Last week in Radio Ink, talent coach extraordinaire Randy Lane asked, “Is Contesting Outdated?” In his examination of the question, he cited our Techsurvey research showing that prizes rank dead last as the reason that people listen to the radio.
Many personalities ask us, “Will listeners play a game if there’s no prize?” If the show is entertaining, shares their life experiences, and has a relationship with the audience, the answer is, yes.
I explored a similar question in a blogpost a few weeks ago. I wrote about the difference between prizes that are “incentives” which appeal to listeners' external motivations, and “tokens” which recognize listeners' internal motivations. This distinction is the focus of an entire chapter in Building Brand Communities by Carrie Melissa Jones and Charles Vogl, a book that I highly recommend.
To illustrate the concept, I pointed to the prize offered by NPR's news quiz, Wait Wait…Don't Tell Me! Each week, a listener plays to win a voicemail greeting recorded by a celebrity guest. Wait Wait‘s Benevolent Overlord, Doug Berman, described the prize as “worthless but priceless.” (You can read the full post here.)
I wondered if any other radio stations are giving away prizes that are “worthless but priceless.” I asked our readers, and I received responses from all over the world. They showcase the creativity and resourcefulness of radio broadcasters. Take a look! –Seth
“We have a weekly game show on our morning show called Marshall’s Marketplace where listeners face off against me. The premise of the bit: Morning Host and Master of Ceremonies Brian Marshall picks three items from Facebook Marketplace and I guess the price they’re asking. The contestant speculates if the actual price is either higher or lower than my guess. The only prize is — and everyone gets a prize — ‘a certificate worth framing' which indicates whether they won or lost the game. It's great for social media interaction because most recipients post pictures of their prize.
This has quickly become a very successful lock-down feature on Friday mornings during the crossover between our two jock shifts.”
—Russ Mottla, Rock 108, Waterloo, Iowa
“A ‘token' that our listeners seem to go crazy for: The John Williams Speed Joke Coffee Mug. Every day, since the start of the pandemic, WGN Radio Mid-day host John Williams executes a segment with a series of ‘Speed Jokes.' It’s a round of fast-paced, silly, one-after-another, clean jokes. Listeners love it!
John solicits listeners to submit jokes. If he uses the joke a listener submits on the segment, that listener is give a speed joke coffee mug. It’s become a badge of honor for many of these listeners.”
—Kevin McDonough, WGN Radio, Chicago
“The most ‘worthless but priceless' prizes have to be breakfast show mugs. At many of the station I worked at, these were massively in demand by the audience. While their true financial value may have been minimal, the value and sheer joy they brought to the audience was invaluable! Similarly, we always found station branded t-shirts were another favorite that was regularly requested at events and activations.”
—Zane Derbyshire, East Coast Radio, Durban, South Africa
Think nobody will care just because a prize is worthless? Here's an inverted example… –Seth
“A long time ago — about 1982 — Essex Radio, the commercial station in the county of Essex in the UK, ran a cheap promo that blew up in their face. It was April 5th, and the breakfast show presenter said any listener who visited the station while his show was in air would get a free mug. Listeners delayed their journey to work to visit the station only to be told it was April Fools Day and they were the mug. Public reaction to the stunt was not positive for the broadcaster.”
—Steve Hart, Steve Hart Media
“We’ve been focusing more on experiences with our listeners, those money-can’t-buy promotions. We did two of them recently: One was an ‘Invite Only' acoustic show with Alex from All Time Low. We held the event at a local venue. The only way to get an invite was to enter through our website. We picked 50 winners and a guest and they won the opportunity to attend the event. There was no monetary value to the prize, but for fans of the band it was priceless. We ran the exact same concept with the band Lovely the Band.”
—Joe DeTomaso, WAQX-95X, Syracuse
“The one that comes to mind is 98.9 The Bear’s ‘Listener of the Day!'
- We mention the listener’s name and play some of their favorite Bear songs throughout the day.
- We send them a ‘Listener of the Day' Bear t-shirt – exclusive for Listener of the Day winners only!
- We feature them on the 98.9 The Bear Website as our ‘Listener of the Day.'
The prize is just on-air mentions and a t-shirt, but it’s a day where they get excited enough to tell their friends and family to check out the website and listen to the station. It’s one of those ‘drop in the bucket’ promotions where you are only focusing on one listener per day, but over the years you end up uniquely touching the lives of hundreds or thousands of listeners by giving them a cool experience with the radio station that they will never forget!
They wear their exclusive t-shirts and come up to us at events and say. ‘I was the March 14th, 2020, Listener of the Day!,” etc. Now that we have hundreds of winners, we also do concert promotions where we ask them to wear their exclusive shirt to the show for a chance to be picked out of the crowd and upgraded to front row, meet n’ greet, and more. It’s cool seeing people walk around shows with their Bear Listener of the Day shirts on.”
—Kyle Guderian, 98.9 The Bear & BIG 92.3, Fort Wayne and 103.9 The Bear, South Bend
“In 1989, I was Operations Manager/Program Director at G98 in Portland, Maine, when the Berlin Wall came down. I made a deal with a radio syndication company to acquire a bunch of small pieces of the Berlin Wall for some amount of cash and gave them away. We invited listeners to win a piece of the wall by calling the station. We thought it made for an interesting and topical promotion at this time. Now it’s like, ‘Uh… you have this little chunk of concrete.'
To this day, I wonder if those chunks of concrete were the real deal. We’ll probably never know.”
—Jon Holiday, Radio Consulting Services
“The X decided to put a twist on the standard summer car giveaway promotion and introduced ‘The X Fleet – The Greatest And Best Cars of All Time.' This was done tongue firmly in cheek, of course. Our total budget for the promotion was only $5000. First step was to search car lots for bizarre cars. We found a “Three on The Tree” AMC Pacer, an 80s era Cadillac Coupe Deville, a 1984 Chevy Camaro, and an International Harvester Scout.
We then did a spoof of all of the popular radio car giveaways of the time. For example, The AMC Pacer had a ‘guess how many ping pong balls are in The Pacer?' Promotion. (Hint: There were three ping pong balls in the front seat.) With the Camaro, we did a ‘live in it to win it' promotion outside of a big local concert we were presenting, and added silly elements to it.
One of the cars didn't run at all, if I recall, and we had it towed to events.
It was all a good excuse to have fun with our listeners and be as ridiculous as possible. The joy was in writing the promos and we had a great team in place to tell the story. Big J (who is still with the station as morning host) played a key role, and Stephen Kallao really helped bring it to life with the audio imaging. Ultimately, it was an excuse to have fun with listeners, which is part of the joy of any on-air contest.”
—Jacent Jackson, Sound That BRANDS (and former Program Director of KQXR, Boise)
“Every Thursday morning during the 8am hour we do ‘Throwback Thursdays.' Listeners can call in with their throwback request. It's fun, great phones, and we also have a chance to win a free boombox! Yep, an item that, on the surface, is worthless, but it sounds fun on the radio! Listeners go crazy to win one! A boombox, just like back in the day, with a radio (that has an antenna!), a CD player, and a cassette deck! Listeners are super excited when they win one, too!”
—Greg Williams, KDGS (Power 93.5), Wichita
“Live 105 was always entertaining our audience. Of course, we hosted giant festivals at super low price points, free listener appreciation parties where you couldn’t buy tickets (only win them by listening), and the usual trips, car giveaways, etc. We always strived to do it with attitude and fun, complete with amusing promos.
But not everything required big bucks to pull off. One thing we did at absolutely no cost to us was ‘The Amateur Hour.' We asked listeners to write in and tell us why they should be a guest DJ on The Amateur Hour, which ran Sunday nights at 11:00.
It might not seem like a lot to us jaded radio folks, but to the average Joe or Jill it was a huge deal to be on the radio, and to tell all their friends to listen. One participant was a guy named Raffi Nalvarian from San Jose. He and his friend Dina were both DJs at San Jose State's college radio station. Dina wrote in saying that they loved Live 105 and that they would be stoked to do the show. They were chosen.
The kicker is that Raffi sent me a tape to be a DJ on the station for real. I wrote back the standard form letter, but on the back of that letter, I hand wrote a note that he needed to get some more experience in smaller markets. He heeded my advice, and years later, I hired him for weekends and fill-ins — an amateur no longer! Plus, a few years back, he showed me that rejection letter and note he had saved all these years! Nice!”
—Richard Sands, Publisher of The Sands Report (and former PD of Live 105, San Francisco)
“Once a year, the Slate Political Gabfest drops the politics and spends an entire episode trying to answer weird, deep, funny, mesmerizing questions submitted by our listeners. We call them conundrums, and they range from the most trivial to the most important questions in the universe: Imagine a late-night dorm room bullshitting session, half philosophy, half lunacy. We contemplate questions like: Would you rather be a fish or a tree? If you could definitively know the answer to one question, what would it be? What fictional family would you like to live with? If you could relive one year of your life, which one would it be and why? Fuck, marry, kill: Bread, rice, pasta.
Listeners supply every question — sometimes with a deep backstory — and we credit them on the air. One listener, Phil Goldstein, has sent us 20 amazing conundrums every year for a decade. Last year, a single guy sent us 287 different conundrums–the pandemic really turned some folks inside out! Oh, and every year we invite a famous Gabfest listener to join us for the conundrum show, so listeners may get to hear their conundrum chewed over by They Might Be Giants, or Alison Bechdel, or Stephen Colbert.”
—David Plotz, Slate Political Gabfest and City Cast
“We had small participation trophies made and then award them to listeners in-studio when they do something noteworthy with our show, or contribute in some way. We live in this era of ‘everybody should win,' so this our take on getting an award just for participating. They cost us about $1.50 each, custom engraved. People feel like they are winning an Oscar!”
—Jumpin' Jeff Walker, 98.5 WKRZ, Wilkes Barre Scranton
My Challenge To You…
In the coming months, create a promotion in which your station gives away something that is “worthless but priceless.” Don't bribe listeners with an incentive; instead, find a way to recognize them by giving them a token of appreciation. And when you do, please email me about it. I'd love to hear what you come up with!
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