Assaulting the Airwaves

Agent’s radio spots aim to educate public about airlines’ lapses

By: Jerry Chandler

Dave Walker has taken the war to the radio. The battle is with the airline industry, and the owner of Ace Travel in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, is out to counter what he considers enemy propaganda.

“If the average American had a really good idea of what was going on in the airline industry, they’d be stunned,” Walker said.

Rather than extol the beauties of Bermuda, Tahiti or Maui over the airwaves, Walker sets out each day to “stun” listeners with a litany of airline transgressions, in his “Stand Up or Shut Up” radio program.

Here’s a typical spot:

“Hi. This is Dave Walker with Ace Travel. I’m disgusted that the government continues to give taxpayer dollars to the airlines. They handed out $15 billion within hours of the WTC attack, and the airlines continue to ask for, and get, billions more, even though some of them are losing a million dollars a day.

“It’s an election year, and these are issues every taxpayer should be wondering about. This isn’t a political ad, but Ace Travel suggests that you examine why government is giving your money to a private industry.”

The motivation behind the ad? “All we want to do is plant the seed, so that people start asking questions,” Walker said.

“It’s not crying, ‘poor me,’” said Judi Stiles, owner of Sacramento’s Stiles in Travel and a former radio show host herself. “It’s [telling listeners] what the airlines are doing to the public. They’re making travel a little bit more difficult every time they squeeze the customer for example, the issuance of a paper ticket.”

It’s hard-edged, consumer issues that Stiles tackles when she is on the air. She advises other agents to avoid blatantly self-serving pitches. Don’t talk commissions. Consumers don’t care.

So, what’s in it for travel agents? Why bother educating the public?

“When you do a consumer education project, you set yourself up as the expert. You’ll get residual calls,” Stiles said.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Stiles ran her shop’s most successful radio campaign ever.

“Basically, we said, ‘On behalf of the travel agents in the area, we want to thank you for hanging in there. We understand you had to cancel. When you’re ready to travel, your travel agents stand ready to help you.’

“That simple statement kept us alive. It ran for three weeks straight.”

Most ads don’t run that long; they rotate.

“I’ve got four of them,” Walker said.

Here’s another: “This is Dave Walker with Ace Travel and I’m wondering when the American consumer will wake up and realize the stranglehold airlines have on this country. They stuff money into the pockets of elected officials and, in turn, get billion-dollar government bailouts so that million-dollar CEOs can keep living the high life.

“Did you know that one of the airlines’ top lobbyists is the wife of Sen. Tom Daschle? How can that happen?

“Wondering where your tax dollars are going? Take a look.

“This wake up call is brought to you by Ace Travel.”

“People who listen to those a couple of times start asking, ‘Where is my money going?’” Walker said.

Pumping Up the Volume

Stiles, who also produces radio spots for others, knows the value of volume.

“The key to radio advertising is repetition,” she said.

The result of repetition is recognition. When people enter her shop in Sacramento or call on the phone, they’re asked how they found Stiles in Travel.

“If it isn’t a referral, it’s typically. ‘I saw you in the Yellow Pages and I recognized the name,’” she said.

That recognition comes from the radio, but it takes time.

“Your message is only heard once out of every nine times it’s aired,” Stiles said.

Without superb placement on a specific show at a specific time, it takes constant repetition to get the message and your agency’s name across. Walker’s ad runs each day at 7:30 a.m. during the local news like clockwork. The demographic audience is already nailed down: literate, involved people who want to know what’s going on.

A key issue for travel agents is how to go about paying for air time, whether it’s one spot or a slew of them a day. Stiles said trade-outs are critical. Stations give their advertisers and vendors trips and book them through your shop. The value of the transaction goes toward the radio spots.

But the real value of locally run, locally produced consumer education ads is that travel agents can stop cursing the darkness and light a bit of a fire among the electorate.

“I’m not some big political activist. I’m just an average guy,” Walker said. Despite the success of efforts in Sacramento and Coeur d’ Alene, Walker said too few agents are taking advantage of the electronic bully pulpit to get their messages across.

“What do you do to jump-start people?” he asked. “That’s where ‘Stand Up or Shut Up’ came from.’”

According to Walker and Stiles, talk is cheap, unless it’s well-thought-out and specifically targeted. Then, they said, it’s nothing short of terrific.