It Hurts My Tin Ear!

speakerby John Pellegrini

An open letter to all radio advertising personnel who are responsible for getting commercials on the air of the radio stations of the world, including Agency Creative Directors, Recording Studio Engineers, Radio Station Producers, Board Operators, Creative Directors, and the people in charge of the budgets of those places:

I think we can all agree that we have never seen a better time for the quality of audio in radio. Digital broadcasting equipment has done a marvelous job of eliminating that terrible problem known as “tape hiss,” as well as that other old problem called “tube distortion” (also mistakenly referred to as warmth by people with no training in performed live music). The audio that is broadcast in radio today is almost as good as it gets in terms of low noise, clarity, and sonic appeal. (If you don’t agree with this opening statement, then you might as well not read the rest of this article, because you won’t agree with it either, and you won’t likely want to do anything that I am about to suggest. Your loss.)

Most radio stations throughout the world are now equipped with some form of digital recording equipment, even if it is merely a DAT recorder. However, many stations now have ISDN lines and Digital Audio Workstations, which makes the transmission and receipts of high quality audio very easy to achieve. Many stations are also digital when it comes to audio playback, so that the music, the promos, even the spots, are all in a tapeless delivery format, again ensuring quality sound by eliminating the flaws of tape and tube mentioned above. This is, indeed, a great time for quality audio in the radio industry. Except when it comes to commercials.

You knew I was going to throw some gas on the fire sooner or later, didn’t you?

Yes, commercials produced for radio continue to have some of the worst audio quality of anything we broadcast. Now, sometimes it’s because the stations are still on the old carts, and sometimes those old carts are really old and should have been thrown out a decade or so ago.

However, in most cases, the reason why the commercials sound poor, is that they were sent to the station sounding that way from the source: the recording studios, or the dubbing studios, or other stations in the market.

I can already hear the screams of protest! “ARE YOU STUPID OR SOMETHING, PELLEGRINI,” they will rant. “WE SPENT HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS ON STUDIO TIME AT THE BIG DEAL RECORDING STUDIO TO PRODUCE THOSE MASTERPIECES YOU CALL COMMERCIALS! HOW DARE YOU INSINUATE THAT THE AUDIO QUALITY IS POOR! THOSE SPOTS SOUND PERFECT IN THE RECORDING STUDIOS!”

You bet they do. And that’s the problem. You only heard them in the recording studio from the original session tape or DAT. But you don’t listen to the dubs that go out to the radio stations. And it’s those dubs that sound like poopoo.

It is time for every single advertising agency that does work in radio to take a close and hard look at the place where your commercials get copied and dubbed for the radio stations. Most of the dubbing houses don’t have a big budget like your recording studio does, so they record your glorious sounding commercial on to the cheapest, crappiest quality tape they can get away with buying (without violating EPA toxic waste rules). They also usually employ some flunky who doesn’t have much of an audio educational background to run the dubbing machines, and most certainly seldom cleans the tape heads on said machines (costly maintenance procedures that cut into their profit margins). Your glorious sounding commercial winds up sounding over-compressed, if not short of being completely squeezed into mono, distorted, and muffled. The spot you spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on winds up sounding like someone recorded it on your home boom box. Truth be told, your home boom box probably would have done a better job from a sonic standpoint.

This is also where I’m going to bitch at some of my fellow radio production personnel. Why is it, when we make dubs for other radio stations, that many of us are also guilty of using the cheapest, crappiest tape available? Do you think you are performing a good service for your clients by sending inferior quality dubs to the other stations in the market? Or are you pulling a radio-war tactic where you’re making sure that only your station will have the best quality dub of this particular spot? You realize that when we get these lousy quality dubs, we make sure to call the client and complain to them about your station’s lack of quality control. How does that make your station look?

This is also where I’m going to complain to General Managers and others in charge of the budgets and who insist on buying the cheapest, crappiest tape available. We tell the clients on you! Re-read the last paragraph. Wonder why some of your clients are no longer having your facility do their production? Wonder why some of your clients no longer seem to trust your salesperson’s word on things? Could it be those crappy dubs of their commercials your station sends out?

I made a decision a long time ago that whenever possible, which is almost always every time, that I would always try to send out the best quality dubs of my work to other stations. I say whenever possible because sometimes clients were so cheap that I was lucky I could get some money for tape, let alone cassettes, for the dubs. Also, sometimes the stations I worked for bought the crappiest quality tape and refused to let me get anything else. This is why I brought in the GMs and budget people into this gripe session.

I know budgets are important. I know that tape costs money. But, wouldn’t you agree that if the commercial is one of, if not THE most important pieces of audio we run, then shouldn’t we perhaps ensure quality control in the audio chain and make the dubs with better quality tape? After all, since we all know that commercials are the single highest tune-out factor on any radio station (I won’t tell the clients if you won’t), then doesn’t it stand to reason that improving the audio quality might help lessen that tune-out factor? It doesn’t take much of an education to see the wisdom of that statement. Cut costs somewhere else, for your station’s sake and for your client’s sake!

Getting back to the advertising agency people, I know that there are some digital ISDN services such as DGS that can help eliminate tape problems for dubs. But the tragedy is the too many of you aren’t on it. Now, since most agencies build the cost of their production into the advertising budgets, what is the problem here? Why is the quality of the dubs generated from your dubbing houses so poor? How about examining those places and either order better tape or insist that they get better equipment (I know of at least one dubbing house that uses tape decks that are more than twenty years old, and probably haven’t been cleaned more than once a year), or convince your clients to get on an ISDN service.

There is also the occasional problem that I experience about once every year or two. The client who couldn’t afford an agency, so he or she had “a friend who works in radio” record the commercial for them. But, the friend happens to be a part-timer at the station who runs the Sunday morning God Squad tapes and has never set foot in the production studio before. This actually happened recently here at WLS with a larger client who should have known better. The result was a tape that was so grossly distorted that we refused to run it. The client had his “friend” re-record the spot (which he didn’t do; he just merely ran off another copy of the bad dub). Of course it was still distorted, but at least we could finally hear some of the script. We even had the client come in to our studios so we could play both dubs for them. They merely shrugged their shoulders and said, “There’s not much we can do because we can’t afford to pay for better.” Sad, sad, sad. Nonetheless, this client spent nearly six figures with all the stations on the buy. You figure it out!

Crappy audio really sticks out like a sore thumb here on glorious AM because most people listen to AM in mono. Sure, you may be one of the foolish people who still believe in AM stereo, but the truth is only a few industry geeks have AM stereo receivers. Real humans don’t, and don’t care about it. I have found that because of AM mono and all the compression that most AM stations use to make the signal sound louder and easier to pick up, that poorly recorded commercials really sound bad. The increase in compression makes the distortion and tape hiss unbearable to most listeners.

People! We make our money off of this audio! Our entire industry depends upon our listeners responding positively to the commercial messages they hear. How can they respond to something that sounds like crap, except to tune it out or turn it off?!?!?!

It is time to once again get serious with ourselves and admit the following principles:

1.Radio commercials are a tune-out factor.
2.Poorly recorded or mixed audio on commercials increases the chances of listener tune out.
3.We don’t need tune-out factors.
4.We need to prevent tune-out factors.
5.We need to have better quality audio on our commercial breaks to prevent tune-out factors.
6.It’s a fact: listeners will put up with commercials if they sound good.

The major factor is copy content, but just as important is the audio quality of the spot!

The solution: fix your production audio chain now!

THANK YOU.

This message paid for by the Association of Pissed Off Radio Geeks And Jerks (APORGAJ) and listeners like you.