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AG News: Wednesday - 6/10/2009

The Need to Improve Radio Industry's Product

For those who are old enough to remember the Pet Rock, you probably are starting to lose memory of other things. But, see if you can recall radio's sound when Stan Freberg released his famous "Sundae in Lake Michigan" promo. Here's how the Freberg Wiki explains this radio industry landmark: "Freberg drained Lake Michigan and refilled it with hot chocolate and a mountain of whipped cream while a giant maraschino cherry was dropped like a bomb by the Royal Canadian Air Force to the cheers of 10,000 extras viewing from the shoreline. Freberg concluded with, 'Let's see them do that on television!' That bit became a commercial for advertising on radio."

Just reading those words brings visions of action in your head. Imagine hearing this in a well-produced promo. If you were working in radio, a teenager (like I was), or not born yet, this bit of creative genius was the essence of "theater of the mind" thinking that drove the radio industry for the next three decades.

Not sure what happened to "theater of the mind." It sort of evaporated when radio began to consolidate. Today I find it used in so few radio commercials that it seldom comes into memory. (We'll not get into its absence in programming, because what follows is strictly about the product radio delivers to advertisers - commercials.)

Radio has but one sense to use in penetrating the clutter of surrounding media: sound. What words are chosen, how they are put together, and the sounds that accompany them (music and effects) are the only elements we can use to draw attention and hold it. In these days of eight-in-a-row commericals, and more, the importance of capturing the listeners' attention within the first few seconds of anything that comes out of speakers is crucial to the success of the advertising campaign. It leads to one question: Can you identify anything that your radio station is putting on the air in a stop set which activates a listener's mental ability to conjure up a vision?

The other day while listening to one Cleveland radio station, I heard a spot set that was filled with so many bad commercials in production, choice of words, and delivery style that it initiated a conversation between me and my wife on the quality of radio commercials. (Mrs. D is a 25-year veteran of radio. Over 16 years were spent as part of the WMMS Buzzard Nuclear Army, where she was Traffic Director.)

We didn't dwell on how bad the commercials were, but why an advertiser would want to lay down money to have their company positioned in such an inept manner, with such poorly scripted copy. Keep in mind this was a string of commercials, not just one commercial.

Laying the blame on the production department wasn't the topic; it was how production directors are so swamped with responsibility they cannot afford time to produce quality. From there we discussed the "sound" of the spots. Not that the voices carried the balls-in-their-foot vocals that people like Joe Kelly were blessed with, but the voices exposed the "what am I doing" lack of confidence in delivery one hears from air talent who haven't developed yet. Sample one Joe Kelly read here. I wrote and produced this promo during five years with the Cleveland Indians Radio Network. Now turn to your own speakers and see if there's a difference in the confidence of delivery between this and what's heard in your station's commercials/promos.

We are faced with a radio industry that's on the ropes in revenue, programming, and commercial content. It's up against a myriad of advertising competitors that also enjoy having eyeballs to get their point across.

Radio should not go back to what it was, but it desperately needs to get away from what it is - if there is to be an upswing in ad revenue whenever this economic disaster is settled.

We may not want to emulate the style of the Frebergs or Kellys, but the radio industry definitely needs to begin giving consideration to the way it constructs a paying client's airtime. Thought needs to be given as to whether a commercial uses the best choice of words, whether it carries sound effects to help drive a point home, and whether the vocal is natural and convincing - as if the person mouthing the words knows the product they are speaking about.

Just getting something on the air is no longer good enough to bring a client back again. In these days where the internet offers measurement of response, the very least the radio industry can do is offer advertisers a quality commercial that elicits a vision of the product being sold.

It's not hard to picture a pet rock. But when you're trying to sell windows, or clothing, restaurants, and autos, screaming won't work. And bad copy won't give the audience anything to remember.

(Publisher's note: If you'd like to hear a short sample of the more than 10,000 radio commercials I've written, produced, and voiced, click here. No apology made for the texture of sound quality, for either audio spec above. These were lifted off a 15-year-old cassette.)

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Ken Dardis
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