Billboard Mastery Podcast: Episode 92

Why Signs Aren’t On Roofs Anymore

There are many spots you can place a billboard on – including walls, benches, and telephone poles – but there’ one place that most cities in the U.S. have outlawed: building roofs. What used to be one of the mainstays of billboard placement has been blocked from new construction for decades. In this Billboard Mastery podcast we’re going to explore what happened to roof mounts and why it’s unlikely to ever change.

Episode 92: Why Signs Aren’t On Roofs Anymore Transcript

There are lots of places that you can stick a billboard. You can put it on a wall, on a big metal column, on some telephone poles, maybe on a bus bench. But one place you can't place a billboard today, in most markets, is on a roof. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. We're going to be talking about what happened to the roof mount. Now, if you drive around a lot of older urban cities, you will see on the roof of many, many buildings a giant billboard, sitting right there for all the world to see, some of them have terrific visibility on the major highway. But you'll notice they're all old. Made out of angle iron, old in every regard, the light fixtures, the face sizes, not a part of modern society.

And you may say, "Hmm, that's odd, why are they old?" And then maybe you'll see a building that meets all of the state specifications or spacing and zoning. And you may go in and apply for a permit, "Hey, I want to build a billboard on the roof of that building." You'll be immediately denied. So what is the hostility against placing billboards on roofs? Why can you put them almost anywhere else but a roof? Well, here's what happened. So, back in the 1920s and '30s when billboards first came out of the chute all the way up through the '60s and the '70s, billboard companies loved putting signs on roofs. Because if you think about it, it took all the effort out and all the cost of erecting the billboard because instead of putting in that big steel post or back then those big metal I-beams or telephone poles to get the sign way up in the air, you cheated. You just stuck it on something that was already way up in the air, put it on the roof of that building.

So consequently, there wasn't a rooftop in America that some billboard company wasn't trying to get on top of. Look at Times Square in New York, for example. It's just a sea of roof mounts. And it seemed to make sense to everyone. No one had a problem with it. The building owners, they loved getting the money from it. But what happened was is they started to deem those as being unsafe. Not unsafe because a sign might blow down. Many of those billboards become an integral part of the building. But the big issue became in the event of fire. Let's say the building catches on fire and that billboard weighs, oh I don't know, 10 or 15 thousand pounds up on top of that building. If that building catches fire and the fire obviously weakens things that burn, and if the fire goes towards the roof because it does, 'cause heat rises, so the fire is always trying to go up there, what happens if that billboard suddenly falls through the roof? There's really nothing else on the roof that can do that.

But that sign sure could. And if that sign came crashing through that roof, it would have enough force to go all the way to the basement and crush and kill anyone along the way. So there were some buildings, in fact, that they let burn because the fire department was too afraid to go in the building to try and put the fire out. They deemed that the fire connected with that sign posed too big a risk to the firefighters. So that's when the hatred began. And then the word spread among other cities, "Uh-oh, we don't want any more of these signs on the roofs. Look at the casualties they could create." And that was pretty much the end of the ability to put new signs on roofs. But then that begs the question, "Well, what about the signs that are up there now, can you still operate those existing signs that sit up there on those roofs?" Well, I've not seen an occasion where the city ended the grandfathered permit of the sign on the roof.

Now health and safety does have its own additional power over grandfathering, but I've not seen any health and safety things in recent years where people wanted those signs to be removed. I'm not even sure back when everyone had the hostility against the roof mount signs that it even was fair or true. I don't know that a sign on a roof, as much as they weigh, is much more heavy than many cases with those large buildings for example, giant air conditioning units, or giant water tanks filled with water. So maybe they were all wrong to begin with. But nevertheless, I haven't seen any existing roof mounts forced to be removed. Those all still seem to be operating correctly. So then the question is, "Could you buy an existing roof mount?" If you see an old roof mount sign that's sitting there and it's abandoned or it's being underutilized, could you buy that and make a go of it? And the answer is, probably yes.

Even most of your largest billboard companies operate some number of roof mounts. So they already understand them, they already are up there, they already know how to install safety equipment. So yes, the bottom line to it is, the roof mount going forward is probably just fine. If you wanted to buy an existing one, you probably can, but just don't be thinking that you can build any new ones because there's no city that I'm aware of that would ever let you do it. Now will that change over time? Is it possible one day they will allow roof mounts to come back? And sadly the answer to that is no. I don't think they ever will. Because most cities are hostile against billboards anyway, let's be honest. So I don't know who would have the guts at the city to try and change the building code for billboards. I just don't see that occurring. Now remember they do let you put on a wall mount so you can put a sign on the wall of a building. That seems to be acceptable. It's just the roof that they are a little touchy over. So at least they give you that little bit of extra credit where they still will allow you to fix the sign to the building just not sitting perched on top. This is Frank Rolfe of the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.