FIVE WAYS TO GET ON THE RADIO
Here are five basic methods of fitting your group into the programming at
1) Spot messages
2) Feature stories
5) And becoming a reporter.
Here are details on each method.
Spot messages are short public-service announcements that most stations are
required to carry as part of their license agreement. Getting a spot is not
difficult; you must simply fulfill the program manager’s criteria for the types of
charitable organizations the station is willing to sponsor.
If you are approved, some radio stations will write the public information spot
for you. You need supply only the grist, the basics about your cause and your
organization, and perhaps some flesh -and-blood examples of how you’ve
But don’t count on getting such assistance. In the majority of cases, the staff is
too busy to do this work for you. And even at stations where they’re prepared
to help, supplying them with copy that requires minimal alteration makes it
more likely your spot will eventually get made and aired.
If you need to write your own spots, here are basic tips for making your spot
1. First, remember that spots are typically only a minute long, so the message
must be conveyed in a tightly wrapped form, with the accent on getting the
listener’s attention from the very outset.
2. Spot messages can be informational, telling listeners about the problem
your organization seeks to alleviate and how you go about doing it. In this
case, you need to accent the human dimension of things: a story about
someone you’ve helped, or an individual volunteer’s experiences, for instance.
Alternatively, a spot message can be motivational, urging listeners to get
involved and help give the problem a cure. These kinds of spots demand a tone
of enthusiasm and challenge. They’re pitched directly at the listeners,
summoning them to respond personally.
The appeal should be frank, candid, direct, yet upbeat, not an exercise in guilt-
tripping. “You have what it takes to help a child in need,” is a good example of
a positive way to appeal to someone’s best instincts.
In contrast, a downbeat tone, intended to shame people into helping your
cause, doesn’t conform well with the radio medium: People are listening for
enjoyment and entertainment, and a public information spot that hits a
discordant tone is likely to cause irritation- a switch of the radio dial.
3. No matter what station the promotional spot will run on, keep the language
conversational. Don’t write in long, run-on sentences. Use short, active
phrasing. (“We want to hit a home run against hunger,” for instance. Not: “The
societal disorders evidenced by homelessness should give us all pause for
4. Write with directness to take advantage of the immediacy of radio. Speak to
listeners as if they were your friends. Be personal and friendly, projecting a
relationship between your organization and your listeners with liberal use of
words like “you” and “yours.”
5. Avoid jargon, slang, acronyms, or unfamiliar words that might cause people
to scratch their heads instead of focusing on the important things you have to
6. If the radio station runs your spot, be sure to write a note of thanks. “Station
personnel are like everyone else,” says Pete Weitzner of Century Cable. “They
like to feel appreciated, and organizations that show appreciation are more
likely to be helped by people at the station again in the future.”
Feature pieces are another form of programming that can provide you an
opening to a station. Your feature piece could be an interview or a report on an
event you are sponsoring in your community. Feature pieces are usually more
analytical and in-depth than spots or news stories.
If you identify a local radio station that does occasional features, call to find
the names of the producers who oversee them. Write to these people about
your project, and the social problem you are covering. Give solid examples of
people being assisted by your efforts. Say that you would be happy to help the
station with your experience and expertise should they be interested in doing a
feature dealing with your issue.
As with newspapers, I also recommend following up your letter with a phone
call, telling the producer you “just wanted to make sure” the letter arrived, and
you’d be happy to answer any questions he or she might have.
Again, as with follow-ups for standard press releases, it’s useful to have
additional noteworthy facts to offer when you make phone contact, to spark
Feature stories are most interesting when they include real people. If there’s
someone whose life has been turned around by your charitable organization,
that’s the kind of story people like to hear-and radio can convey it effectively.
So make sure the producer knows if there is such a potential story about your
A charity can be proactive in its approach to radio news, attempting to
generate news stories about itself with press releases. Those releases should
be geared to the style of radio news writing, which gets the basic point of the
story across in the first sentence or two, adds some descriptive imagery, and
ends fairly quickly.
There is also the possibility that your organization’s work could be mentioned
in the context of a “hard news” story. In fact, when you write to the radio-
station producer for any reason, you might gain a special advantage by linking
your organization’s story with a topical story in the news that week or month.
“If your message can be wrapped into a news story … that catches a
programmer’s eye, he or she is likely to add it to the end of an announcer’s
newscast,” writes Marty Schwartz, vice president of sales at New USA, a public-
relations firm in Virginia. “Of course, not every message can be … successful.
There has to be some news value or public-service value inherent in the
message. If it just a ‘product’ pitch, programmers will make their own pitch-
into the circular file-and be sore that you wasted their time. So this is where
some creative thinking about how it can be presented is really valuable.”
Even if an expanded feature program doesn’t fit into the station’s schedule, a
producer or news director who finds your story interesting might see the
opportunity to broadcast an interview with you, or to let someone in your
organization interview someone else involved with the charity.
Radio interviews can be divided into three broad categories.
1. The first is akin to feature reporting-a longish interview, conducted by
someone with the station, in which the subject matter and general questions
are known in advance. Such exchanges can even be scripted. But authenticity is
enhanced when there is some spontaneity, so it is better to request a format in
which you don’t stick to a text, but only to an overall framework of questions
that have been agreed to in advance.
2. There is the interview conducted by the charity itself. While these can be
effective, especially if done with leeway for ad-libbed conversation to boost
credibility, there is something more authoritative for many listeners when a
station employee conducts the interview.
3. There is the news interview conducted by a reporter. These can be the most
intimidating exchanges for the interviewee, because the questions aren’t
reviewed in advance, so you have to be quick on your feet in answering.
If you have an opportunity to choose among these various formats, the one
that usually offers the most potential to show you and your organization to
best advantage is the first, because it is more relaxed and you’re usually given
a chance to know what you’ll be asked about and to frame your responses in
If you are interviewed, it is recommended that you try to get to know the
interviewer before the tape actually starts rolling. This will help you relax
during the interview itself. When the interview is under way, don’t step on the
interviewer’s questions, and pace yourself in your answers.
And when it is over, make sure get a recording of your appearances, just as
with any print stories that appear about your organization, you should collect
your radio “clips”-i.e., record your appearances-and assemble a little cassette
of your best sound bites. These can be used for an “audio press kit” to help
line up future radio appearances.
Becoming a Reporter
A last way you can gain access to radio is to become something of a reporter
or commentator for a station in your area. If you play your cards right, you can
turn into a station’s local expert, who is called on whenever news relating to a
specific issue arises.
Gary Millspaugh, executive director of the Allentown Rescue Mission in
Allentown, Pennsylvania, knows the value of becoming a resource to a radio
station. “I attended the Presidents’ Summit on volunteerism in Philadelphia,” he
says. “I thought hard in advance about how to turn that trip into publicity for
our rescue mission, which serves up to eight hundred homeless men per year,
and has a 70-percent success rate in getting people out of the debilitating
problems that led them to the streets. Our graduates get into jobs and a
responsible, self-sufficient life.”
To turn his trip to the Summit into more than just a jaunt to Philadelphia, he
called his contacts at major radio stations (he is meticulous, he says, in always
nurturing relationships with key people in the local media) and he let them
know that he would be attending the Summit and could offer first-person
perspective. His efforts won him two rounds of publicity.
First, he got coverage prior to the Summit for being a local service-provider
who would be going to the event. Second, he got publicity while he was in
Philadelphia. After President Clinton’s speech, for instance, Gary called one of
the largest Allentown-area stations, and was put on the air during drive-time
(the afternoon “rush hour,” when listenership is highest). “I basically became
their on-the-scene commentator on the president’s speech and the Summit,”
This kind of vigorous courting of the media is “essential” for any charity that
wants “to survive in the incredibly competitive world of nonprofits today,”
Gary argues. “The inescapable fact is that if you’re a nonprofit or a charity,
you’re engaged in a competitive activity. You have to view it as competitive. As
rough as it might sound, you’re in a win/lose proposition. If you don’t put your
resources to a winning use, you’ll lose-and be out of the business of helping
If you’re as successful as he was in winning an opportunity to become sort of a
freelance reporter on a social issue, keep in mind some basics of radio
journalism. Facts should be conveyed clearly and accurately. Keep your
sentences short. Use words that carry color and meaning. Make the
chronological presentation orderly and understandable.
THE GREAT WORLD OF TALK RADIO
In addition to the above methods of getting your message on the radio, there
is also an entire world of talk radio that offers you instant access to the
In fact, talk radio offers excellent possibilities for organizations with a socially
significant message, especially if you have someone in your organization who
can be seen as an expert in a field.
(Ironically, the more you appear on talk radio, the more you become an expert,
as one’s expertise usually gains a heightened status from being on the radio.)
One advantage of some talk-radio shows is that their audiences may be more
affluent, with more money to invest. This observation should perk up ears
among charities and nonprofits looking for donors.
But while talk-radio provides fertile ground for publicity, you should still
remember that radio stations operate not to perform charity but to generate
ratings so they can make money.
So they’re not going to invite a spokesman for a charitable group on who has
nothing interesting to talk about.
They’re not going to devote their time to conversations about next weekend’s
fundraising car wash.
This means that your creativity is highly tested if you seek to get on talk radio,
just as with all other aspects of promotional campaigns. When you contact a
radio station producer to suggest focusing on something that has to do with
your nonprofit cause, the producer is going to ask what’s unique and
interesting about your subject: What is it that will grab listeners and keep them
from pushing another button on the dial?
That’s the question you have to ask yourself about every idea you consider
pitching to any media outlet. You have to be able to answer it again and again
during your marketing efforts. If you can’t answer it, you have no business
doing promotion in the first place.
One wonderful advantage of radio today is that you don’t have be in the studio
to perform your part. You can be on the phone, calling from your office, car, or
from across the country. You are simply “patched in” to the show, with the
audience knowing nothing about where you are located.
Interviews on talk-radio programs can vary from fifteen min to an hour in
length. On many shows, guests are also asked to take calls from listeners.
If you have an opportunity to be on a talk, how, it is useful to give your host a
list of ten to fifteen questions that you would like to be asked.
Although there is no guarantee your questions will be used, many hosts
appreciate having your questions supplied because they interview such a wide
variety of guests that they can’t be well-versed on all the subjects under
discussion. Your questions therefore act as pointers and cues that make them
look intelligent and knowledgeable.
On the other hand, be careful about getting too scripted. When an
organization seeks to get on talk shows, it is best to choose the person among
its staff or officials who is most knowledgeable and articulate about the group
and its work and can ad-lib.
Many shows like to be flexible, taking a diversion from the announced subject.
After all, nothing runs as smoothly when it’s scripted. The worst shows are the
ones where they just read off a list of questions. So be sure your spokesperson
is comfortable talking on his or her feet.
Here are a few additional pointers for targeting talk radio.
o To increase your chances of being on radio stations around the country,
submit your name and organization’s project to Newsmaker Interviews, a
publication to which dozens of radio stations across the country subscribe. It
lists potential guests and their topics in detail.
o Another publication to consider is The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities
and Spokespersons, which provides an “encyclopedia of sources” to
subscribing hosts and producers from media outlets nationwide. It has a Web
Talk-radio producers are heavily worked, almost always busy lining up guests
and arranging the logistics of each program. You might not reach a producer
the first time you try calling. Persistence is usually required.
o When you call a talk-radio producer, show that you know something
about the program by mentioning a recent topic or guest.
o Try to link your idea with some issue or event that’s in the news. Most
producers look to the headlines first in trying to line up show topics.
o If you can inject controversy into your topic, you have an advantage in
trying to get a guest spot. Talk radio generally thrives on dramatic issues and
exchanges. It isn’t supposed to be sleep-inducing.
Look for the third part of this article, next week.