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We’re all in this together

By Dan Small

After a long career in television and even more years as a freelancer for magazines and newspapers, with the encouragement of my good friend, the late Tony Dean, three years ago I launched a weekly hourlong radio show with a business partner and co-host, Judy Nugent. If anyone had told me then that I would devote more time to radio than to anything else I do and that it would take two years to break even, I probably would not have taken the plunge.

Now, as we enter our fourth season, I must admit I’m having more fun with radio than with any other communications venture. We have been in the black for over a year now and anticipate staying on the profit side of the ledger, despite the current recession that has roared through segments of the outdoor industry like Hurricane Katrina.

So many fellow OWAA members have helped us in this new venture that it is only fair to acknowledge them and pass on their advice. Here, then, are five things we have learned from others that have helped make “Outdoors Radio” a modest success.

1. You are above all else a salesman.

Unless a station or network is willing to pay you to do a show, the only way to make money in radio is to sell advertising. Tony Dean was a natural at many things, but selling was not one of them. Tony learned to sell by trial and error, and he taught us that to sell radio ads, you must sell yourself, your knowledge of the field, your connection with your audience and your enthusiasm.

I made my first sales call to a longtime friend who has supported my public television program for years. He was willing to sponsor our radio show even though he thought we had priced it “a bit high.”

I hung up from that conversation and thought, “This is going to be easy!” Some 50 phone calls later, however, we still had only one sponsor.

Since then, we have talked to hundreds of marketing directors, agency account executives and business owners. We have also employed several part-time salespeople. We made the mistake of paying one guy a stipend plus commission. He brought in more revenue than he cost us, but not enough to warrant keeping him. Three people now sell ads on commission only, but we have made most sales ourselves. Our sponsors range from hook-and-bullet manufacturers and retailers to chambers of commerce, nonprofit conservation organizations, consumer-show producers, a state agency and a personal-injury law firm.

2. Give clients what they want.

From Jim Ferguson, whose “Great American Outdoor Trails” radio show is an ongoing source of inspiration, and from Phil Kurth, the sales manager at our flagship station WISN in Milwaukee, we learned you can sell more than just 30-second and 60-second spot ads. Our sponsor packages include sponsored interviews, show title sponsorship and promos that air on the entire network and/or individual stations.

As value-added items, we also offer personal appearances, product giveaways and logo placement and hyperlinks to sponsors’ Web sites from our two Web sites and an e-newsletter. Sometimes these “freebies” are enough to seal a deal. If a sponsor wants me to join him and his clients on a salmon charter or pheasant hunt, I am more than happy to do so.

3. Radio is a business.

Some of us just scramble for as much money as we can bring in and hope we cover costs. Wade Bourne has clear goals for sales income, and he meets them most of the time. Wade helped us price sponsor packages and showed us how he keeps production costs down.

Wade, Ed Mahoney and Bob and Ann Hirsch taught us to take advantage of every opportunity to record an interview by bringing a recorder to conferences and other venues and scheduling face-to-face interviews with people we might have a hard time connecting with otherwise. Interviews recorded on location are often livelier and more spontaneous than those done over the phone.

4. Radio outside the box.

We got the idea to start “Outdoors Radio” as a podcast from Jim Ferguson, whose show is podcast on numerous Web sites. “Outdoors Radio” morphed into a traditional broadcast several months later. It is still available as a podcast on several Web sites, and every episode is archived at www.lake-link.com/radio, where you can download or listen to any or all of them. Lake-Link can tell us how many of which episodes are downloaded each month and how many podcast subscribers we have. Sponsors love this kind of information.

Mike Walker, who knows the radio business as well as anyone in OWAA, has shared out-of-the-box ideas in the key areas of format, content, advertising and promotion, among others. Jim and Mike gave us the idea for our e-newsletter, which now reaches 5,000 subscribers weekly. Our webmaster, Les Booth, upgraded our e-newsletter and is paving the way for more online marketing technology, which we will roll out very soon.

5. Great guests make good radio.

All other advice aside, the most important thing we have learned from our radio colleagues is that you should not expect to carry a show by yourself. The gal who killed her first deer and discovered the experience changed her life, the cowboy poet whose doggerel verse captures the feel and smell of a backcountry pack train, the jewelry designer who fashioned a fishing lure of gold and diamonds and trolled for billfish with it at Cabo San Lucas – these guests will captivate your audience and keep them coming back for more far better than you will ever do on your own, no matter how much you know about the outdoors or how great a yarn-spinner you may be.

Judy Nugent no longer co-hosts the show, but she remains a frequent on-air guest and she helps with sales. Jeff Kelm has joined me on air and as editor, and he will soon have enough credits to join OWAA as an active member. Although we are still just feeling our way in the medium, in two years of OWAA Excellence in Craft competition, “Outdoors Radio” has garnered 23 awards, so something must be working. I know we would not have been anywhere near as successful without the help of our colleagues, and I look forward to more networking at the 2009 OWAA conference in Grand Rapids, Mich. Oh, and hey, gang, I’m buying.

Dan Small, of Belgium, Wis., is host and producer of “Outdoors Radio,” and a former OWAA board member.

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