Taking a radio flier to court votes

With the official deadline for Oscar ballots having finally passed, Southern Californians will receive a respite from what has sounded in recent weeks like “DVD-extra radio.”

In a phenomenon foreign to those living north of Santa Barbara or east of the Mojave desert, Los Angeles has been showered with radio spots that principally speak to less than 1% of the area’s residents — namely, the 5,800 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Thanks to their proximity to those anointed few, Los Angelenos and to a lesser degree New Yorkers were treated to a flood of ads on news and talk radio stations through the holidays. They feature everything from director Clint Eastwood discussing the cast of “Mystic River” to composer Howard Shore musing about his score for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

There was also a parade of critic-driven blurbs for the likes of “Seabiscuit” and “Cold Mountain,” so much so that a choice quote by the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington — heralding “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” as “The best movie of its kind ever made” — keeps echoing unbidden through my brain in a resonant announcer voice. (It certainly is, by the way, if the competition includes seafaring historical action yarns that don’t star Errol Flynn.)

L.A.’s news and talk listeners haven’t been able to get through a commercial break without hearing such ads, to the point where there’s seemingly scant room for the usual entreaties from copper plumbing, laser-eye surgery and cheapo mortgage outfits.

Although increased spending has occurred in New York as well, the main thrust has been Los Angeles, home to more than 80% of academy voters by most estimates. It’s a market perfectly tailored to radio — a commuter culture where people spend hours in their cars each week, creating a captive audience for nervous studio marketing mavens.

Granted, the Oscar business has always been a windfall to various ancillary businesses, from fashion outlets to trades such as Variety. Yet the influx of radio advertising highlights the studios’ growing savvy in targeting possible voters with the kind of precision normally reserved for blowing up Iraqi bunkers.

“They’re using more money, to chase after fewer people, than ever before,” says Jim Chabin, CEO of the promotion, marketing and design association Promax&BDA. The studios, he adds, are sensibly applying the niche principles that they use in selecting radio stations to open a character-driven drama versus a teen horror movie.

The emphasis on radio hasn’t occurred by accident; rather, the push reflects a conscious pitch by Viacom-owned Infinity Radio, whose holdings include both AM newsradio stations in L.A., KNX and KFWB, as well as WINS and WCBS in New York.

It’s also intriguing if logical that news and talk would become the broadcasting vehicles of choice, since those stations’ demographic appeal tends to be somewhat older and more male than music outlets — more closely approximating the perceived makeup of academy members.

“This is a perfect example of using radio to create a highly targeted campaign,” says David Goodman, exec veepee of marketing at Infinity, which recently hired an L.A.-based sales exec charged specifically with courting the studios. “It is likely that these news stations reach a higher concentration of academy voters than any other format.”

An academy spokesman said the organization doesn’t keep demographic data on its members. Still, based on the fairly rigorous requirements to join, an educated guess says the median age is in the late 50s or even 60s — dovetailing with the older-skewing news and talk profile.

“Because of the number of onscreen credits anyone must have to be considered for membership … you would expect them to be older than a typical person starting out in the business,” says Chabin, having previously overseen the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, whose members reflect a similar dynamic.

Insiders say a variety of factors have helped funnel more dollars toward radio this year, including the shortened award season with the Oscars scheduled for Feb. 29 and the brouhaha over Academy Award screeners.

In addition, changes in the rules governing Oscar campaigning — most notably, sources say, the elimination of direct-mail campaigns in the 1990s — compelled studios to explore other avenues to reach voters. “It’s like political campaigns, with ‘soft’ money and ‘hard’ money,” one source notes. “However you change the rules, they find a way.”

Infinity’s Goodman maintains the prestige-oriented spots function on a dual level, seeking to convince even listeners lacking an academy membership card that films are award-worthy and worth seeing. “You’re able to double dip,” he says, hitting both the narrow and broader constituencies. As a bonus, he adds, being in the car limits multitasking and compels listeners to be more attentive.

Because the campaign is so heavily localized, studios have also achieved massive tonnage in a medium that’s less expensive than television. While radio spots certainly aren’t cheap in such a large media market, the millions in additional box office, video and DVD sales that nominations can yield makes the investment a reasonable gamble.

Even so, the onslaught’s end probably can’t come too soon for many avid radio listeners, especially those with lengthy commutes who have found themselves humming and even creating lyrics to Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” theme. (All right, so maybe that’s just me.)

Then again, the radio daze hovering over L.A. has at least brought some order to the annual marketing mania, as opposed to, say, Miramax enlisting Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks write letters promoting the merits of “Cold Mountain.”

Chabin also cites parallels to the gold rush of political advertising that spilled into California during the gubernatorial recall election, with radio enjoying what amounts to a second bountiful harvest from a different kind of heatedly contested race.

“It’s amazing that the year Arnold Schwarzenegger becomes governor, our awards shows become political campaigns,” he says. “It’s really a twofer for California.”

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