Mirror, Mirror On The Wall, What's The Future For Us All?

by Mark Margulies

I worry about radio. I have to. Radio is my livelihood.

Radio allows me to eat (all too much) and sleep with a roof over my head. It allows me to drive a nice car and plan a future with my family. It allows me to ski in the winter, own season tickets to the Rockies in the spring (no cracks about our team, okay?), and vacation in Vail in the summer. Radio does all that for me by providing a living, same as it does for you. That's why I worry about radio.

You should worry about radio, too.

With deregulation opening up the doors, more and more radio stations have been engulfed by corporations, and fewer and fewer are owned by "broadcasters." True, some corporations are first rate, with an understanding of the business and a knowledge of the market they dominate. Others, sadly too many others, care little for their stations or their markets. They're interested in their profit margins.

You should worry about that.

Why? Well, for many reasons. Take downsizing as an example. The more stations that duopolize and organize LMAs, the more positions are eliminated and the more work is distributed to a smaller work force and to computers. That means the Production Director of today could be the ex-Production Director of tomorrow. But that's just the start. Here's something you should really worry about, because no one else at the top seems to.

Content.

Sure, as a copywriter and production engineer, I may be a little tunnel visioned. But the fact is, many of these so called broadcasting giants are producing and airing commercial trash I wouldn't have submitted as freshman production -- in high school. Their all-out, go for broke attitude of "get the check, get the money" is not only creating horrible radio, it's destroying our client base.

How? Simple. Clients would remain clients if given any modicum of attention and results after they part with their check. Instead, these people are becoming disgusted with what we call "service" and "production" and seek out the alternatives. Well, one of those alternatives is spelled Cable TV.

I worry about Cable TV. You should too.

Local Cable TV presents the greatest challenge to radio since television itself. Because, unlike other forms of print or electronic media, Cable TV is instantly targeted, delivers the dimension of sight as well as sound which increases impact, and is, dollar for dollar, a remarkably competitive and effective advertising tool. This makes Cable TV an attractive alternative for clients who feel they're getting cheated every time they part with an advertising buck anyway. They can hear it. They can SEE it. They can even be television "stars."

But other forces have threatened radio in the past. Why, you might ask, is now the time to worry? Because the lords of radio haven't got a clue. Their formula for fighting the menace Cable TV is:

Drop your rates.

Spiff your clients (the thing THEY CALL Customer Service).

Bonus them some more spots.

Never once are the words "better quality" used. See, the lords of radio find nothing wrong with the way they're doing business. They think this is all just a phase, something they can defeat with another sales training seminar or by driving their staff harder to sell more.

And that's why I worry.

It's not a matter of harder work or slicker sales techniques. The time has come. The lords of radio have got to listen, at least those who haven't got their resumes ready to be distributed on a minute's notice. They have to begin to understand that the way they're going to beat back the Cable and interactive TV threat and protect their advertising share is by stressing quality, and that means a close examination that starts with what they are selling. They're not selling "more music." They're not selling "more talk." They're selling hope, hope that the advertiser holds for increased volume and business based on their radio ads. And that's just not happening enough because of the mediocrity being allowed to flourish on the air.

It's time to examine the message being sent out. It's time to stop going to the clients with a piece of copy written by an overworked AE, Production Director, or jock and asking that ridiculous question, "Do you like this?" It's time to put as much time and care into what the message is, as they do in getting the check.

And that's where we come in.

We are professionals, at least those of us who have decided to stick around after that first job where the smiling Sales Manager walked into our office and said, "Gosh, we don't know what we'd do without you. But starting Monday, we're going to try to find out." As professionals, what goes out over the air waves in the form of locally produced spots is OUR domain. That means it's time to put all that experience and know-how to work for you.

DO NOT ACCEPT MEDIOCRITY

BENMAR Rule Number One. Radio's ace in the hole in its battle against Cable TV is creativity. Sure, you can SEE the message on Cable. But have you ever SEEN some of the messages they let you see? Local Cable spots are atrocious. In ninety percent of the cases, they're poorly produced, horribly written, and of poor production value. Dropped into a stop set with a national or regional ad, they're laughable to see. That does not have to be the case with radio.

You can sound comparable with national and regional production if you just concentrate on what your strengths are. Strive to bring a sound to your spots that's tight, strong and clean. You don't have to have the voice talent available to Dick Orkin to produce good spots. Use your own strengths first. Then, play to the strengths of your staff. Don't let Account Executives back you into a corner by promising, "Sure, we do great 'Molson-type' spots. No problem." Work to highlight your best approaches and use them to create quality material.

FOCUS

BENMAR Rule Number Two. Don't clutter your spots with superfluous garbage. Forget about the "and there's more" or "plus, don't forget" and "check it all out." Get your salespeople to ask specific questions. Focus in on why the client is going to advertise and what THEY expect their ad to do, then concentrate on building your spot to accomplish that goal. A happy client is one whose spot brings in qualified customers, not just lookey-loo's.

DON'T HAND OVER CONTROL TO THE CLIENT.

BENMAR Rule Number Three (geez, we have a lot of rules). I've never EVER heard a client say to a sales rep, "Well, even though my ads aren't pulling squat, I'm going to stay with your station because I really like my ad." Read this carefully, because it's the one thing no one in radio has ever taught you: it doesn't matter if the client LIKES the spot. Okay, clear your eyes and read it again. You read right. And here's why: the client wants results, period. That's what they want. Just what brilliant experience do THEY bring to a creative meeting that makes them an expert in anything that happens on the air? The answer, in most cases, nothing. Zilch. Nada. Sure, they're paying the freight, which means you don't just have Carte Blanche to hack off your client. But if they don't like a spot that YOU KNOW will be a killer on the air, be assertive. Explain to the client why you feel they're wrong and why they should have an open mind. MOST clients, when dealt with as professionals, WILL LISTEN. When you explain WHY you feel your spot will work, and why theirs will not, they'll listen -- because you KNOW; they don't. And face it, no one can beat you when you produce results -- not cable, not competing stations -- no one. That starts when you work with your Account Executives to take the control FROM the client and put it back where it belongs -- in YOUR hands.

I worry about radio. But I worry less knowing that a little bit at a time, you and I are out there, together, getting the message out. I love radio. I don't want to see it become another answer to a trivia question when my grandkids play Trivial Pursuit, the Intergalactic Version. So, what I work hardest for, is that the next time I go to that mirror on the wall and ask, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, what's the future for us all?" the face will appear, a small smile will spread across its lips, and, in a strong, clear voice, it'll say:

"Don't worry about radio. You guys are doing okay."

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