Alpha Media Live Studio

High-tech performance studios are more than just digital playgrounds for new content creation. They’re also radio revenue diversifiers that tap into previously unavailable brand sponsorship budgets. Not a value-add to entice a spot buy, these theaters often operate as a separate business unit with their own P&L.

“We’re going after the pure sponsorship dollars, the same category that a team or a music festival would go after,” says Amy Leimbach, VP of Sales for Alpha Media Portland, OR.

And the sponsorship opportunities are seemingly limitless. Exclusive naming rights sponsor? Check. Beer sponsor? Double check. Green Room sponsor? Check and (signed) check.

As with hockey arenas and stadiums, big brands such as Levi’s, BlueCross Blue Shield and electronics retailer Adorama pony up big bucks for exclusive title sponsorships for prime radio venues. Before opening its 163-person Portland theater seven years ago, Alpha Media quickly recouped its $1 million investment in the venue by selling a title sponsorship to Microsoft. The software giant branded the room as the Bing Lounge, named after its search engine and later renamed it the Skype Lounge, installing Skype PX technology in the studio so acts could talk with fans from around the world on screen during interview and performance sessions. (Microsoft’s partnership is coming to an end; Alpha is in talks for a new title sponsor.)

But the studio’s marketing mojo extends beyond the Portland market. When James “JC” Curleigh, then CEO of Portland-based clothing, shoe and bag manufacturer Keen, first saw the room, a bulb went off in his head. Impressed with the concept, Curleigh approached Cumulus Media adult alternative KFOG about collaborating on a similar project after he moved to San Francisco to become executive VP and president of global brands at Levi Strauss. Discussions ensued and the 50-person capacity Levi’s Lounge was born.

More than a year after first opening its doors with a performance by Cheap Trick, the San Francisco venue is close to breaking even while earning a reputation as a top music destination in the city. In addition to Levi’s, Cumulus signed Wente Vineyard as a secondary sponsor, pairing wine tasting with live music.

But the payoff goes beyond dollars and cents. “You can’t put a price tag on the value the listeners and clients get and how much we can naturally and organically tie future advertisers in,” says Mari Galaviz, director of Experiential for Cumulus San Francisco.

Apart from big-ticket naming rights deals and secondary sponsors, one-off sponsorships for specific events are popular. So are annual deals. Alpha sold long-term presenting sponsorships for all of the country shows programmed by “98.7 The Bull” KUPL in the Skype Lounge to a casino and later to a car dealership. Along with on-site presence and on-air, online and social media promos, the sponsors give away tickets to the shows at their retail locations.

Beyond sponsorships, station clusters create customized activations that are often organic in nature. CBS Radio activated a Sprint VIP Experience at its BlueCross BlueShield theater that drove listeners to Sprint stores to get a text code to win their way into a private performance. For Anheuser Busch, the venue was transformed into a Bud Light bar, with listeners winning their way in from different retail activations. Every event from both CBS Chicago spaces is streamed live with sponsor branding embedded within the stream via a logo bug tucked in the corner of the screen.

In New York, Cumulus can change the look and vibe of its Stage 17 Live on a dime to suit a client’s needs. Visuals and color schemes can be changed to mimic the look of a station or client brand so it becomes, for example, Jet Blue Stage 17 Live. A giant ticker that wraps around the room displays sponsor messages. The technology allows Cumulus to deliver valuable brand impressions—not only for attendees but for those watching on digital platforms. Brand logo and product placements are tallied by ad tracking firm Veritone, allowing Cumulus to quantify the number of impressions delivered for sponsors. “It opens up opportunities for us that we would have never had before with sponsors like Universal Music Group and Voss water,” senior VP/market manager Chad Lopez says. For the bottled water maker, Cumulus did a “Spot The Voss” contest that challenged viewers to find performers, including Luke Bryan, on camera in the studio drinking the water.

Keeping the Rooms Booked

On dates where no acts are booked, station clusters will rent the rooms to groups to host their own private events. Wells Fargo did a wine tasting for clients at Alpha’s Skype Lounge, while a health care organization did a presentation about cold and flu season.

Stations are also using the spaces to partner with community groups on cause-marketing campaigns. After writing a book about the death of her first husband by suicide, KINK personality Sheila Hamilton became a spokesperson for Trillium Family Services, which works to erase the stigma around mental illness. Trillium became the presenting sponsor for all KINK-promoted shows in the Skype Lounge and also sponsored the green room, dubbed the Wellness Room, where acts relax and chill before taking the stage. For acts willing to talk about it, Hamilton interviewed them in the Wellness Room about how they remained mentally fit while enduring the grueling pace of life on the road, and all of its not-so-healthy temptations. Trillium and KINK posted the videos on their sites and pushed them out via social media.

Among the dozens of cooking segments streamed live from CBS Radio’s Culinary Kitchen in Chicago are ones with Food Network’s Jeff Mauro and cookbook author and celebrity chef Marcela Valladolid, along with musicians with a culinary tie such as country star Trisha Yearwood. Rolling up its sleeves in the kitchen has opened up new dollars from such categories as food, culinary, appliances and retail, says senior VP/market manager Tim Pohlman. “We capture that content from the kitchen and we own it and we can push it out and distribute in many ways following the live stream,” Pohlman says.

In San Francisco, Levi’s creates a custom trucker jacket for every artist that plays its Lounge, utilizing imagery and symbols associated with the artist, along with custom hand stitching and embroidery. Photos of the bands in their custom jackets are pushed out by Levi’s on its social platforms, and often by the artists, too.

Along with serving as content incubators and marketing vehicles, performance spaces are teaching new skills to the radio industry as it nears its 100-year anniversary. “Besides running radio stations, we’re theater operators and concert producers now,” says CBS Radio New York senior VP/market manager Marc Rayfield of the company’s 70-seat theater Adoroma Theater in Manhattan. “It’s one way were making up for the more traditional parts of our business which are slow.”