5 Radio Station Contests That Should Be Permanently Retired

Thumbs Down

First things first: Radio contests don’t move the ratings needle. In an age when corporations can track your every move when you interact with an electronic device, Nielsen’s ratings system (USA) is an incredibly crude instrument. It should not be used to measure the effectiveness of radio contests. In fact, it really shouldn’t be used to measure anything at all, but good luck convincing your advertisers of that.

Here’s how you should measure the effectiveness of your station’s contests instead:

  • Entertainment Value: The vast majority of your listeners don’t participate in your station’s contests. To be effective, contests need to have a “play along at home” factor that entertains the bulk of your non-participating audience. It’s this factor that has made Jeopardy! andWheel of Fortune American institutions. You should strive for the same.
  • Image Reenforcement: Your station is a brand. How well does a contest convey to people what that brand is all about?
  • Data Collection: Big Data is where the money’s at. The more you know about your listeners, the better. Data helps you (and by extension, your clients) target consumers effectively. Your radio station should never hold a contest that does not collect contact information (translation: an email address or phone number) from every single entrant (translation: not just the winners). One important detail: In order to comply with the law, the entrants must opt in to your email or text message database.

So without further ado, here are the contests non grata

1. “Caller Number 9”

Old PhonePhones are old school.

Let’s call this what it is: Lazy Programming. Your listeners are phoning in because you’re phoning it in.

  • Entertainment Value? Zip.
  • Image Reenforcement? Zero. (At this point, having a caller scream with excitement is just a cliché.)
  • Data Collection? Nada. (Your winner hasn’t even opted in to your email list, so it would violate the CAN SPAM Act to add them to your database.)

How to Update It: If you’re just going to randomly choose a winner, at least use an online submission form so you capture email addresses. You can also require people to text in to win so you can collect phone numbers. If you think the audio of the winner is a necessary component, you can call the winner.

2. “The Phrase That Pays”

“How about this? Instead of you randomly calling us, we’ll randomly call you!”

  • Entertainment Value? None. Hearing people regurgitate hastily memorized phrases wasn’t fun when we had to do it for oral exams in high school, and it’s not fun now.
  • Image Reenforcement? Marginal. You get the benefit of having people repeat your positioning statement, but let’s be clear: it’s not cool when you have to bribe us to do it. It’s like promising dessert to get us to eat our vegetables.
  • Data Collection? Good. The best argument in favor of this contest comes from requiring people to submit their phone numbers in order to get a call.

How to Update It: If your goal is to get people to repeat a phrase about your radio station, have them do it on social media. This has two advantages: first, more people can participate online than on the air, and second, it will appear more genuine when they do. Use a tool like Woobox to set up a contest that not only collects email addresses, but rewards people with a better chance of winning if they share the contest on social media.

3. Any Typical Time Spent Listening (TSL) Contest

Cat Yawn


Whether it’s Call-In-When-Your-Hear-the-Thingy (like a sounder or the song of the day) or Call-In-When-You-Don’t-Hear-the-Thingy (like a certain number of songs in a row), these contests don’t work.


Because we now live in an on-demand world. I get what I want when I want it. Instant gratification. When I sit down to watch my favorite TV show, I start 15 minutes late so I can fast forward through the commercials on my DVR. And when I listen to the radio, I’m flipping around to find exactly what I want. If I’m sticking with a single station for a long stretch of time, it’s a sure sign that I’m not paying very much attention. The radio is in the background because I’m busy doing other things. Which means I don’t know what the tune of the day is, and I’m not counting the number of songs that you’re playing.

  • Entertainment Value? Like listening to paint dry.
  • Image Reenforcement? Half decent. Presumably you’re picking songs by core artists or trying to send the message that you play a lot of music.
  • Data Collection? None. Edward Snowden salutes you.

How to Update It: If your goal is to increase Time Spent Listening with contests, focus on the “Play Along at Home” factor for the majority of people who don’t participate. Even a simple trivia question will work better if its compelling enough that people want to hear the answer. The big issue here is that when your contests focus on non-participants, you won’t be collecting contact information. So you should probably skip TSL contests altogether.

4. “Expose the _______.”

The mechanics of this contest are simple: You encourage your listeners to do anything short of getting arrested in an effort to get some publicity for your radio station.

Before the rise of the internet, this was a great promotion. It’s the old school way to crowdsource publicity. The issue here is that there’s simply better ways to crowdsource in the digital age. You don’t need a guy streaking across the football field with your call letters tattooed across his forehead when you can use social media to reach a bigger — and better targeted — audience.

  • Entertainment Value? Potentially great.
  • Image Reenforcement? Who knows? You’re rolling the dice.
  • Data Collection? None.

How to Update It: Crowdsourcing — recruiting people to create something compelling that other listeners will want to see or hear — is a great idea. But you should do it digitally so you can collect contact information, share the content with a larger audience, and recycle the content for years to come. Ask your listeners to remix a song, create a video, or send in photos instead.

5. Cash


There are better places to spend your allowance.

Everybody loves cash. But it’s like that distant aunt who sends you a check on your birthday every year because she doesn’t know what to get you: we know no thought went into it. Giving away cash is blatant bribery. And at this point, even the promo spot where your station admits that’s it’s blatant bribery isn’t edgy anymore.

Even worse, once you spend the money, it’s gone. And if the Nielsen ratings don’t show a bump from the contest (and who knows if they will?), you might as well have just lit a stack of bills on fire. If you’re going to spend large amounts of cash, make 100% sure that you have something to show for it when you’re done.

  • Entertainment Value? Depends on how you give it away.
  • Image Reenforcement? Negative. What do you call stuff you have to pay people to do? “Work.”
  • Data Collection? Depends on how you give it away.

How to Update It: Spend your money on creating great content instead. Whether that’s hiring top tier on-air talent or investing in blog writers and podcast producers, you will get more mileage out of focusing on something that can be shared online over and over again.

Agree or disagree? Got another contest you want to add to the list? 

About Seth Resler:

Seth is a 19 year US broadcasting veteran both on the mic and behind the programming desk. He has worked at stations including  New York City (WXRK), Boston (WBCN), Seattle (KNDD), St. Louis (KPNT), San Jose (KEZR) and Providence (WBRU).

In 2006 he entered the new world of online marketing and has consulted for brands like TuneIn Radio amongst many others.

Website: sethresler.com

Email:[email protected]

Comment Form

Your email address will not be published.

Recent comments (0)
Post new comment

Related features


See all