No ads on a commercial radio station? How do they do it?

There was Chris DeLisle again, a promotional fixture for WRQX-FM as "the remarkable mouth," in a sexy 10-second spot on local television channels making another pitch for the radio station: "At Q-107 we're taking it all off. No commercials today, no commercials tomorrow. None. On Q-107."

None, that is, until Jan. 18, when the 11-day promotional campaign ended and it was advertising business as usual for the rock station. But the effort piqued listeners' curiosity and that, station managers feel, was worth as much as $100,000 in lost ad revenues.

Actually, most stations are only 40 percent sold out at this time of year, and many offer first-quarter package deals. WRQX is down from a usual eight commercials per hour to four. In the estimation of several local radio and advertising executives, the real cost to WRQX was probably only about $50,000. Still, insiders say it was a desperation move.

"I wouldn't argue with that at all," says Q-107 program director Frank Burns.

"We decided to take an immediate loss in revenues for 11 days as a long-term investment," said Rick Fowler, WRQX director of advertising and promotion. "We'd bite the bullet for 11 days with the game plan of winning listeners from other stations and keeping them for longer periods. The thinking was: The listening public likes a free ride.

"Of course it's a gamble," Fowler added. "If we don't see an increase in listeners , we'll be disappointed." The station has suffered unusually low ratings in recent months, plummeting from a 6.6 overall share of listeners age 12-plus in the spring Arbitron survey, to a 3.8 in the fall survey. The market share of prime competitor WWDC-FM slipped from a 6 to a 5.1 in the same time period.

To take full advantage of the promotion, WRQX's commercial-free campaign Jan. 7 through 17 was scheduled for a ratings sweep period (Arbitron's winter sweep runs from Jan. 7 through March 17). Arbitron, radio broadcasters' predominant sales tool in the market, won't issue a new report until late March. But it's not too soon to calculate the extent of the gamble.

At the start of the rock-around-the-clock campaign, WRQX lagged in the crucial 6 to 10 a.m. "drive time," radio's equivalent of TV's prime time, attributable to the much publicized phenomenon of Howard Stern, DC-101's happily irreverent morning DJ. Since the last survey, WRQX hired the announcing team of Jim Elliott and Scott Woodside from WPGC in an attempt to stem the morning losses.

On the line: Q107 forfeited revenues for 11 days of roughly four commercials per hour, priced at $225 for precious morning drive time, much less for fringe time. Regular advertisers pay 75 percent to 80 percent of the normal contract rate, depending on volume, according to WRQX general sales manager Tony Renaud. The average price for a commercial spot is more like $80, according to competitors.

Add the cost of those catchy 10-second, TV come-ons, which ran for 10 days on channels 4, 5, 7 and 9, mostly in prime time. That's about $1,000 per spot, or up to $3,000 for placement in a football play-off game, according to WRQX's Burns.

The station would not disclose the campaign's budget. But "it's less expensive to turn down revenue than to spend it after it's taken in," program director Alan Burns noted.

To spend the same amount on a promotional campaign the station would have to pay salesmen's commissions, taxes and, not least, music licensing fees, which are calculated from gross revenue.

Was it worth it? Each rating point is worth approximately $600,000 in the Washington market, depending on the demographics of the audience, how well the sales staff can market it, and assuming the station retains the point for a full year. Using that figure as a gauge, WRQX would more than make up for it's promotional expenses if it won a fraction of a rating point from a competing station.

Besides grabbing the attention of listeners, WRQX's ploy stirred controversy within the business.

"It blows my mind," said WPGC General Manager Charles Giddens. "It's economic suicide. It tells people commercial radio is bad. There are already enough noncommercial stations on the air.

"WRQX had a large number of commercial-free hours anyway, and this is a low time of year with most stations only running five commercial units per hour anyway. It's beating an image into the ground."

Judy Green, vice president-media director of Earle Palmer Brown advertising agency in Bethesda, disagrees.

"I know there are people in the market that are put off, but I don't think they the station mean to tell people commercials are clutter. Their entire strategy is based on two factors: They made a drastic mistake changing the format (from top-40 to album rock), which resulted in confusion," and, Green believes, "they were threatened by Doubleday's takeover of WAVA," with the company's history of programming many commercial-free consecutive days.

Noting the station's nosedive in the most recent Arbitron survey, Green said advertising agencies see the commercial-free campaign as "a nuisance, but they recognize it's only when you have a problem that you do things like that."