From the June 2001 issue of Startups

You can't see it. You can't touch it. You can't taste it. But it's around you all the time. It may sound like a horrible riddle, but it's actually an often-overlooked marketing medium. What is it? Radio, of course.

"Most everybody puts their focus on television," notes Dan Collins, senior manager of media relations at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "But there's a large amount of time people spend commuting and driving, and they're listening to the radio. People forget that. They think it's television or nothing."

I asked a general sales manager at an AM radio station in Los Angeles, and he said typical radio advertising costs between $5,000 and $7,000 to start. But there are actually several ways to get airtime without spending a penny.

Take Collins, for instance: "WLIF [a Boston FM radio station] did a series of health spots with our nutritionists," he recalls. "[The nutritionists] came in and recorded a spot every day for a whole month for National Nutrition Month. We were able to get our name out there and establish ourselves as experts-and it was free."

Most radio stations have some sort of public service programming, so news directors and public service directors constantly have airtime to fill. That works in your favor: Find an angle they can use that fits your business, and watch your name recognition rise. "They're always looking for ideas," says Collins.

All it takes is a little research on local stations. Just pick up the phone, and start smiling and dialing. Chat to directors about what they're looking for and what they need. Build relationships, and put names to faces when possible.

Program consulting and Web development firm Spindustry Systems Inc. discovered firsthand the benefits of knowing the right people. Two years ago, the Des Moines, Iowa, firm convinced reps from Clear Channel, a national communications company with more than 25 Iowa radio stations, to trade Web design work for airtime and ended up with 26 weeks of radio ads. "Suddenly everyone had heard of us," says Spindustry's vice president and partner Therese Wielage, 37. That helped the 5-year-old company triple revenue and grow from an eight-employee firm to a 38-person powerhouse. The company was even a finalist in the 2000 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

Starting to see potential here? Well, consider one more option: public radio sponsorship. E. Kelly Hansen's Milwaukee-based computer security and cyberforensics consulting firm, Sun Tzu Security Ltd., has seen more than 200 percent growth in the past three years, thanks in part to a partnership with WUWM 89.9 Milwaukee Public Radio. After a profitable year in 1997, Hansen decided to donate some of the firm's proceeds to the station, and the rest, shall we say, is history. "The sponsorship has paid off dramatically," says Hansen, 30. "We've developed a very well-recognized brand in a relatively short period of time through our extensive use of radio."

Convinced? Well, you should be. With three relatively low-cost/no-cost options, it's worth a few hours of research and phone calls to check it out. Concludes Hansen, "Radio is one of the best ways to reach an information-overloaded audience."