How To Produce Great Radio Commercials

by Brian Battles

Creep, crawl, walk, run. Did anybody ever say that to you? A lot of experts state that you have to start slow and work your way up to speed in anything you do. I disagree. We only start off slowly if we don't know how to run without losing our balance. If someone else comes along and shows us how to skip the intermediate steps, we can be running that much sooner.

When I was a green disc-jockey interested in learning to produce ads, there was no Radio And Production to subscribe to, no How to Produce Great Radio Commercials to listen to, no "Ad Ventures" column to read in db Magazine. I scanned the main radio trade rags to see if there were any production books lurking in the classified ads. I wanted anything that could give me an edge. For some reason, nobody ever bothered publishing anything to help people produce commercials. Why not? Most people figure A) production isn't that important (compared to selling the spots), or B) a commercial is only a minute or less, so who cares how it sounds? Foolish thinking, but too true.

Before we get into any details, keep in mind that anything your station airs, commercials, news, sports, music, PSA's, Sunday morning organ music, or whatever, is your station while it's on the air. If it's a bad song, away go the listeners. If it's a sorry ad, goodbye audience. Period. Therefore, everything you put into Studio A had better be good. Don't all commercials automatically repel listeners, by definition? Not at all. When I used to work at WBAB (way back when Clio winner Dennis Daniel was my lowly intern/assistant), for example, our listeners used to request certain ads! As children's television producers are suddenly learning, just as you can entertain and educate at the same time, you can entertain and sell simultaneously. Never forget that.

The key to producing exceptional radio commercials is to get organized. It's not a bad idea to develop a written work sheet that covers the main parts of the process. You don't have to be formal about it, but you should have a plan before you begin. For the sake of analysis, I've broken the process into three phases.

Phase I: Pre-production

Creating a Concept: The first thing you do is determine what the commercial will include. This begins with getting the name of the client or product, the information that must be conveyed and the desired effect. In most retail ads, for example, the goal is to generate customer traffic. Remember that radio spots rarely sell products or services directly; they entice potential customers to shop for the product. The client's sales staff will do the selling.

Next you determine the approach. Determine the specific goal of this commercial. Are you announcing a particular event or promoting a brand name? There may be a special limited-time sale to publicize, or you might be trying to get listeners to learn the client's name. What will get the best results, funny or straight? Informational or emotional?

Writing Copy: After you figure out what needs to be said, you write the words that say it. Because radio listeners can't see the words you write, select expressions for the way they sound, not how they look. The meaning a term conveys when spoken is more important that what it means in a dictionary. Pick a short, vivid word over a polysyllabic abstract word. "Cash" gets more attention than "finances."

Use "you-language." That means relate every point or suggestion to the listener personally. "Attention K-Mart shoppers..." doesn't address anybody (who in the world views himself as a K-Mart shopper?), although "While you're shopping in K-Mart..." speaks directly to each person who hears it.

Production

Choosing Talent: Select the right person for the job. Is it you? The morning man? Overnight guy? Sales manager? A bus driver? Should it be male or female? Child, teen, adult or old fossil? Maybe the obvious choice isn't the best. Don't try to cut everything yourself. Don't fall into the two-way dialogue trap; many conversations involve larger groups -- get more voice in the studio. One pitfall to avoid: With female voice talent, you might be tempted to settle for anything because there are fewer women available for voice-overs. Pretend you're a celibate production eunuch.

Recording: My favorite all-purpose technique is to work with equipment that's scrupulously clean and record at the highest speed available with the levels as hot as you can get away with without audible overload. You can get away with murder if you record at high levels, with care. You don't need Dolby or dbx, and with higher speeds, you get better sound and more room to edit. If you scrub and demagnetize everything in the tape path, you'll keep hiss, muddiness and dropouts to a minimum. Insisting that your chief engineer align the heads weekly and replace the pinch rollers at least twice a year is a big help, too.

Always use fresh tape, never old, spliced-up junk. Don't recycle PSA masters or Sunday-morning farm shows. Get your station to buy good stuff. Save a few bucks by picking up 10 1/2-inch "pancakes" and clamp on flanges or wind the tape onto smaller reels yourself. Use Ampex 256, Scotch 226 or the equivalent.

If you get any flak about asking for this kind of service, send a memo to the boss pointing out that those tape decks represent a big investment (or a large replacement cost) and that they must be maintained better than the average family car. Always approach management with everything calculated in dollars, whether you're complaining, begging or bitching. It's the boss's job to make maximum profit, and if you show ways to improve that, you'll soon find yourself getting (almost) everything you ask for.

When you're recording, never let the tape stop. There's no such thing as a "dry run." Murphy's law states that you'll get your best take as soon as you say, "How about a quick practice try without the tape rolling?"

When you dub a commercial from reel to cart, take a few seconds to splice leader onto the reel, right up to the place where the audio starts. This way, your tape will be up to speed before the cart rolls. Pre-roll carts about one-fourth to one-half second to avoid "cart fart" if the pot's left up on the air when the end of the loop comes around to recue.

Editing/Mixing: I've never been much of an electronic-effects box weenie. I guess it's because I spent most of my radio-production career working at stations that had rudimentary single or multi-track tape studios. That forced me to find my own creative ways to produce special effects when needed, but more important, it taught me to make the creative part of a spot in the copywriting process. My best work was done in studios with no digital delay, sampling, MIDI or even EQ. I don't believe all effects are crutches, but they should be used sparingly, and only when they're going to add an essential touch to an already powerful commercial.

I discovered (I can't honestly say "invented") a few cheap tricks you can pull off with basic tape equipment:

1) Adding echo: Dump the tape deck's playback-head output back into the console as you record the original source at the same time.

2) Changing speeds when playing or recording: Wrap masking tape around the capstan -- one or more turns, wrapped evenly or unevenly. Try slowly pulling it off the capstan as the tape plays or records. Playback forward to hear the effect.

3) Adding echo while the tape is threaded backwards: You can flip the whole tape, reels and all, or better yet, thread normally but wrap the tape around the capstan and pinch roller the wrong way (e.g., in an S or backward-S path).

4) Flanging: Dub a copy of a tape, rewind the original and the copy, and play them back through the same audio path in complete synchronization.

5) Two-deck long delay: Thread through one deck then through another deck to the right-hand side; mix playback from the right-hand deck with source recording on the left-hand deck. (Weird.)

6) Combine two or more of the above.

7) Amass a huge library of digital sound effects CD's: If you have a superior portable tape deck (or DAT recorder), go out and get a few of your own, too. You never know when you'll be able to use the local high school marching band (mistakes and all), fans at a Little League game, people ordering in a diner, the ambience of a hotel lobby, a bus stopping to pick up passengers, a pet store back-ground, vending machine, etc.. Use a stereo mike, shock-mount handle and a good windscreen.

Distribution: Whether your ad is destined just for your own station or for a hundred stations in the top twenty markets, make every dub count. Clean the heads, use fresh tape, legibly type the labels and double check every copy for problems. Make sure your deejays and other stations' production people have clear instructions on what the spot contains, how it begins and ends and exactly how long it is. Mark cart labels if a spot has a live tag. (Don't rely on the jock to read a tag just because the traffic department was supposed to print it on the log.) For dubs leaving your station, enclose a typed copy of the tag in the tape box, in case the original gets lost in transit. Always keep a production master of everything you do, so that if a cart gets devoured by the machine or a dub gets erased by being placed on a loudspeaker cabinet, you always have a backup. (This also comes in handy when making demos for new clients or for your next job application.)

Marketing Your Services

Most local businesses that advertise on radio don't use advertising agencies. Those that do may not use full-service agencies, but merely time-buying services (which may write copy, too). The majority, however, rely on direct contact with the station's account executive to convey the information they want in their ad. Most production is performed by station personnel. If you're in a station's production department, there are ways to please your clients and perhaps earn some extra money.

Before you take your demo or spec tape door to door, do homework on your prospect and your station. Make a list of all your sponsors and listen to other stations for a few days and nights. If you hear the same ad on different stations, you've found yourself a great catch. Analyze the advertiser's copy. Figure out what you think he's trying to communicate and note what he's actually saying. See if the goal is being reached. Check out what his competition is doing. Write it all down. Draw conclusions. Make suggestions. Write a few sharp lines of copy. Don't write complete ads, just a few juicy morsels of fresh meat. Brainstorm some ad concepts on paper. Erase the worst ones -- at least half of them. Type it all up on a clean sheet of paper and stick it in your briefcase. (Does this sound like a lot of work? It is. But then, it's going to make you a lot of money, so go through with it.)

Resist the urge to "please the client at any cost," and concentrate instead on showing him how he'll get results at his cash register. Don't be arrogant or act superior, but courteously explain how it's your business to know what works on the radio and you're his "resident expert" who'll do everything possible to squeeze every drop of effectiveness from the dollars he's already paying to buy time. He has to fill those minutes with something, so it may as well be the single best thing to get him customers, not ten different things on ten different stations. Know what he's paying for his radio campaign and show what a small percentage of that he'll have to invest to take advantage of the services of the best producer in the market.

Do you think he hears this every day? Does every other station in town come to him with this presentation? Not on your life. Other producers, sales people, agencies and jocks are just grabbing his money and slapping together something acceptable that he'll approve for copy. You're providing value, customer service, a solid and well-prepared plan. You'll have his undivided attention.

If you prepare a commercial that's of such exceptional quality that you know it will generate results for the sponsor, see if you can meet with the client (and your station's account executive). Explain to the client that your ad will sound better and get desired results for specific reasons. Tell the client that using the same commercial on many stations will enhance his image, as national advertisers also select one spot or group of spots to achieve the desired result.

Get an appointment with the decision maker at the client's office. Go through you account executive or agency, if appropriate. Play a demo of your best work and a knockout sample spot for this client and explain why your work is so great. (Don't blabber about how great it is, but tell why.)

It's Up to You

Now, head for that studio with a fresh roll of tape in hand and a hot idea on paper and crank out a killer spot!

Brian Battles is the author/presenter of How to Produce Great Radio Commercials, a 4-cassette audio tape training program that teaches you techniques and tips for copywriting, producing and marketing exceptional radio spots.

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