The year was 2001, and Bob Birner was annoyed. A local home improvement radio show was touting the benefits of fiber-cement siding, and Birner, whose Houston company, Amazing Siding, installed vinyl, felt like his side of the story wasn't getting out. With no soapbox of its own, Amazing Siding was feeling the pinch as the competitive product became increasingly popular with both contractors and consumers. “The market was going that way, and it was obviously affecting our business,” Birner says. “We realized that we had to get our message out there, too, because we were just getting lost in the shuffle.”
Having already used radio advertising to promote his business, Birner figured he'd launch a home improvement show of his own. With practically no on-air experience, he hired radio veteran Jim Brown, already known to local listeners as the Houston Home Handyman, and he set to work. “We actually purchased airtime with the radio station, brought in Jim as the talent, and then sold commercial spots to pay for our expenses,” Birner recalls. Suddenly, in addition to siding, Birner found that he was in the broadcast business.
CREDIBILITY FACTOR Today Amazing Siding carries both vinyl and fiber-cement siding, and Birner, with Michael Strong, co-hosts the “Remodeling Pro Radio Show” on Houston's KNTH-AM (1070). From 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. every Saturday, Birner and Strong — vice president of Brothers Strong, a Houston design/build company — interview industry experts, highlight new product trends, and offer home improvement wisdom, while taking calls and answering e-mail messages from their own established radio following. “Basically, we like to have fun at each other's expense,” Birner says. “Along the way, we try to educate the consumer.”
Doing that has not only increased Amazing Siding's profile in the community, it has helped brand the $6 million business, and Birner, as trustworthy. “It's given us a level of credibility that just would not otherwise be attainable,” Birner says. “My sales reps can go into the customer's home and say, ‘Look, the guy who runs our company is on the radio every Saturday morning. If there's ever a problem, you can call him on the carpet in front of God and everyone.'” So far, no one has called.
In an industry often plagued by lack of credibility, Birner and others say that establishing a radio presence in your local market can take you far in differentiating your company from the competition, while setting you apart as a reliable source of information — and services — in the public mind. And because radio is inherently local, it provides a connection with your customer base that's hard to establish through other media.
Not only can that differentiation translate into real dollars for your business, if you're successful, a radio show can become a profit center in itself. Then, there's the fact that being on the radio positions you for new opportunities, while keeping you ahead of industry trends. “If there's a new product coming out or an innovation around the corner, people start passing that along to you,” says Tom Landis, a replacement and remodeling contractor who hosts “Down Home Radio” for an hour each Saturday at 3 p.m. on Seattle's KLAY-AM (1180). “You end up being on the cutting edge.”
BE PREPARED But while establishing yourself as a local radio presence and replacement guru certainly has its advantages, it's also fraught with challenges. Not only will it likely cost you money to break into radio (anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per month, depending on your market), but once you do it will take your continued commitment and time. “You don't just show up at the radio station, flip a switch on the microphone, and talk for 30 minutes,” says Vicki Kunkel, a former radio producer, deejay, and television news anchor who runs Leader Brand Strategists, an executive branding company in Chicago that works with construction clients. “It takes a huge chunk of time, and you have to be prepared.”
But with the growing popularity of home-related programming in recent years in both television and radio, observers say that there are opportunities for replacement contractors who are willing to work hard and learn the art of radio. The reason? Home improvement radio sells. “There are a lot of advertisers out there who would love to get their message out to The Home Depot's crowd,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a talk-radio trade publication based in Springfield, Mass. “Home improvement shows, when done well, prove to be very lucrative.”
ON THE AIR One of the first steps in getting started is finding a station that's likely to put you on the air. For Birner and others, that means buying time from the station — say, 30 minutes to an hour a week — then developing your own programming for it. Known in the radio business as “brokered programming,” rates can range from $500 to $5,000 per hour, depending on the size of your market and the station you're dealing with. Many stations will allow you to sell your own ads during that time, giving you the opportunity to recoup costs and — in the case of a successful show — even generate revenue from it.
Because AM stations are both more affordable and more likely to promote a talk format, many contractors say the smaller, less corporate end of the radio dial is the first place to look for a programming opportunity. “You want to deal with an AM station that is locally owned and wants to do local programming,” says Landis, who started producing his own radio shows in college nearly 20 years ago while earning a degree in construction management.