You could win thousands of dollars just by listening to the radio.
It seems that every time your alarm goes off in the morning, a disc jockey is exhorting you to call in for big bucks, motorcycles, concert tickets - even computers.
Promotions, long a radio staple, have been re-energized in recent years by the few national companies that are dominating the local market. Most station owners are pumping more money into marketing budgets, bringing more creative expertise to bear and setting high revenue expectations for their new acquisitions.
J.T. Anderton, media analyst and vice president of Duncan's American Radio, a Cincinnati research firm, said consolidation has changed the way radio stations sell themselves.
"You have the same number of stations, but in some cases, they're not competing directly with one another because they're owned by the same company." Mr. Anderton said. "The marketing focus shifts from stealing listeners from the other station to developing and maintaining the audience."
Stations have "deeper pockets and bigger brain trusts," said Mark O'Brien, vice president of BIA Consulting, a media consulting firm in Chantilly.
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed radio companies to own more stations in each market, the reins of radio power in Washington have become concentrated in the hands of five companies - Chancellor Media Corp., CBS Infinity Broadcasting, ABC Radio, Bonneville International Inc. and Radio One Inc. of Lanham.
Local radio executives acknowledge the role their parent companies have played in marketing, but many say their core goal has not changed. Though the link between marketing, advertising sales and revenue is key, they say they concentrate on entertaining the listener, whether with music or contests.
"If I can't create fun, then I'm not doing my job," said Mark Lapidus, marketing director for WWDC-FM (101.1), which is owned by Chancellor Media.
Why market at all? If listeners like country music, they listen to a country station - likewise with oldies or classical.
However, there remains overlap in the market despite consolidation. For example, the top-rated stations in Washington, according to the Arbitron rating service, are WPGC-FM (95.5), WHUR-FM (96.3) and WKYS-FM (93.9), which have similar urban adult-contemporary and rhythm-and-blues formats.
Mr. Anderton noted that radio stations are now also seeing competition from alternative media, including the Internet.
"It's a very busy, crowded media landscape out there, and there are many, many choices," he said.
The Washington area is particularly competitive, industry sources say.
"You have to stand out. You have to establish a brand. If you don't market, you're not going to get any new listeners. No matter how established the brand is, you need to keep marketing it," Mr. Anderton said.
Jay Stevens, program director for WPGC-FM, the top Washington station in both ratings and revenues, is very conscious of the need to market with promotions, advertising and contests.
Mr. Stevens' station is owned by CBS, but he said the buyout didn't make it any easier for WPGC-FM to stay on top. Infinity acquired the station in 1994, then CBS bought Infinity in 1996.
"If anything, [consolidation has] increased competition, because all companies are so revenue- and cash-flow-driven. . . . Our shareholders demand a great return on their investment," he said.
Mr. Stevens said that since his competitors have similar playlists to his station, he must find other ways to differentiate WPGC-FM.
"The music is very important, but the imaging and marketing is what sets you apart," he said.
His station's latest big event was a 12th annual birthday bash, held on Memorial Day at the Prince George's Equestrian Center and Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro. …