Public Radio Advertising; Does It Bring in Visitors?

The question comes up often on Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) email lists: “We’re thinking about advertising on our National Public Radio station. People who listen to NPR are a lot like the people in our congregation. Is that a good idea?” It depends on your goal, say those who have tried it. Many churches have underwritten public radio programs. The UUA did it for three years in the ‘90s.

A cluster of Atlanta-area congregations did it in 2002. What they found is that NPR underwriting spots drew in few visitors. The ads ran for 12 weeks, and among the nine congregations there were nine visitors who said they came because of the ads.

When the UUA advertised nationally on NPR in 1995, ‘96, and ‘97, response was better. John Hurley, the UUA’s director of information and public witness, said there were 450 calls to an 800 number during the 1995 period, 750 the next year, and 500 the last year. All who called were sent information. Follow-ups found that only a few had actually joined congregations, however.

Those who have tried NPR underwriting note the following:

  • Stations are independent, with different rules. Some refuse religious advertising. Getting the language you want can be difficult.
  • Costs can vary by station.
  • If you do advertise, refer listeners to a website, not a phone number, for further information. And keep the web address simple.

Consider inviting members of your congregation and nearby congregations to pool the funds they would normally contribute individually to NPR. Use that money for underwriting featuring the congregation. The Greenville, SC, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship (375 members), and the UU Church of Spartanburg, SC (125), collected $1,500, which paid for three 20-second spots that ran 11 times weekly for eight weeks on four stations.

If members pool their funds they may not be considered individual members of the station. One fellowship reported their local station did agree to make pool donors members.

The UU Fellowship, Wilmington, NC (190), pools members’ funds and buys day sponsorships on its local station. For $150, a spot airs three to four times. First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY, ran spots on its station in 2002 but couldn’t detect any increase in visitors, says Jasmine Walston, chair of public and denomination relations. A ten-second spot cost $60.

First UU Church, San Diego, was preparing to spend $30,000 in a year-long NPR campaign focusing on the Seven Principles, but the local station would only permit a statement that “First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego supports KPBS,” plus the web address. And since there was no strong evidence that many people were attracted to congregations by NPR spots, the campaign was dropped, says Lawrence Kruming, leader of outreach efforts.

Bottom line: Public radio spots don’t seem to draw many people to church immediately, says Hurley. But there are other reasons to do it. “Any advertising raises awareness of your congregation, and over time that can be beneficial.” Also, hearing ads raises the morale of existing UUs. “The typical response that we heard,” says Hurley, “was that it’s just so great to hear Unitarian Universalism being advertised.”

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