In marketing for new listeners, Philadelphia’s WXPN emphasizes human touch in music curation

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A new marketing campaign mounted by Philadelphia’s WXPN-FM takes aim not at other local radio stations but targets the threat of online music services such as Pandora and Spotify.

The Triple A station launched a six-week campaign last week to bolster recognition of the station in its market, attract new members and try to lure people away from online competitors. The “Vinyl at Heart” campaign features bus wraps and billboards as well as refresher campaigns and live events.

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Research commissioned by the station four years ago sowed the seeds for the new campaign by revealing untapped potential for new listeners in the Philadelphia market.

“One of the key findings was that of the people in the region that liked the kind of music we play, only half knew we even existed,” said Roger LaMay, WXPN’s g.m. “It wasn’t shocking, but nonetheless it was one of those findings that grabs you and says you need to do something.”

Those results paralleled a study of classical music listeners presented at last month’s Public Radio Program Directors conference. Only 20 percent of respondents who said they liked classical music were listening to it on public radio. Likewise, researchers argued that classical public radio programmers should see Pandora as a major competitor.

Taking aim at Pandora and similar services made sense when WXPN looked at where potential listeners were going for music and found that other FM stations weren’t among their choices.

“When we look at the system, we tried to see who our biggest competitors are,” LaMay said. “And it’s Pandora and Spotify, not each other. When you look at their numbers, we all are in the same boat.”

Music stations are at a particular disadvantage. “My deeply held belief is that the music stations, the Triple A ones, have really significant challenges posed by new technology and competition,” LaMay said. “The news stations have faced it, too, but they have opportunities with the troubles in the newspaper industry that the music stations don’t have.”

To overcome these challenges, LaMay said, stations need to prioritize marketing themselves and getting the word out about who they are and what they do. The problem, he said, is how to fund such efforts. WXPN was aware that such marketing would be pricy and would require saving up for, as if it were a capital campaign. But the station encountered setbacks.

“In public radio fashion, that money we set aside was for marketing but also a contingency,” LaMay said. “So as things came up, we didn’t make the major investment.”

The station decided to prioritize the campaign, however, to tie it in with the 10th anniversary of its World Café Live concert venue. LaMay agreed to take charge of raising funds to support the campaign and has raised close to $80,000.

WXPN planned the campaign with Pavone, a brand firm based in Harrisburg, Pa. Its main theme highlights the expert music curation offered by WXPN that listeners won’t find with services such as Pandora and Spotify. Slogans include “Rhythms not Algorithms” and “Curated not Encoded.”

“That speaks to our values,” LaMay said. “It’s meant to differentiate us from the Pandoras of the world. But it’s not meant to be anti-technology or retro. It’s about being hand-crafted and speaks to the values and sensibilities that we offer.”

WXPN is spending $250,000 on the campaign with some additional trades. The transit and billboard campaign will cost $100,000, with $50,000 devoted to events and the rest supporting following up with potential members and evaluating the campaign’s impact.

The campaign also includes a tie-in with short-term car rental company ZipCar, whose drivers will find car radios preset to WXPN and tags on their rearview mirrors touting the station.