) reelection campaign this past cycle—a race which presented a unique challenge. Although traditionally a battleground state, the electorate became decidedly more Republican in 2010, leading to widespread losses for Democrats up and down the ticket. But unlike other Midwest states that saw a Republican wave in 2010, the partisan composition in Missouri didn’t bounce back to normal heading into the 2012 election cycle; the electorate continued to skew Republican.
We determined that Nixon needed to win 15-20 percent of Republicans in order to secure victory. That’s a fairly daunting prospect in today’s polarized environment, where any crossover vote is difficult to come by, let alone 250,000 of them. Our challenge was compounded by the reality that President Obama was heading towards a large defeat in the state and his campaign (smartly) spent its resources elsewhere.
We were, however, confident that we had a message that would resonate with these Republican voters. Gov. Nixon had a fiscally conservative track record of balancing the budget without raising taxes, he showed leadership in the face of multiple natural disasters and he was credited for working across the aisle to save the state’s auto industry.
While our television ads carried our more general message to these Republican voters, we embarked on a large-scale localized radio campaign to deepen Nixon’s connection with these mostly rural voters.
To establish our target stations and regions, we first consulted our polling data and persuasion models, and then determined which regions of the state had at least two local radio affiliates that reached at least 10,000 households. Our media buyer, Lisa Cabanel with the Campaign Group, helped us navigate the complicated rural radio terrain and secure premium rates.
At the end, we cut more than 50 unique small-market radio spots, featuring Gov. Nixon speaking directly about his experiences—either personal or as a public official in their communities. Each spot then pivoted back to our poll-tested message.
We knew we couldn’t deliver a TV message specific to some of the small counties where we were targeting GOP voters. And it can be difficult to connect on a personal level with rural voters through online advertising, particularly true in regions where many residents still don’t have high- speed Internet.
Producing this many individual radio spots was a labor intensive effort, as the governor spent the better part of a weekend in a room with Doc Sweitzer, our media consultant, to record each of these unique local appeals. But it was time well spent.
It’s important to note that the localized radio campaign didn’t come at the expense of rural online ads, it supplemented our digital effort. We used online advertising to target the same voters who heard the radio spots, typically linking them to more information about the governor’s record on agriculture, sportsmen issues or local economic achievements.
In a campaign that spent over $10 million on paid media, the vast majority of which was spent on television, I wouldn’t suggest that localized radio was the absolute difference maker. But in a state that President Obama lost by 9.4 percent, Gov. Nixon won by 12 percent—a margin of victory made possible because he won 22 percent of Republican voters. Nixon was the top Democratic vote-getter in 44 rural counties, many of which were targeted with our localized radio campaign.
To be clear, there’s nothing new about running large-scale localized radio programs; campaigns have been doing it for years, because it makes perfect sense. That’s why it’s stunning that so many statewide campaigns either don’t localize their radio spots at all, or don’t take the time and effort to do it well, particularly in reelection efforts where the incumbent office holder has real local stories to tell.
Radio may not be as cool as Twitter, as fun as Instagram, or as addictive as Pinterest. But just as it would be foolish for a modern campaign not to reach the two-thirds of American adults who use Facebook, it would be foolish not to communicate in a targeted way with the millions of Americans who consume radio every single day.
Oren Shur is the IE director at the Democratic Governors Association. He served as campaign manager for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) 2012 reelection effort.