The Golden Age of Radio Creative

by Jim Anderson

I knew something was up a couple of years ago. There was something in the wind...a distant sound effect...a hint of humor...the call of creativity. It was only after one of our Sales Managers cornered me to offer their post-seminar enlightenment concerning "creative" radio advertising that I knew it was for real. Somehow, through the drone of training tapes, seminars and trade magazines, critical mass has been achieved in the conference room. The collective supra-cranial sales light bulb has spontaneously come alive and the blessed light is shining directly on the wacky world of creative radio advertising. The "Golden Age of Radio Creative" has arrived.

Preparations for this "golden age" have been underway for some time. Advances in digital technology have trickled down to form the ever broadening "info-bahn" that offers communication possibilities only dreamt of a decade ago. Add to this the fragmentation of the radio, print and television media along with the coming-of-age of the market savvy 13th Generation and you have today's fierce competition for the miniaturized attention span of the ad weary consumer of the nineties. As advertising has stretched itself creatively to reach increasingly specialized markets, the focus has fallen hard on breakthrough ads that not only put a head-lock on their audience, but sell stuff as well.

What does this mean for radio? A ton of really cool new digital gadgets and salespeople lining up three deep for "something really different...really creative." In many ways it's the same old, same old...but with a twist. Now when they say "make it creative," they mean it. Simply adding sound effects to the old straight copy isn't going to cut it though, because Suzy Salesperson isn't calling on mom and pop anymore. She's calling on younger, hipper business owners and decision makers who are looking to shark through the clutter and get their message heard and remembered. The radio salesperson is moving into direct competition with the local ad agency, fighting to win control of their client's creative which is, in effect, control of their client's budget.

This is where you come in, my long suffering comrade in creative frustration. You and your time-worn tool kit. More and more, the quality of your product will make the difference between gaining or losing a sale for your station(s). Solid creative counts now more than ever. However, it's hard to move forward when you're constantly looking back to see where you've been; and you, my friend, are at the helm of the bobsled.

What to do? First, we must abandon the high concept. Cancel the clichés. You know what I'm talking about. Forget the fairy tale scenario, silence the talking chairs and shoes and major appliances, kill the super hero, and snuff out the stoned surfer dudes. The instrument has yet to be invented that can measure the indifference of today's market smart consumer to any of radio's trusty standby ad concepts. Game shows, I.Q. challenged yokels, Lifestyles of the Rich and Creamy...you can stick a fork in any one of these classic turkeys...they're done. To call these hoary chestnuts clichés is a cliché. Sure, some clients specifically request these mildewed antiques, and the customer is always right; but when given the opportunity to do something really new and innovative, why do we continually go to a creative well run dry?

Technology is no panacea either. The tightly edited, high-tech nightclub spot jammed with video dialogue clips, three beat and key matched music beds, and harmonized voice effects is very effective; but what about the car dealers, restaurants, gift shops, and travel agents you have to write and produce for? You can't just point and click ten megabytes of binary together and expect to create a lasting image for Willy's Spee-Dee Mart. Technology has made our jobs easier, no question, but ads that feature high-tech style over human substance are as forgettable as the threadbare concepts mentioned above. And let's face it, it's guys like Willy, who spend a lot of money on radio at the local level, that deserve the best you've got to offer.

In 1938 Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater Players presented one of the most profound tributes to the power of our medium ever produced. Nearly sixty years later, the infamous "War of the Worlds" Halloween broadcast is still one of our favorite scary stories. Why? Because it sounds real. The writing, the live sound effects, and the voices of the actors are combined and directed so effectively that they create an aura of chilling reality. At the time of the original broadcast, thousands of people reacted to that reality, believing all the while that hostile Martians were actually destroying Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Now that's radio advertising.

Jumping forward six decades to last March's R.A.P. Awards Cassette, we find another absolutely brilliant piece of production. [We've put the spot on this month's Cassette in case you lost the March Cassette!] The scene is a dentist's office, and the man in the chair and the dentist turn out to be neighbors. And, as it happens, our hapless patient, Bob Jellybutt, has run over the dentist's one hundred year old magnolia tree with a mulcher he rented from the sponsor, Richard Stevens Hire. What is so beautiful about this spot is what it doesn't contain: no convoluted premise from another dimension, no verbose announcer copy crammed with price points, no video voice drops, no jingles, no goofy hicks or bad Beavis and Butthead characterizations. If I could have voted for that spot ten times, I would have. Kudos to Paul Brokensha, Tim Whyatt, Jim Berinson, and Jon Blake at SAFM in Adelaide, South Australia. Excellent work, gentlemen. You did exactly what it takes to create a memorable radio commercial...you made it sound easy...and in only forty-five seconds.

Think about what went into that spot. First, in the copy we find a situation that we can all relate to--being at the dentist--but with a twist that puts a surprise full-Nelson on your attention and pays off perfectly. Next, flawless acting. Everything from the dentist's aside about the frequency of his patient's visits to Mr. Jellybutt's own garbled replies are positively Pythonesque in their execution. Imagine how many takes they did before they got it just right. Finally, the use of sound. There is no question at all that we are eavesdropping on a scene in a dentist's office, and who could forget that drill! What's more, the sound effects don't intrude on the copy. They actually create a background that let's the humor in the situation emerge unhindered. Now that's radio advertising.

Are we talking about "Theater of the Mind?" I think not. "Theater of the Mind" is yet another bastardized concept that is long past due to give up its ghost. That very platitude has us so consumed with putting on "Phantom of the Opera" that we've forgotten how to handle the subtleties of "Our Town." Give people what they can relate to--everyday life--but in such a way as to intrigue and entertain. Put away the sledgehammer and pick up the paintbrush. Work on the nuance of your craft. Take your copy into the studio and play around with it. Do as many takes as it takes to get it just right. Hit the studio with a rough idea and ad lib--just see what shows up. Switch parts and see who has the best voice for your characters or get local actors to voice characters in your ads. Foley your own sound effects whenever possible. Yes, we are working in the "golden age of radio creative" but let's not forget what got us here. Get your hands back on your art because in the end, all the technological theater of the mind in the world can't make people laugh like Dick Orkin can. And in our ad-crazed consumer culture, that's what it's all about.

Face it. The product has become secondary to the package that contains it. And why not? Your target audience is hip to the game. The toll paid for traveling the information superhighway to get to our cozy huts in the global village is having to endure advertising. The modern audience longs for advertising to show them something new; but they've already seen it. They've already heard it! And all we do is give them more reasons to punch around the dial. Calvin, my favorite tiger-loving cartoon six-year-old, recently summed up the current consumer mood elegantly, "Shock and titillate me...I have money!" Well said, you little hellion. What is winning the hearts and credit card numbers of the jaded masses is advertising that can get to them, spots that can make them laugh or simply make them say, "uhhh...cool."

In closing I can only offer the words of Marshall McLuhan from his seminal work, Understanding Media. Originally published in 1964, this book offers overwhelming evidence that McLuhan possessed a rare perspective on the future of media and the extended electronic nervous system that is our "global village". Accordingly, his insight concerning radio is right on the mark. "Radio affects most people intimately, person to person, offering a world of unspoken communication between writer-speaker and the listener. That is the immediate aspect of radio. A private experience. The subliminal depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums. This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber. The resonating dimension of radio is unheeded...with few exceptions."

Today you have another chance to be exceptional.

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