R.A.P. Interview: Dan O'Day

Dan O'Day, Los Angeles, California

dan-oday-apr96by Jerry Vigil

Dan O'Day is a former award-winning, major market air personality. At the age of 25, he left the day-to-day world of radio to launch his own comedy service, O'LINERS, which went on to become radio's most subscribed-to humor service. As a major market air talent, Dan's copywriting and performing abilities were put to good use by numerous ad agencies; his specialty was two-voice comedy spots. More recently, they've provided both the inspiration and the expertise for his seminar, "How To Create Radio Commercials That Sell!" Since 1987, he has been conducting air talent and commercial copywriting seminars throughout North America and for radio and advertising companies in England, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Belgium, Finland, The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Poland, New Zealand, and South America. Dan has conducted seminars at six different NAB conventions in the U.S. as well as speaking on behalf of the NAB three times in Europe. Needless to say, Dan has a lot to offer, and we scratch the surface in this month's RAP Interview.

RAP: How did you get started in radio?
Dan: I got started by attending the Bill Wade School of Radio and Television in Hollywood. Bill was a KHJ boss jock. I never actually met the guy, but he had a school in Hollywood. As I recall, it was four months long, and in those four months they taught us how to cue a record, which I think I could have learned in fewer than four months. As far as production skills go, the first day of my first radio job, I'm sure my Program Director was thrilled to discover that, although I knew how to play a cart, I did not know how to record onto a cart. It didn't occur to them to teach me that at school. After radio school I placed an ad in Broadcasting, "DJ, good commercials, tight board" and moved across the country to a job in a town of eighteen hundred people, Chatham, Virginia. After I was there for a month, the station ran out of money because the on-site partner was stealing from the off-site partners, and every Friday the jocks would race to the bank to see who could cash their checks before they bounced. After a month of that, I was on the street again. That was my welcome to radio.

RAP: How long did you do air shifts?
Dan: This is embarrassing for someone who does air talent seminars because I was only on the air for four years and it was about a century ago. But in those four years I pretty much accomplished three big goals I had as a disk jockey. One was to work a major market--I ended up in San Francisco. One was to break the two hundred dollar a week pay barrier, and the third was to one day reach the point where stations would actually come to me to offer me a job rather than me sending out tapes. I managed to achieve all three. My big ego boost was in my third year of radio. I was Billboard Small Market Top Forty Jock of the Year, and the following year I was Major Market MOR Jock of the Year.

RAP: What made you decide to leave jocking?
Dan: I don't like getting up in the morning, first of all. Secondly, I am constitutionally unfit to work for other people. I don't like the idea of having a boss. It's an anathema to me. I just can't do it. I had been writing a lot of comedy on a daily basis for my show which was very comedy oriented and somewhat successful, and I asked myself, "Gee, I wonder if other jocks would pay for this stuff?" At the time, I was too naive to realize you can't support yourself writing comedy for disk jockeys, so I went ahead and did it.

I launched two comedy services. One was called OBITS and the other was O'LINERS. And for the next fifteen years, that's what I did. OBITS was the first one, which was much less successful than O'LINERS. O'LINERS started in December of 1975. OBITS was considered really weird stuff because the material was so long. I mean, we're talking thirty and sixty second comedy bits, and disk jockeys would say, "There's no way my manager will let me use sixty seconds for comedy." This was in the late seventies and early eighties, and, at the time, one liners were pretty much what you thought of for radio comedy.

RAP: How and when did O'LINERS come to an end?
Dan: The last issue of O'LINERS was February, 1991. In 1987 through an odd series of circumstances, I began doing seminars for radio people, and by 1991, I was juggling both the seminars and the comedy service. I was literally working ninety hours a week, and it just got to be too much. I'd be on airplanes late at night writing comedy. I decided something had to go, and now I only work fifty or sixty hours a week like a normal radio person.

RAP: How did the seminars get started?
Dan: One day I got a call from John Leader. He was a great major market disk jockey and Program Director. He now makes his living doing voice-overs here in Los Angeles. At the time, John was managing editor of Radio & Records. He called me up and said, "Hey, Dan, we have a little space in R&R. Can we reprint some of your lines from O'LINERS?" And I said, "Sure." So I would send him the issues. Then in 1983, I went to a radio convention in New Orleans and ran into John and, just to put him on the spot, I said, "Hey, John, when is R&R going to do a column just for air personalities?" I was just really teasing him and he said, "Why don't you write one for us?" And I said "Okay." They had never had a column devoted to radio personalities. I wasn't an employee, but I was a regular guest columnist, and for nine years I wrote about personality radio.

Anyway, I guess the exposure was pretty good for me, and in 1987 I had been thinking, "Gee, it might be interesting to do some kind of seminar for jocks, but how do I go about that." I had no idea. Then out of the blue one day, I got a call from a woman named Mary Catherine Sneed. I had never heard of her before. She was Vice President of Summit Communications, and she explained that they were bringing most of their disk jockeys, the Promotions Directors and all their Program Directors to Chicago for a weekend meeting. She said they had polled the Program Directors asking who they would most like to have come talk to them, and these were her exact words. She said, "And to my surprise, your name was at the top of the list." I thought it was an interesting thing to say to somebody you've never met, and do you say thank you? She said, "Would you be interested," and I said, "Sure."

So we got together the following week in LA at KOST. I got there a few minutes early and took out an old envelope and jotted down some ideas. When we got together she said, "Well, what will you talk about?" I said, "Well, we could do this, or we could do this, or we could do this," and I had seven or eight items. She said, "Okay, that sounds good. Why don't you do all of it. You can have the whole weekend." And so that became my first seminar, and I very clearly remember on the plane to Chicago not wanting to get off the plane. I was just terrified, which anyone who has seen one of my seminars might find hard to believe because I enjoy getting up there and talking radio. But it was just such a completely new experience. I had never seen what it was that I wanted to do there, so I didn't really have a blueprint to follow or anyone to emulate. But it turned out to be pretty successful and, as a result, I started doing others, and it just kind of snowballed.

RAP: How many seminars are you doing a year?
Dan: Somewhere between thirty and forty-five. There's no plan to this. Someone calls and I go do a seminar. When you called me yesterday and I said I was tied up on a call, that was somebody calling and asking if I wanted to do some seminars in Malaysia. There's no plan to it. It's just whenever the phone happens to ring, and it tends to happen in clusters for some reason. I don't think I've done one seminar in 1996, but starting in mid-April, my first trip will be a European trip. I'll be doing something like eleven seminars in seven cities in eleven days. Then I'll come home and unpack and collapse. I know it's time to go out on the road when I run out of those little bottles of hotel shampoo. That's when I start to book more trips.

RAP: You have done seminars in countries all over the world--Spain, Poland, New Zealand, South America, the Netherlands. What was the most memorable spot for you, not necessarily because of its geographic location, but with regards to the people and the experience?
Dan: The most memorable probably is Sweden simply because that's the first time I had ever done one outside of North America. And since, I've done quite a lot of work in Sweden. The first thing that really surprised me was that I didn't realize how much people around the world like American radio. Wherever you go, people like American radio. Even the ones who don't like Americans still tend to enjoy the style, the presentation, the energy. I guess a lot of them grew up near some Armed Forces Radio somewhere.

Probably the biggest lesson I learned my first day in Sweden was when, without even expecting that there would be any problem with what I was about to say, I offhandedly said, "I think you should give your name fairly often in your program to let people know who you are." That's considered, in general, to be a very American thing. You know, we're supposed to be very brash and forward, and I knew that; but I didn't realize the extent to which some countries are so opposite, and Sweden might be the most modest country in the world. They have something in Sweden called "gens ta lau" which I cannot spell, but it essentially means, "Do not draw attention to yourself." I mean, the worst thing you can do in Sweden is become famous. That's considered very rude, and people literally gasped when I said that. Now, I still say it when I talk to Swedes, but now I know not to just jump in and say it. I get into it a little bit humorously, in fact.

I remember this one older woman was just aghast when I said that you should give your name several times an hour. She was just appalled. Then when I returned several months later to the same building to do some seminars, that same lady came up to me and put her hand on my arm and said, "I want you to know we're all giving our names a lot more, and it's working."

Another thing I have found, whether it's in Europe or in South America or, for that matter, anywhere in North America, every market I've ever been in has people who will tell me why they are different from the rest of the world and why those ideas may make sense to the rest of the world, but not here. In North America, Canadians will tell you, "Well, in the States that would work, but in Canada, we're not that way." In the United States, "Well, that might work in California, but not in the Midwest." And if it's in Wisconsin, it's "Well, that might work in Milwaukee, but we're in Sheboygan," and it's amazing to me. There's a town in Germany called Oberhausen, and it's forty kilometers from Cologne. You should hear the Oberhausen people talk about how terrible the Cologne people are. I mean, "Those people, you can't tell them anything." And in Cologne, they say the same thing.

Now it's true that each country is different, but only in the culture. The way radio works doesn't change. Radio is me on this side of the mike, and you, the listener, on the other; and somehow I've got to reach through the mike and grab you, and that doesn't change.

RAP: In your air talent seminars, you probably discuss different ways to grab the listener's attention. Do you see a parallel between doing that as an air personality and doing the same with commercials and promos?
Dan: I think there probably is a parallel in that the audience doesn't give you very much time to grab their attention in either of those situations. If you go to a motion picture, typically the audience is willing to give you about twelve or fifteen minutes to reach them. They're willing to sit back and look at something completely unfamiliar on the screen and watch a story that starts in the middle. They don't know who this person is or where it is or what's going on, and for that twelve or fifteen minutes, they're willing to say, "Okay, go ahead, and I'll give you a chance to win me over." Then, if they're sucked into it, they're there for the ninety minutes. If they're not, they might walk out. Well, you don't have that in radio. Let's say you're a disk jockey, and somebody is punching the button in the car and they get to your voice. If you're talking, you'd better be doing something that captures their interest. It might be what you're saying. It might be the words you choose to say it. It might be the way you say it in terms of the use of your voice. When somebody comes upon the Grease Man for the first time, he might be doing a commercial, but the way he uses his voice is rather unusual. It might be the way you use pauses. But people are not going to sit there being bored by you, and certainly not for twelve minutes. They're not going to sit and be bored by you for two minutes, which doesn't mean you have to be doing something hysterically funny or outrageous every moment. It just means it better be interesting. In a commercial, you've got about three seconds.

This is one of the things that drives me crazy. Forty percent--I'm making up that figure--forty percent of radio commercials are newspaper ads that somebody has clipped out. The salesperson comes in and gives the client's newspaper ad to the copywriter or the Production Director and says, "Here, get your commercial out of here." So you end up with "the storewide sale, and we have savings throughout the store of up to fifty percent off and more. Yes, we have savings on men's clothing. We have savings on refrigerators and savings on stereos." Well, the problem is, if I'm looking for a stereo, I'm not going to sit through thirty seconds of a commercial to find out if you're talking about stereos. You've got to tell me right then, right at the beginning. And if you listen to most commercials, they don't. Most commercials give the listener absolutely no reason to listen.

RAP: But that's not necessarily the fault of the copywriter or the production person. That's just the way so much local radio time is sold. The salesperson says, "Yeah, my guys can get it on this afternoon!"
Dan: And this is the big dirty secret of radio. Ask radio salespeople on the street what is the single most common objection they get from potential clients, and you'll be told, "I tried radio and it didn't work." And that's because ninety percent of radio commercials are nothing more than legal theft. We're taking their money, and we're not giving them anything in return. And it's not because we're trying to cheat them. It's because almost all of the focus in a radio station goes to getting the order. And all of the training for salespeople--even the salespeople who write the commercials--all of the training is sales training: how to book the appointment, how to get past the gate keeper, how to overcome objections, how to close the sale. So when they get the order, they think their job is done. And the seventy-five thousand dollar a year salesperson in the Mercedes with a car phone finally gets back to the station and hands the order and the newspaper ad or the manufacturer's fact sheet to the seventeen thousand dollar a year, nineteen year old copywriter and says, "Here you go. Has to be on the air tomorrow." Well, gee, I wonder why they tried radio and it didn't work?

And the poor copywriter is thinking, "Well, how can you blame me? I said the store was conveniently located. And I said the people there were experts. What more do you want?" I'm not making fun of the copywriter. That's some young woman, usually, who is bright and verbal and hard-working and dedicated, and who has been given no education at all in advertising. As you can tell, I get very passionate about this and I'll probably make some enemies.

I am the last person to stand up and say, "Put your money in radio advertising. You can't go wrong." I would stand up and say, "If you've got the kind of product or service that radio can sell well, and you can afford the budget that you will need for your particular campaign, and you've got a radio station that can reach your audience, and you've got somebody writing and producing the copy in a way that sells it, you're really going to make money." But the people who run around saying, "Oh, no. Radio is the best medium for everything." Well, that's not always true, and it really is dependent on how it's used and the people who know how to use radio. And there aren't many of them.

If I ask who are the stars of radio commercials, what people on a national or international level come to mind? Maybe Dick Orkin, Chuck Blore. And after you get past Orkin and Blore, you don't come up with a lot of names, which is not my way of saying no one else is good. It's my way of saying it's a real neglected part of our business. And part of that is because agencies almost uniformly neglect radio, usually because they have no idea how to use it, and also because you don't make money by placing commercials for your clients on radio because the production costs on radio are a lot less than on television. And fifteen percent of zero production costs doesn't bring in quite as much income as fifteen percent of a nine hundred thousand dollar TV commercial. I'm telling you stuff you already know. Often, for a national campaign, the radio commercial is an afterthought. They planned this TV campaign with print support and they say, "Okay, we'll throw a couple of bucks to radio." But it's like the Friday before the campaign starts when somebody says, "Hey, wait a minute! What are we going to do for radio?" Someone says, "Well, let's just take the audio track of the TV spot." So they FedEx it to the station, and they get it Monday morning and throw it on the air.

When I listen to myself, I sound like this bitter person. I think the underpinnings of all this are my great affection and respect and admiration for radio that works. Almost everyone in North America can quote to you something they heard on the radio when they were children or teenagers, whether it's a commercial or something a disk jockey said or a jingle. I mean, radio is powerful when it works. If it weren't such a powerful medium, I probably wouldn't get so upset to see it wasted so much.

RAP: It seems there are fewer ads looking for air talent with great production skills. What's your perspective on this trend? Are these two separate jobs now?
Dan: Yeah, they seem to be. When I was a jock, and maybe until ten years ago, the best thing a jock could have was good production skills. I think almost all of the change is due to the changing economics of radio. And there is not enough talent to go around in radio. As a result, not only the really good jocks, but an awful lot of mediocre jocks are locked up in long-term, really expensive contracts because there's a talent drain out of radio in terms of on-air talent. If you're talented, creative, entertaining, motivated, ambitious...well, you could get up every morning at four o'clock and after your show have a meeting with the consultant and the manager who will tell you what you did wrong. Or, you could do something else like write books, write screen plays, become an actor or a comedian, come out to Hollywood to try your luck.

It seems to me we are getting more and more toward two kinds of disk jockeys. There is a mass of them who will not be able to afford to buy a house on their salaries, and then there are the ones who can buy a mansion. There's really nothing in between. So the ones who can afford to buy mansions on their salaries, they don't have to do production. And the ones who are being paid so little that they can't afford to buy a modest house, the station doesn't expect much of them anyway, and production is just a matter of dub this spot or voice that one.

PDs used to say: "Looking for a jock who's good on the air and also has great production." Now they say, "Looking for a jock who does great phones." That seems to have replaced the "production skills wanted." Maybe the only advantage a Production Director has over a disk jockey is that the Production Director does not tend to get critiqued after the work is done anywhere to the extent that, let's say, a morning jock does. The Production Director has to put up with the ridiculous pressure and ridiculous demands and unreasonable people (that is, salespeople), but it's not very often that the Production Director produces a spot and the salesperson comes back and says, "You know, I really don't think you managed to get the sales message across. Your core message wasn't clear enough." They don't care about that stuff. They got the order, and if the client didn't complain, everything's fine. And within the radio station, as long as the client doesn't complain, then everyone's happy. And no one gets upset about the fact that a lot of radio stations have a client turnover of sixty to seventy percent a year! That would bother me.

RAP: We regularly discuss the rapid changes occurring in production departments as a result of companies acquiring and combining several stations into one facility. Some companies will try to run several station with one Production Director, others will maintain existing production personnel from the other station(s). Any thoughts on this?
Dan: To me, a good Production Director is an integral part of the station's on-air identity. If I had five radio stations, I would assume I'd want them each to have their own identity, and I don't think there's a Production Director in the world good enough to do five different identities at one time. I don't know if anybody can do two really well. I know you have a lot of readers who are Production Directors for two stations, certainly. But in terms of trying to create an identity for the radio station, that is such a full-time job, just being the Production Director for one station. Unless you're going to do the same job for two stations and do it in the same way, I would think that would hurt the product.

RAP: One of your newer seminars is "How to Create Radio Commercials that Sell." Tell us about it. Is this basically a copywriting seminar?
Dan: Yeah. But it's not a creative writing seminar. I tend to be process-oriented, and by that I mean if I hear a commercial on the air that strikes me as good, meaning it got my attention and it made me receptive to the sales message, my tendency is to ask, "Why did that work?" And if I hear something bad, which happens unfortunately more often, I find myself saying, "What is it about that which made it bad?" Maybe that's because I'm a writer, and writing is very structure-oriented. With the really good writers, it's not just that they are funny writers or that they are good at choosing descriptive language, it's that they know how to build a story. So I think I tend to look at the structure of things.

I think I was doing air talent seminars one day, and I guess I just got tired of complaining about commercials. I asked myself, "Well, why do I think some of these are working and some aren't?" I started taping a lot of commercials here in Los Angeles, and I also got a lot of tapes from around North America. I listened to hundreds and hundreds of commercials. The first step was simply mark the ones I thought were memorable either because they were really good or really bad. Then there were some that were neither really good or really bad but one element of it was, I thought, outstanding, or there was one thing they completely missed the mark on that ruined the whole spot. Then I went back to those tapes and listened to them and started deducing principles from it. And I'm not suggesting that I invented principles; I'm just saying that I looked for structural things that I seemed to discover. Here's an example, and this is one of my big pet peeves and I've never heard anyone talk about this. It's not uncommon to hear a radio commercial that uses a child's voice, and that makes sense because most well-adjusted adults react favorably to the sound of a child. We are biologically ingrained to feel paternal or maternal. But the problem is that most commercials that use children have the children being cute, but the cuteness has nothing to do with the sales message.

A spot I happened to hear here in Los Angeles was for the Broadway, which is a department store, and it's a mother and a daughter, a young girl who sounds like she's six or seven. It starts out with the daughter saying, "Mommy, where are we?" And the mother says, "Well, we're at the Broadway, dear." And she says, "Why?" And the mother says, "Well, because Broadway is having their big tire sale and we came here to get tires." "Why?" "Well, because at the Broadway's big tire sale you can get Michelin and Goodyear and blah, blah, blah at savings of up to twenty percent off and more." "Why?" "Well, blah, blah, blah," and it goes on and on and on. And at the end of it, the mother says, "Any questions?" And the child says, "Just one. Could I have an ice cream cone?" And the mother says, "Why?" And it's supposed to be kind of funny. So I play that commercial at the seminar and I say, "Okay, what did you guys picture? Who pictured the little girl?" And everybody raises their hand. Who pictured the little girl eating an ice cream cone? Seventy percent pictured that. How many of you pictured you or someone you know or someone you don't know going to the Broadway to buy a tire at their tire sale, and so far no one has ever said they did. The principle to me is, if you use a child in a radio commercial, you'd better understand that the listeners' attention will be focused on the child, so you'd better have the child either presenting the sales message or intimately involved in the sales message. That would have been a great commercial for Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

There's a TV equivalent of this that shows somebody who really understands this principle and that would be the Michelin tire commercials with the baby. That's not logical. You don't think, what's the best way to sell tires on a TV commercial? Well, how about a baby? But, when the baby is surrounded by that tire, looking so safe and secure and vulnerable at the same time, that's a powerful message. And there's no way you can say, "Remember that commercial where the baby was sitting in something? What was that for?" People know that because there's a connection.

So that's something that, to me, is pure structure. It's easy to understand and to apply, and I never heard anybody talk about it. That's where the seminar came from, and to this day I keep listening to commercials trying to learn new things.

RAP: What are some other things you try to get across in this seminar?
Dan: One thing it seems that people have not been taught is that radio, especially in a commercial, is a visual medium. We're supposed to be painting pictures in listeners' minds, and most commercials don't paint pictures. And a lot of the ones that do paint pictures paint the wrong ones, like the one I just described with the mother and daughter. And sometimes you evoke the wrong emotion. For example, there's a very funny commercial I heard from a San Diego radio station for a skydiving school. It shows this guy going to the school's competitor, Ed's Skydiving School, where they have these bumbling instructors and a stupid pilot. Instead of packing the parachute, they pack the lunch. And they didn't know how high they were flying and so on. It was very funny, but you leave with the pictures in your mind and the emotions of all the terrible things that can go wrong if you learn to skydive. And if you're thinking about taking skydiving lessons, the only thing you're really concerned about is surviving it. So why spend sixty seconds painting all these terrible pictures? Now you can paint some terrible pictures if you want, but then replace them with a stronger picture of how your service is better. And in that case it really had better be stronger.

There are a lot of funny commercials that ridicule the competition, but then they say, "But we're better at our place," but they don't convince you. They don't show you. To me, that's a principle. The idea of having a single core message to a commercial is a real simple principle, but how many copywriters have ever been told that before they start writing? You should be able to identify what is the one message you want people to take away from the commercial. So, as a result, because they've never been told that, most commercials either have no core message or they have more than one. How many times have you heard the kind of spot that says, "Come to this restaurant for romantic dinners, for your anniversary and that special someone on that special evening and, also, it's a great place to take the kids! Yes, we have kiddie menus and blah, blah, and for senior citizens...." Well, wait a second. Pick one and sell it. But they take the shotgun approach.

The equivalent, and probably the single worst recorded positioning statement I've ever heard for a radio station is this one I heard about two years ago. It's for an oldies station. The announcer is talking about how "All we play are good time oldies. While some stations try to please everybody with all kinds of music, all we do here is play good time oldies. This is the place...." And they're going on and on. The entire thing runs like eighty seconds. Then two-thirds of the way through it, he says, "And if you're ever in the mood for some good country music, try our sister station." I mean, wait a second. If you want to convince me you play great oldies, say it quick and play an oldie. And you hear this same approach in commercials.

Then there are the things that every Production Director knows. But still, when I do the seminar, Production Directors always come up to me and say, "Would you repeat that into my tape recorder for the Sales Manager?" I'm talking about how most local retail merchants want to give the phone number in a radio commercial. It's a complete waste of time. And giving it five times, by the way, is five times the wasted time.

Another thing that some haven't thought about, but a lot of your readers did realize long ago, is that usually there is absolutely no value in giving the street address. I will ask people at my seminars, "Who here has a favorite restaurant?" They'll raise their hands and I'll pick three people at random. I'll say, "Where is it? If I visit your town, tell me where it is so I can go there." And they'll say, "It's on Main Street about a block past the post office," or "It's across the street from the old high school." No one ever gives a street address, but thirty percent, forty percent of local radio commercials give street addresses. And that's because the newspaper ad has the street address, and the salesperson gave the newspaper ad to the copywriter.

Sometimes, the response you'll get from the salespeople is, "Yeah, but if we don't have the street address in there, the client complains." And my response to them is, fine. You're a professional. This is where you do your job. This is where you go to the client and you say, "Look, I understand you're used to seeing it in the newspaper ad. People use newspaper advertising for cold, hard information. The newspaper is really good for listing facts. You know, they have to fill that page with print, so they'll list the hours you're open, and they might have a map of where you're located, and they'll have your street address, and your phone number, and your fax number and all kinds of things because people go to the newspaper for cold, hard facts. With a radio commercial, the advantage we have is emotion. We can give facts, too, but you know what we do even better? We motivate people to act, and you don't do that by printing the street address."

If the client still resists, my recommendation to salespeople is to say, "You have to let me give you your money's worth. If you advertise with us, you are not buying commercials. If all you want to do is buy commercials, there are a lot of stations in this town that will be very happy to sell you commercials and some of them will probably sell them cheaper than we do. But if you choose to advertise with us, you get not only access to our listeners, but to our expertise, and you have to let me help you get your money's worth. You know, I would never tell you how to set up the display in your shoe store because that's not my expertise. My expertise is motivating listeners to come into your store and buy shoes, and I will not feel good about myself if I go to bed tonight knowing that I didn't give you your money's worth." And that still won't work with everybody, but it will work with half. And the worst thing you can say to a salesperson is to suggest that they say to the client, "Look, I won't take your money unless you let me give you your money's worth." I mean, salespeople's hearts go dead when I suggest that phrase.

I'm not suggesting writing commercials is a life and death profession, but if you go to a doctor and tell him you're experiencing shortness of breath and give him a list of medications you want him to give you, and the doctor just says, "Okay, here you go," you might not respect that doctor very much. Hopefully, that doctor will say, "Well, first, let me find out more about you, about your marketplace, what your life is, what you're experiencing and what you want to accomplish here."

RAP: With your comedy background, you probably address writing comedy spots in the seminar.
Dan: I do, but not to the degree people would expect me to. My biggest fondness is for comedy spots, but a lot of the talking I do about comedy spots is telling people, "Please don't do it unless you can do it funny." To me, one of the scariest things in the world, most depressing things in the world, is when somebody says, "We want to do a commercial campaign and we want it to be funny." I don't want to talk to those people. I want them to say, "We want to do a commercial campaign, and here's what we want the campaign to produce." And maybe a funny campaign is one way to go, but the ones who think, "Oh yeah, I heard a funny commercial. I want to have a funny commercial." That's crazy.

If you're going to do any kind of story in a commercial, certainly including a comedic story, even if it's wild and crazy, the audience needs somebody to identify with. That is their guide or their surrogate. If you listen to a lot of comic commercials on radio, whether they succeed or not in being funny, you will hear two or more people who are just wild and crazy, and the audience can't relate to them. I don't know if I would have thought about that, actually, if I didn't live in Los Angeles and didn't know a little bit about screen writing. The Hollywood landscape is littered with failed comedy motion pictures that might well have been funny, but everyone in the movie was crazy, and I do not know of any big hit comedy that has ever had that makeup. You can think of the funniest comedy you ever saw, and if it was a big hit, I'll bet, no matter how crazy it was, there was at least one person who, compared to everybody else, was relatively normal. For me, the prototype is Airplane--crazy movie, ridiculous movie. But compared to everybody else, the Julie Haggerty character was normal. She was neurotic, but not psychotic, and we reacted through her. Look at Alice in Wonderland. Why didn't Lewis G. Carroll make her crazy, too? Because when she went through the looking glass, we went with her. So, if you've got a comedy commercial, and you've got everybody wild and crazy, if they're so bizarre and bouncing off the wall, you'd better have somebody there who, somehow, the audience represents.

An example: I heard a promo--very well-produced in terms of time and effort and audio technique--for a radio station that was giving away free lunch at the workplace. They did a Wizard of Oz takeoff, and they had somebody doing the voice of the Wizard. The announcer comes to the Wizard's castle or whatever and he asks to see the Wizard. The gate keeper says, "Nobody sees the Wizard." The gate keeper has this weird voice, and they're going back and forth saying, "Yes, but we're giving free lunch and blah, blah, blah," and then the Wizard says, "Oh, why didn't you say so, come on in." And once again, when it was over I asked people, "Okay, how many of you pictured you or someone else winning free lunch from this radio station?" And nobody raised their hand. They can use the Wizard of Oz, but use Dorothy. She's the one we can relate to. You still have the Wizard there, but Dorothy should be winning the damn prize. And, again, that's not real deep stuff. It's not hard to comprehend, but I don't hear people talking about it.

A lot of it is just structure. A comedy spot typically in one way or another is a story. Almost every great commercial of any kind is a story in some way, and stories have structure. Stories have a beginning middle and end. But a lot of radio people seem to think that a comedy spot is a lot of jokes. That's a big mistake. I would say half of the comedy spots I hear on the radio interrupt the sales message for the comedy. They go back and forth. It will be a little bit comedy, and now the sales message, now back to the comedy, and now the sales message. I guess the idea is that you sucker them in with the comedy and then you slip them the sales message. But in my experience, what happens is, if the comedy is funny, nobody hears the sales message and they actually resent it when you go away from it.

I have this running conversation with Dick Orkin about this. He heard me say once that, with a comedy spot, if you need an announcer's voice, usually the announcer should be at the end with the locations or whatever else. Dick said, "I don't know that I agree with that." Now I don't know about you, but I am very reluctant to contradict Dick Orkin on anything having to do with advertising. My immediate impulse was to say, "You're right. I'm a moron. I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm sorry." But, I went back and I got all the Dick Orkin spots that I have in my collection, and I listened to them all. Every single one of them that had an announcer had the announcer at the end. I think that he knows it instinctively, or intuitively, but just never thought about it. But nobody does comedy spots better than he does, and he doesn't tend to interrupt. We both spoke at a radio conference and talked about this again, and he said he thought more about it and he thinks he tends to do that where it's not really a story, but it's just a bunch of little vignettes that are unrelated within one spot, and that I can see. If they're unrelated, then I guess it doesn't matter. But usually he doesn't do three silly little stories. He does one story with two characters that are continuing.

RAP: What's your definition of a good commercial?
Dan: It's not one that wins awards. I don't care about being creative. That's not a goal. Anyone who says they want to write a real creative commercial, I suspect, is not a creative person. The creative people I know do not have creativity as a goal. Creativity is a means to the goal. And in a commercial, the goal is to motivate the listener to act. And if it does that, it's a good commercial. If it doesn't, it ain't. It might be funny and it might win an award, but if it doesn't motivate the listener to leave the comfort of his own home, drive to the store and check out that exercise bike or test drive that automobile or smell the perfume or pick up the phone and call the toll-free number for the booklet on insurance, it ain't a good commercial.

RAP: What's one of the most powerful advertising messages you recall?
Dan: To this day, I don't keep business receipts unless I need it for the warranty. When my office manager says, "Should we ask them for a receipt?" I always turn to her and say, "A canceled check is my receipt." And that is because when I was a child growing up in West Hartford, Connecticut, and I would call the number for the correct time, the correct time was sponsored by the local bank. Before they gave you the time, they would say, "First National Bank reminds you, a canceled check is your receipt. The correct time is...." Well, that's been a lot of years, and although it was on the telephone instead of the radio, it was a simple, clear message that I understood, and it really has had an impact. I don't save those stupid receipts. I just pull out my checks. There was a simple core message and they did it over and over. That was one of the big lessons in advertising for me.

RAP: Your view of the Production Director's job is pretty much from the outside. How do you perceive it from your point of view?
Dan: I am acutely aware of the time pressures of the radio Production Director. I think part of the bane of the Production Director is the fact that one of the big selling points of radio locally is immediacy, and radio is an immediate medium. But salespeople have defined that to mean you give us the order this afternoon and we'll get it on the air tomorrow. And immediate should mean, you give us the order today and it goes on next week because, compared to television, that's immediate. Nobody can do great work when, at five thirty, they give you the copy and say, "It goes on at six in the morning." And that, unfortunately, is the way it usually is done.

You've got to have deadlines. Nobody does anything without a deadline. The sales guy doesn't turn in the copy on time without a deadline that's enforced. The advertiser doesn't get the copy information to the salesperson without a deadline that the salesperson should enforce. For that matter, how many Production Directors would get production done if there weren't a deadline? It applies to everybody.

One of my great bits of radio wisdom I picked up from Bobby Ocean who once said, "You can go into any radio station in the country, walk into the station and not hear anybody say anything. You might not know anybody there. You might not hear anybody speak, and if they speak, they might speak a different language than you. But you can immediately pick out the Production Director. He's the one who always looks pissed off." And this is why. It's the pressure. It's not the creative. Production Directors love the challenge of getting the sound a certain way. And they might bitch about the equipment, but any good Production Director loves the challenge of getting great sound out of limited equipment. It's the damn time pressure and the lack of respect for their work that is shown when a sales guy slides it under your door at six o'clock Friday night. If you want to know about living in a trailer, you ask the engineer. If you want to know where the aspirin is, you ask the Production Director. That's who I would ask.

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