Commercial radio and television is a business.  One of the things people don't understand about broadcasting is: “How does the money come in?”   They don't seem to connect the fact that they hear commercials on the air and that those spot announcements are paid for by the advertiser.  Seems simple enough...but so many people I've come to know over the years...when they found out I was in the radio or TV business...don't seem to know how this works.

This time I thought it might be interesting to try to explain a little bit about the inner-workings of the commercial side of broadcasting.   There are such things as non-commercial radio and TV stations...in fact in the very beginnings of radio in the early 1920's ,  or even earlier,  it was radio amateur radio operators ("Hams") who set up radio stations and began broadcasting just for the fun of it.  Sometimes they just enjoyed talking on the air to see if anyone was listening.  Later on some began playing musical recordings to fill some of the time.  There were no commercials as we know them today....it was all just experimenting. Later businesses, like Westinghouse, began setting up radio stations, like KDKA in Pittsburgh, with the idea that maybe this could be a good way to help sell their products and services.

I spent my career in “small market” radio and TV.  Most of my working life was spent in radio...first as an announcer or “disc-jockey”...and then as program director and production man.   A program director many times is a production person, too.  This means that in addition to being in charge of the stations programming and format...the program director also writes and delivers, or assigns to other announcers, much of the commercial copy heard on the station. 

Commercial radio and TV stations sell time...that's the only thing they have to sell!   Stations employ a sales staff to sell that time.  The local sales people make calls on local businesses to help them attract more customers to their place of business.   Just as a newspaper sells ads that take up space in the paper...the broadcasting media also sell ads called “spots” that take up time on the air and that's what keeps the programming on the air and pays the bills . 

These “spot announcements” are usually 30 or 60 seconds in length...although sometimes 10 or 15 second spots are used.   An advertising contract is drawn up between the business and the station specifying the number of type of announcements to be run on the station. For example, the contract might call for 10 spots to be run in a week from 6  am to midnight for one month or for a whole year.  These spots can be specified to run on certain days of the week...like Monday through Friday or Monday, Wednesday and Friday or any other way the client wants them scheduled.  

The station publishes a “rate card” that shows how announcements can be purchased and how much they cost.   Sometimes the station will run a special package of commercials to be used during a certain period of time or for a specific program or event on the station like football or other sports, if the station carries sports.   A client might want to purchase only local newscasts or other programming elements...this would also be a part of the rate card information. 

Advertising clients usually don't just buy one or two spots...they buy a large number in order to have maximum impact for the client.   One 30 second spot might cost $20 on a local radio station...but if the advertiser buys 50 or more spots, for example,  he would get a discount price per spot depending on how many commercials are purchased.

Once the contract is written, approved and signed by both the advertiser and the station...then the sales person will gather the information that the advertiser wants in his commercial.   These “copy notes” will be written up on a “production order” and given to the production person.  The production person then uses these notes to write a commercial to the specified length...then it's handed back to the sales person to get client approval.   When approval is given, with necessary corrections or additions, the production department assigns the copy to an announcer to record the spot.  

The person producing the spot will go into the production room which is a special studio equipped for this purpose.  The spot is voiced by the announcer into a microphone connected to an audio control board which feeds into an audio recorder...which would have been a disc or tape recorder in earlier times...but today using a computer audio program that acts just like a tape recorder.   Sometimes the spot may require a music background which would come from a special library of CDs or audio files in the computer.  This music background is mixed with the voice for a pleasing presentation.

Computer audio editing programs allow many fancy tricks to be done that were never possible...or much harder to do with tape recorders.   The audio is represented by a visual waveform on the screen so that a skilled operator can delete, cut and paste audio very similarly to word processing.   It is possible to edit out pauses between words or syllables even audible lip-smacks!  Special effects can be done on a recording like compression to even out the volume level or speeding up the pace of a voice while keeping the pitch normal so that it doesn't sound like “Donald Duck” or the “Chipmunks”.

Sometimes two voices might be used, depending on  how the commercial is written.  It might be a conversation between a man and woman and might include some sound effects as well.  These sound effects would come from a special library purchased by the station for this purpose.  Many times a store owner might want to come into the station and record his spot in his or her own voice or the spot might be done on location at the business.  There are many ways and variations to production work in radio.  In TV, of course, the process is more complicated because there is audio plus video to deal with.

In addition to local advertising there are also “national” spots that run on the station.  These commercials are bought by advertising agencies that deal with stations all over the country.  These national spots are delivered to the station from the agency involved...in the old days by disc or tape...but now mostly by mp3 files sent by email or accessed on the internet at special websites.  These spots are scheduled according to a contract just like local spots.

These days most radio stations are run by computer-automation.   All the audio elements, music, commercials, promotional announcements and announcers voices are run from a special computer program designed for that purpose.   All the audio is stored on hard drives and is put on the air at the time determined by the program.   The scheduling computer also switches the station in and out of network programming delivered by satellite and integrates the local commercial breaks as they are scheduled.    

In earlier times an announcer would operate the station manually on a real-time basis. Music would have been played on turntables and commercials would be read live or played on disc or tape.  Times have definitely changed! 

There are situations, even now, when a live control board operator is needed...like when a station carries sports play-by-play or a remote live broadcast.  In these situations the operator switches the computer from “auto”  to “live” operation.  He or she then controls the various audio sources just like in the “old days”...but still uses the computer system to insert the local commercials and station breaks instead of playing tapes as in days gone by.   The remote broadcast audio is controlled by a separate volume-control channel by the operator.  The board person communicates with the person doing the remote program by phone...and cues are worked out for the local breaks.  If sports play-by-play is from a satellite network then a format is provided for the operator so he or she knows where the local commercial breaks are to be inserted.   These types of live broadcasts are difficult to automate...and yet it has been done!

Many stations do live morning shows where the DJ is in the studio and does all his/her chatter live and then uses the computer-automation system to run the music and recorded commercials...this is called “live-assisted” operation.   A separate computer or audio storage device may be used to play a music backgrounds that are played while the DJ talks...or to record phone calls from listeners for later playback...or even to play funny voices or sounds to spice up the show. For more information on station automation there is a good article elsewhere on our website.  

I hope this gives you some answers to some of the questions you may have had on how a radio station gets its revenue that supports the bottom line and keeps the music and voices going out on those invisible airwaves!


The Commercial Side of Broadcasting
By Gary Avey
Examples of "spots" produced for radio in the Chico, CA  radio market.