Playing Games For Listeners Radio Stations Hope Contests Will Pay Off

Posted: November 03, 1986

More than half the homes in the Philadelphia area recently heard from WCAU- AM.

But the greeting didn't come over radio speakers.

The news/talk radio station says it mailed 1,025,000 individually numbered sweepstakes fliers, inviting area residents to try to win some of the more than $150,000 in prizes it's giving away.

One requirement: You have to listen to the station.

Like other broadcasters in the brutally competitive radio industry, the CBS-owned radio station is trying to buy a larger audience.

Those additional listeners, in turn, may translate into high radio ratings. And high ratings, stations hope, will encourage more advertisers to pay more money to air their commercials.

However, massive radio promotions aren't embraced as a sound marketing tool by everyone in the radio industry.

Contests can be a waste of money, according to some in the industry.

"They tend to neutralize each other out. It tends to be a lot of money spent for nothing," said James H. Duncan Jr., an analyst who publishes Duncan's American Radio Inc. from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Sometimes only a limited number of listeners play the contests. Some people, called "contest pigs" and often known by name by those in the industry, tune from station to station playing the contests.

Some executives maintain the contests and sweepstakes can be addictive for a station and blur the best way to win an audience - through popular programming.

"The audience becomes almost accustomed to them on your station. You sort of become a contest junkie . . . afraid to give it up," said Bruce Holberg, general manager at Philadelphia's WFIL-AM and WUSL-FM.

Radio promotors run out of goodies to hand out, wanting to "give away the state of Rhode Island and a family of four," said Holberg, whose stations run contests, his concerns notwithstanding.

Until recently, Philadelphia has been a bit of a sleepy market for the giant contests so prevalent in other cities.

In Los Angeles, KLOS-FM last year gave away 16 Porsches. One of the expensive sports cars came with a check for $100,000.

And in Dallas, KVIL-FM this summer told listeners to drive to Texas Stadium, where the station handed out envelopes with cash ranging from a

dollar to several thousand dollars to drivers with the station's bumper stickers on their cars. So many showed up that a Texas-size traffic jam resulted.

There are signs that radio stations in the Philadelphia market are tuning in to the contest craze.

WCAU is giving away $50,000 worth of Hawaii trips, $10,000 worth or furs, $10,000 in diamonds and thousands of other prizes. That sweepstakes will cost the station and sponsors about $500,000, said Lynda S. Dartnell, the station's director of information services.

"This is definitely the biggest sweepstakes or contest we've ever run," Dartnell said.

WCAU's leading competitor, all-news KYW-AM, has no plans to follow suit.

"We don't do any contesting at all," said Roy Shapiro, general manager, who added that he has yet to find a contest that would be appropriate for his station.

At WEAZ-FM, a current promotion is part of a complex marketing plan. The easy-listening station wants listeners to tune in while at work.

Since March, WEAZ has mailed about 150,000 sweepstakes fliers to Philadelphia-area offices addressed "To the person who turns on the radio at work every day," according to James M. DeCaro, WEAZ's general manager.

The flier includes a clip-out coupon that can be sent back to the station with the person's name and office. If the contestant's name is mentioned on air, he or she can call back and win $101.

DeCaro said that most people don't think of the station they listen to at work, partly because they often aren't the ones to decide which station is tuned in. He hopes that the contest will increase awareness and prompt listeners to remember the station's name if a radio-ratings service contacts them.

Cash is always popular with listeners, but some stations have begun to think bigger.

In Wilmington, WJBR-FM changed owners in the last year and changed its format from easy listening to adult contemporary. Becoming known isn't easy, so the station struck upon one of the larger contests in the Philadelphia market in recent years.

"Rather than give them a T-shirt," said Chris Walus, WJBR general manager, "this time we'll give them a house."

The new, two-story, three-bedroom furnished house in Newark, Del., will be given away in December. By then, the station will have given away 99 keys to listeners, one of which will be the key that unlocks the house's front door. The 98 who don't win the house will try their keys in a new car, which one of the contestants will win.

WJBR's contest began Sept. 15 and ends at the home's front door on Dec. 13. Not coincidentally, the Arbitron Ratings Co.'s fall ratings period runs from Sept. 25 to Dec. 17.

WJBR's house giveaway is valued at well over $100,000, which could mean that the "Dream House" could be a tax nightmare for a winner.

The fair market value of a prize must be reported as income on that year's tax return - meaning that the winner of a $100,000 prize could end up owing the IRS more than $30,000.

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