Production 212: Clanging Bells and Slobbery Dogs

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

I recently did a seminar by telephone in which participants were allowed to ask any question of me they wanted. I was particularly fascinated with the wide range and depth of questions. We covered writing, voice work and production, got pretty deep into demo preparation and even talked for a time about rates for voice work. There was one question that I think I covered pretty well during the seminar, but would like to expand on it a bit here: Classical Conditioning. If you’re going to be serious about this business at all, you need to not only understand how it works, but also know how to make it work for you. We all do it, mostly without knowing it. The end question is, “Is what you are doing, helping, or hurting?”

Let’s begin with a definition. Classical Conditioning is the process in which we elicit a desirable response by connecting the subject to something we know is emotionally desirable. In its purest Psych 101 form, we often call this behavioral training, or associative learning. A Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov introduced the concept to the world in the late 19th century with a long series of experiments.

Although the experiments were designed to discover what makes an animal salivate (at the time, his field was the study of gastric functions and the chemistry of the gastric process) he happened to discover something that has a profound effect on today’s advertising. Every time Ivan fed his dogs, he would ring a bell. One time, the bell was rung, but no food was put down and the dogs began to salivate anyway. This piqued his curiosity and he ultimately gave up his original study of gastro-chemistry and added Psychology to his studies. He won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1904 because he discovered that animals (including humans, it turned out) could be trained to react predictably and reliably by conditioning their minds to associate two events that normally would not be connected.

Fast-forward 100 years and think about TV commercials. Beer commercials often feature snowy peaks and flowing ice-cold streams, connecting the product with cold, crisp refreshment. Automotive spots might show a car roaring along in the salt flats, turning in wide circles and sliding to a halt in front of the cameras – with no roads, freedom is suggested with a touch of reckless danger. Then there’s the baby, sitting in the middle of a tire as it floats along the highway, hinting that your child is safely carried wherever you go. Each of these suggest a connection between two very different things that under the microscope of rational thought, don’t really belong together or are at least neutral to each other. One is the bell, designed to make the consumer salivate when it rings, the other is the product or service. When the time comes, and you’re buying beer on a hot August afternoon, you’ll think about snowy peaks and ice-cold streams. If you’re in a new car showroom, about to make one of the ‘major’ purchases of the next few years, you’ll think about freedom and how cool it will be to slide up in a sleek new (insert make and model here). If the advertiser has done a good job of training you, when you’re standing in a smelly, greasy, loud garage, selecting new tires, you’ll think about keeping your loved ones safe.

So, how do you train your audience to think about your station when they’re selecting a button on their tuner? The time-honored way is with jingles. Most programmers have very strict rules about when a jingle can play. I doubt many of you have often heard jingles going directly into commercials. Instead, they almost always go into a proven hit that you want to associate with your station name. Play a jingle often enough and the station’s musical logo becomes imbedded in the listener’s mind. As long as you always follow that logo with a best-selling song, the jingle becomes your bell that makes the listener salivate.

Most of you will remember an artist named Ja Rule. For several years, everything Ja Rule touched turned to gold. Shortly before he announced that he had sung everything he wanted to sing and retired, he dropped in at Z100 to talk about his latest project. Afterwards, he sat down to do some station lines. Z100 had basically abandoned jingles some 8 or 9 years before, and yet he sang the station logo on one of the lines, note for note, nailing the logo as it had been for years. The next day, I played that part of the session for our PD. We looked at each other and immediately began the process of re-instituting jingles on Z100.

Perhaps not as obvious, but just as powerful, is call letter placement. In most successful radio stations guidelines for jocks, the first thing out of the mouth will always be the call letters. A lot of programmers will also insist that a jock never say the call letters just as commercials begin. Remember, we want the audience to associate our name and logo to hit music, not commercials.

The key to classical conditioning is consistency. Pavlov’s dogs came to expect food whenever the bell rang. Your audience should expect hit music whenever they hear your calls. With pre-recorded sweepers, as boring as it might seem, we always strive for the simplest approach possible: station name and phrase. Aside from the odd contest sweeper, ours are always just “New York’s hit music station – Z100.” Ask any New Yorker which station plays hits and they will almost always say Z100, even if it’s not their favorite radio station.

With promos, having a connection to hit music, or hit music artists is golden. A couple of months ago, my track on the RAP CD featured an artist naming other artist’s songs a favorites, with hooks played between: DOUBLE golden. Similarly, though with slightly less impact, having listeners talk positively about your music can really associate your station to the hits with very high credibility.

One last tip: whenever possible, get your MD or PD to supply you with a list of the tracks in power rotation. If you’re doing an image promo, that list is your jump-off point. These are the songs your audience is tuning in to hear. Whatever you do, do NOT use new or even old, but definitely not hit music. No matter how cool and hip you think it sounds, that’s not how the audience hears it. Stick with the hits every time and you’ll be grinding out grand slams every time. Play the stiffs and you’ll soon be looking for work.

My audio this month is a montage of several pieces. These are really conditioning our audience, ringing their bells and making them expect the hits, whenever they tune in to Z100.

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