Great Radio Production

by Todd Beezley

Have you ever driven down the road and laughed out loud at a commercial you just heard... then you tried and failed to recall the name of the sponsor? Is that a successful commercial?

Have you ever been so annoyed by a radio spot that the product's identity was forever seared in your memory? And you vowed never to buy that "fill in the blankety-blank" product as long as you live? Is that a successful commercial?

Have you ever sat through a three-minute backdrop of audio wallpaper--a pleasant, innocuous, monotone rehash of useless facts--and wondered if anyone was really listening? Were those successful commercials?

Great radio production is a three-legged horse relying on entertainment, information and motivation in its run for the roses. Entertainment grabs the listener's attention. Information points him in the desired direction. Motivation leads him to take the first step in that direction. The legs need not be equal in every sprint. Thirty-three percent entertainment, thirty-three percent information, thirty-three percent motivation, script after script, can lead to formula writing (linked by the Surgeon General to boring production). But you can cripple a concept by eliminating any of the three factors from a script, leaving your copy horse with a severe handicap. Subtract two or more and you may as well put him out of his misery. (gunshot sfx)

That said, I must confess it's all too easy to fall into a number of potholes around the racetrack.

Pothole number one: the tyranny of time. I've often wondered how much more effective our commercials could be if we had the luxury of weeks or months to plan a campaign, as I've heard is commonplace in the ad industry. Perhaps that would be overkill. But you do the best you can when you're given twenty minutes to write and produce a "masterpiece."

Pothole number two: the curse of complacency. You do nice, nondescript commercials for an advertiser because "this is what they want," "this is what they've always done," "no background music, please," "the client needs forty copy points in a thirty-second commercial," ("This week's supermarket specials include...") or the account exec doesn't want to take a chance with a sure sale. You take a deep breath, sigh, and give the sponsor his due. The customer is always right and he pays the bills.

Pothole number three: the malady of myopia. Somehow you leave your three-legged horse at the starting gate and try riding your own raw talent to the finish line. Good ideas remain underdeveloped, the sponsor gets hidden in the hype, or pride prevents proper editing. (Put a well-turned phrase up against a necessary copy point and see which is the first to go!)

In my twenty-five years of broadcasting, I've ridden a lot of winners and losers and discovered some deep potholes. Sometimes I still fall. But the chances for avoiding those potholes are so much greater when one knows what to look for.

Now that we've established a basis for judging successful radio commercials, it's time to get down to the nuts and bolts. How do you entertain? How do you inform? How do you motivate?

I am a firm believer in the power of the word. We know from scripture that God spoke the worlds into existence through his Word. He alone is God. We are His children. But our words, too, have the amazing capacity to wound or heal, draw others to us or drive them away, raise them up or raze them flat. So it's best to use words judiciously and carefully.

The hardest product in the world to sell is one you don't believe in. At the suggestion of a friend, I once visited a drive-in restaurant where I sat outside, unserved by the carhop for twenty minutes in ninety degree heat, only to be told they had sold out of the house specialty, homemade root beer. Two days later, an account exec asked me to do a spot for this establishment. After agonizing, I could finally create a spot that did not violate my conscience. It began, "At last, the food you've been waiting for...." Only the finer points of the English language allowed me to sidestep an otherwise impossible situation.

I mention this because, like most production people, I have a love affair with language. Tenth grade terms like alliteration, hyperbole, simile, and metaphor have become my friends. I keep them in a cranial spice rack and sprinkle them throughout my conversation, both written and oral.

Good copy entertains by setting a mood--zany, mellow, serious, playful. And the mood must match the motive. What is the sponsor attempting to do with this commercial? What are his needs? How can this copy meet those needs? The motive and mood manufacture a medium for the message, like sugar coating on a pill, making the whole package easier for the listener to swallow.

Another key to entertainment is "the hook," a gimmick, theme or technique that holds and keeps the listener's attention (an odd setting, a character voice, a jingle that you hum all day long, doggone it, music, sound effects and other production "values" that combine to bring the listener back, sentence after sentence). And somehow, in the middle of all this entertaining, the information needs to be inserted so naturally that the listener doesn't even mind, in fact, he may not even notice.

Motivation is much more ethereal, harder to grasp. Does this commercial speak to each individual in our target group? Does it address a real need? If you spend too much time thinking about these factors you can go "STARK-RAVING AD." (Sorry, couldn't resist.) But seriously, if you attempt too much fine tuning, you may find yourself dissecting a corpse. The life, the spontaneity leave, and so may the listeners. Fortunately, real-life workloads don't often permit this luxury. It's like "take 52" on a spot you thought was "almost perfect" back at take 3. You reach a point of diminishing returns. That's where "gut level" takes over. God has given us instincts, honed by experience. Sometimes you just have to trust those instincts.

At this point, we may wish to consider macro production management. As Production Director of WKKD-AM/FM, it's my job to develop more than one good sound bite at a time. It's my duty to assist the Program Director in creating a listenable radio station. That means knowing the strengths and weaknesses of our announcing staff, matching the right message with the right announcer, and keeping a variety of voices on the air so that no one voice, no matter how talented, predominates and bores our listeners. The best way to accomplish this is by spending time listening to one's own station. But if you prefer channel surfing in the car or at home, here's a successful backup method. At WKKD, we keep a "Service Advisor's" notebook, telling us which commercials need to be completed each day and which announcer will be doing the work. A quick, occasional backward glance at the book will remind you if any one announcer is receiving too many or too few production assignments.

Here's another way to keep your station's sound fresh. All radio works by modulation--amplitude, frequency, or "idea modulation." Have your airwaves populated by all straight-voice spots, or all two-voice spots, or all jingle spots, or all comedy spots, or all info-mercials (Lord, help us!), and you'll have one GENERIC radio station. But if that special sensor in the back of your mind trips an alarm that says, "gee, we've been doing an awful lot of one voice spots lately" or "It's time we do more spots with sound effects," you'll keep the commercial mix lively and your station presentation appealing.

Another factor to consider is selling the client on your commercial idea. First, you have to sell your salesperson. If you can't earn his confidence, he can't sell your spot. No matter how bruised your ego, it's best to scrap the idea and create a better one, a production your sales rep feels confident in presenting. Second, you need to know as much as possible about the business owner and his product. You can't inform your listeners if you have not been informed. Third, you need to gear the approach of your spot to the personality and goals of the sponsor. You'll have a much better success rate in closing on spec spots if you know what turns your client on. For that, you need close contact with your sales rep. Be sure he provides the information you need on his production orders. Your station's production order form should include blanks to provide you with such details (i.e. straight voice, humorous, situation, etc.). Your rep may even have his own rough ideas for a spot. Don't be too proud to listen. And don't hesitate to ask questions. Remember, you have to sell the sponsor on your concept before you can sell the audience on his product.

Last, but not least, there are some basics we dare not take for granted. You never lie to or for your client, account exec, or yourself. It doesn't pay. You don't let faulty technical production slide by. You don't let questionable diction pass. If a take could be done better, it should be done better, provided time constraints and your fellow announcers, waiting copy in hand at the production room door, will allow you that luxury. (Try to avoid "Take 52s.)

In this type of discussion we could deal with selling the copy, matching delivery and music to the mood of the spot, hitting posts, splicing, Harmonizers, and all the specifics that produce radio magic. But really, there's no time for that. (whinny sfx)

My horse is calling me.

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