Win money on the radio! Or not! 

It’s been said that while newspapers deal in the concrete and television traffics in the senses, radio is the never-never land of American media—a place of vagaries and vagueness where audiences are on their own to make sense of what they’re given. And nowhere is this more true than in Missoula during ratings season.

From the end of March to the middle of May, radio stations all over Montana get rated to see who is listening how much, a rite very similar to the sensation-riddled “sweeps weeks” you hear so much about on television. But here, it’s not sitcom cliffhangers or reality-show revelations we’re subjected to, but contests. If you’ve opened a newspaper or twisted a dial of any kind in the past month, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to a heady dose of advertising hype, promising everything from moderate novelties to fantastic wealth, if you happen to be a radio station’s lucky caller. But, as in all things, it pays to think about what you hear.

Take the giveaway being offered by 102.5 Mountain FM. In their ads, promoters crow: “Win $102 Every Hour!” But as KMSO’s program manager Lee Kent explains, the possibility of that claim actually being met is, at best, remote. “I sat down and tried to figure that out,” he says. “But it appeared to be a pretty slim chance that it would happen every hour.”

What really takes place is this: Two passwords are announced on the air 10 minutes before and after each hour 12 times a day. After the second password is given, the listener must be the first to call during a random 60-second period and cite the correct words, in order. The caller may then pick a number from one to 12. One number represents the advertised $102 prize; the rest are gift certificates. Kent is quick to emphasize that only local listeners participate and the clues are announced at the same time every hour. “It’s as fair as any radio contest ever done,” he says.

Compare this to another stunt down the dial, the z-100 motorcycle giveaway. Here, promoters say: “Listen to Craig & Al in the morning to qualify.” Sometime during the four-hour show, DJs play a special sound clip, at which time a listener must be the 10th caller to qualify for a drawing. In all, 50 listeners qualify this way; another 50 qualify by buying $100 raffle tickets for charity. At the end of the promotion, all 100 entrants gather at a party, where a single winning ticket will be drawn. While competitors charge that the four-hour timeframe is too vague, Z-100’s general manager Chad Parrish affirms that the contest always lives up to its promise. “The fact that the listener doesn’t know when to tune in has nothing to do with ethics,” he says. “Ethics has to do with whether you’re being deceiving in what you’re claiming to do.” In other words, someone in Missoula is, in fact, going to win a motorcycle.

Which takes us to KYSS-FM’s “10K A Day” contest. The key here is that the contests held by KYSS’s parent company, the Texas-based Clear Channel Corp., run in dozens of cities at the same time. In this case, when a listener hears the right sound, it’s time to call an 800-number and be the 25th caller to win $1,000. But the sound is played in 80 different stations at once, putting the Missoula listener in a potential pool of tens of thousands of other competitors nationwide. KYSS’s general manager Gene Peterson says that, as in all games, the long odds are offset by a big payoff.

“For us to be able to offer the kind of prizes we are, obviously the chances aren’t as good,” he says. “But our decision is that it’s a lot more exciting.” During the contest, which ends this week, Peterson says “a minimum of five” local listeners have won the cash prize.

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