The Worst Radio Commercials You've Ever Heard

By Don Elliot

Don Barrett, one of Gordon McLendon’s famed “Magnificent Seven” personally trained General Managers, now runs a Los Angeles-based website called LARP, or “LA Radio.com.” One fine morning recently, he proposed a question about the worst commercial you ever heard, and I guess he hit one of my hot buttons.

I guess I got carried away in my response, and although I feel that it is a “re-hash” for most of us, I felt it would do a lot of good to be blunt about the reasons these things happen and the reality of the costs of the consequences. Some responses felt I was preaching to the choir. That really means that I hit my target audience. There were laments that this info needed to reach the CLIENT. No, it doesn’t! It means that YOU need to be armed to educate your gatekeeper (continuity or traffic?) to DO THEIR JOBS so you can do yours! The gatekeeper and management need to handle their own problem of educating and laying ground rules for the client!

Many thanks to Chuck Blore and Dick Orkin for all the inspiration along the way and how they influenced my comments herein.

What is the worst radio commercial that I’ve ever heard? Well, lately, it’s trending into not just ONE commercial, but a forced style in MANY locally produced spots, done under the time-crunch necessity of self-imposed deadlines. Name one DJ on a legit national commercial. You can’t. There aren’t any! (Please don’t crutch in your answer with someone like Casey or Ryan who made “the jump.”)

The Problem

I just LOVE the result you get when you give a computer workstation to a “talent” who is always in a hurry. You get: 1) a guy who can’t read a :60 all the way through for interpretation, and 2) emphasis on all the wrong words in a phrase. When I first went to work at KFI/KOST, I had to record a guy doing a :07 second “Air Traffic” spot for Hebrew National Hot Dogs offering a July 4th special. The “talent” put his headphones on (what was he listening to, it was straight voice only?) and proudly bellowed, “This Fourth of July, make it a HEBREW.... national holiday.” This isn’t copy interpretation; it’s ORAL READING, like grade school, except it’s advanced to the added distraction of listening to one’s self for no good reason, through headphones, instead of concentrating on the copy!

In this unfortunate scenario, spots usually get read one line at a time, with the v/o running out of air at the end of each phrase, and then butt-edited onto the beginning of the next line, where he has gotten his full breath back. The result is that you get an edit directly from an out of breath, almost whispered last word, into a full volume voiced word starting the next sentence that is cut together with no respect for where a breath might have naturally fallen. As they say, when you get a new hammer, everything starts to look like a nail! It’s true also about not knowing how to use the tools, in this case, a workstation computer. The listening fatigue becomes enormous. Talent thinks it’s cool to cut out the breath! Sorry, but people do breathe! I have never tuned out when I heard a person breathe on a spot! CUT THE COPY, NOT THE NATURAL BREATHING!

But managers INSIST: “We hire the best talent available; I don’t understand why agencies raid us for spots.” What I mean by raid in this instance is that what happens here is hip, aggressive agencies listen to local stations for really poorly voiced spots (usually only takes one cup of coffee for this job, since that’s MOST of them), and contacts the client, offering an agency-produced spot if they’ll jump in with them. Then, the agency, now in control of the client, will re-buy the market, sometimes re-buying the original station, sometimes NOT. But even if they do, the buy gets diluted and spread across other stations for the client’s good. The original “bad-spot” station loses biz. And they are the ones who chased after the client, sold him, qualified him, and did all the work, EXCEPT producing a good spot for him!

Let’s go back to, “But, we hire the best talent available...” etc. No, you didn’t. You hired disc jockeys and/or news people. IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT! What are they trained to do? “Read the wall,” flip-cards, or read news. In some cases, be a personality or hype themselves and the station. It’s not their fault that they are not trained to do commercials and that they are handed a “script” five minutes before their air shift begins. In any language of business, this translates to an afterthought in ranking of priority. The recipient gets the not-too-subtle message and gives it all the same amount of importance in the read as the person up the chain who had the thoughtfulness to have a time-emergency on a daily basis. And as “the sign” says, “Lack of planning on your part does NOT constitute an emergency on MY part.” Truer words were never spuck (Elliot-eze for spoken).

Agency Instructions

Just so you won’t think that I’m making all of this up, the direction printed at the top of most auditions I have seen over the last year or two is worded: “Male v/o, not an announcer, don’t ‘sell’ me, young, unprofessional, attitude.” Turn on the TV. Close your eyes. What are you hearing?

Open your eyes... Never Stop Learning!

You expect your salespeople to keep up with the latest techniques, your engineers to be “up” on technology, your accountants to have training, and your station attorney to have a degree and annually-earned credits to keep up their “bar license.” So what’s wrong with coaching your talent on how to be competitive? And that is constantly changing. Gee, do ya think that’s why voiceover people re-do their demos every year, to keep up with what’s selling, style-wise?

Think about it; when you come right down to it, actually, we’re all in the fashion business. You have to keep up, competitively! And sometimes, even stay AHEAD of the curve to predict trends! That’s why experience is important in radio, so that you can see cycles.

It’s not a formula; it’s a feel!

Remember the painting kits that had a little easel and canvas with a lot of little squares and shapes and a number inside each one? The kit also contained a lot of tubes of paint, each with a number. Then there were a few brushes and a little instruction book for those who needed it. If you painted in the numbers with the color that matched the number on the canvass, you would be a Van Gogh or so! That formula made people who could not draw a stick-man feel as if they were invincible in the field of art, if only for a moment!

And then, there is ORIGINAL art, done with a free-hand artist with nothing but a brush and canvas, left to his imagination and inspiration to create something custom for the occasion! Which would YOU rather have hanging on YOUR wall? Aha!

Dick Orkin had a slogan on his wall which read, “Sorry, we don’t make quality commercials at microwave speed” captioned under a shot of a rep hanging up on a prospect. Perhaps the sign was made after creating an award-winning spot, which was followed immediately by a request for “10 more by COB today.”

More on “Doing it Right”

Chuck Blore has always said, “I never wrote a spot over :55.” If you have ever written or produced one, you’ll understand what this means.

Did you ever wonder why we hear RECORDED MISTAKES on the air? Odd isn’t it? How many people had to sign off on that? A minimum of SEVEN people had to be either stupid, falling-down-drunk, Afraid-Of His-Horses (with apologies to the Sioux Indian of the same name), unaware, unprofessional, or just plain did not care! Not ONE of these “attributes” would get you a job in today’s market. Yet, it is the norm for the so-called “broadcast standard” in today’s market. Why is this, and WHO are these people with whom the accountability lies? The salesperson, the client, the guy that read it, maybe an engineer, a board op, not to mention all the people who run it on the air over and over, plus, THE PD! (I intentionally left out the most important client of all, THE LISTENER!)

I guess that’s why radio has to be a team effort. Being #1 isn’t doing just one thing right; it’s a lot of little 1%’s all done right and coordinated by good management! Passing the buck or subscribing to the theory that “where everyone is responsible, NO-one is responsible” is nothing short of a mob mentality. This is similar to decisions by committee. There are two BIG organizations in California in the Creative business, Universal and Disney. I have personally attended and been a part of sessions with both. The Universal people send their producers to the edit sessions in the mornings and are typically out by lunchtime with a competed product. The Disney “teams” are entrenched in “team” meetings for hours on end, because nobody is empowered with the ability to make a decision on their own. This system is a serious threat to the very creativity, which they seek to strive for! Why? Because there is too much safety and job security in the team decision. Why are you in this business if you are a passive? This is an industry of active do-ers, or at least, it WAS! One of the great attributes in the creative process is the inherent risk-taking! In a committee decision, the ground-rules are a lot like a mob watching a person drown! Where EVERYBODY is responsible NOBODY is responsible! Sorry, but that’s just how it is!

Committees and Teams

A committee is different from a team effort. A team has the same goal in mind. A committee votes on different outcomes, and they are protected by the common good. They are somewhat like government workers. They are full of it and the government protects them! Challenge me on this? My whole family worked for the government. And VERY high up! Don’t even! Instead, spend your time on trying to understand human nature, because THAT is never going to change!

Mispronunciations

Those of you who also teach, feel free to use this as classroom fodder — great also in seminars! We could start a collection of these that would get recognized, unfortunately, as daily occurrences on LA airwaves. And it isn’t a gripe-fest either. The idea is to call enough attention to its mediocrity to prevent acceptance or letting it degrade things to the point of becoming, well, the norm! Kind of an “audio-apathy” if you will! ”Right here in River City, ah my friends, we got TROUBLE.”

The most frequent mispronunciation I hear overused is from “lazy-lipped” wording that doesn’t recognize use of the word “an” instead of the word “a” in front of a word beginning with a vowel. Correct: An apple. Incorrect: A apple. Correct: An event you won’t want to miss. Incorrect: A event you won’t want to miss. “Trouble, trouble, trouble....”

What is really puzzling is that, although it SEEMS to go along with “lazy lips syndrome,” that can’t really be, since it actually takes MORE effort to pronounce this improperly. Right up there with that one is the improper pronunciation of the word “a” (correctly pronounced as “uh”). Frequently people will pronounce it as a letter “aay” when it is used as the word, “uh”. I used to hear this from inexperienced people cold-reading a script, but it seems to have occasionally spilled over into conversation as well. Confused? “A”= “aay” when it’s a letter, “uh” when it’s a word!

“I tell ya friends, I can tell ‘em before they even open their mouths... is there a nicotine stain around their index finger? Ya got trouble, trouble, trouble.”

I’ve been criticized for being an elitist in insisting on this degree of correctness, but elitist, hell... this is grade-school stuff, see? And that rhymes with “V” and that stands for VOICE!

Trouble, trouble, trouble.... (With apologies to “The Music Man”).

Reactions

The following is a compilation of responses I received from the LARP website. My favorite is the list of frequently mispronounced words and phrases. Hope you enjoy!

Llew Keller: “Joo-la-ree” instead of “joo-el-ree.” I refuse to shop at any jewelry store that can’t pronounce the name of it’s own product.

Robert O’Brien/WUVA: “Realtor” is only two syllables, not 3. “Evening” is a two syllable word. Hence, GOOD “EVE-NING”, as opposed to a carpenter planing down a door and “even-ing” it up!

Virtually any word in the English language that ends in “-rror” is mispronounced about 98% of the time. This would include: error, commonly mispronounced as “air;” horror, which usually ends up as “whore;” terror, and the frequently used derivative “terrorist,” which wind up being “tare” and “tare-ist,” respectively; and mirror, which merely ends up being pronounced as “mere.” I’m waiting for the newscast wherein the talking head relates the story of some astute lady brushing her hair in the restroom and catching the reflection of the suicide bomber, with the description of “the whore of seeing the tare-ist in the mere.”

When someone — usually a host — talks about a vacation or trip where “him and I went to Cancun.” Or, when mentioning items sent to the hosts by listeners. I’ve heard more than one personality say “things that you’ve sent to my partner and I.” My third grade teacher, who drilled grammar into our heads endlessly, would have penalized such transgressions heavily.

Bo’B: I’ve noticed a trend among on-air people out here lately — mostly females — both on radio and on TV, and I’m wondering if I missed a critical memo or something. Convention had it (note the use of the past tense “had” here, since I’m not really sure which direction we will follow from now on) that when the word following “the” began with a consonant or a consonant sound, the “e” in “the” had a short sound — “thuh,” if you will. Thuh ball. Thuh cat. Thuh dog. However, when the following word began with a vowel or a vowel sound, then the “e” in “the” had a long sound — “thee,” as in Thee Ampex 601! Thee elephant. Thee Indians.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this note, several on-air folks out here — mostly females — have been using the short “e” — “thuh” before words beginning with vowels: Thuh other. Thuh international peacekeeping force. Thuh auditor. When did this become acceptable? And when did it begin to creep into the speech patterns of those who, intentionally or not, influence the speech patterns of thousands of others?
What this awkward combination of two successive short vowel sounds does is create what is known as a “hard glottal attack.” I first heard Tony Randall discuss this phenomenon on Dick Cavett’s late night show during my fourth year at the U (1970-71), and have been conscious of it ever since. Interestingly enough, my ex-wife, who has become a speech-language pathologist, has also become professionally critical of both the practice of using “thuh” before vowel sounds and the effects of the hard glottal attack — it’s harder on the ears of the listeners, and it’s actually harder on the throat of the speaker.

 
Geoff: When using the indefinite article “a” or “an” in front of a word beginning with letter ‘h’, there was a rule that if the ‘h’ word had a silent ‘h’ (thus starting with a vowel sound), you always used “an” as the article. “A” would only go before a pronounced ‘h’, as in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’. These days, I see and hear “a” and “an” interspersed with little regard as to the sound of the ‘h’ word to follow. As in, especially this one “A historic moment”...I learned as “AN historic moment...” and so forth. I’ve caught much more obvious misuse of ‘a-an’ on the radio lately.

Robert S. Sudock, KTTV/KCOP-TV, Los Angeles: On the TV side our News promo writers still make rookie errors like treating (and timing) $19.95 as a 4-letter word. And those local advertisers who supply copy or ‘finished’ product at +:01 or +:02 over. Geez.

For nearly a month KABC ran a Larry Elder-voiced spot endorsing Zilioni (sp?) Suits. “Crafted by Artesians.” The spot sounded like a cold read — awkward phrasing, pacing, the lot. It was finally corrected to “‘artisans,” but it is still voiced by Elder sounding like a cold read. I was embarrassed for KABC and, if this was aired by his syndicator, all the stations. 

Forget the presentation, how does something like this pass muster and persist after the first airing? Standards have gone out the window. 

Bill Mouzis: Don, as Drake and I often concluded, the name of the game is detail, detail, detail. I remember once having to shout at the voice man, “dammit how tight do you want it — you have to breathe, don’t you?”

Bill Nesbitt: Of course on LARP your preaching to the choir! I have to read most spots in :67 (too much copy). I then remove every breath and time compress to make it a sixty. The end result is the usual crap. Your message needs to get to the client. I couldn’t agree more with your observations.

And this from Roger Carroll, one of the first to “make the jump” successfully into voiceover: When I was earning $500.00 a day in fees, the older guys all wanted to do record shows. I did the first stereo record show in the country on KABC 9-12m, gotta a lot of national ink, and when Don McKinnon left KABC afternoon drive for KFWB, I took over the afternoon. When KMPC wanted a new guy in 1959, by that time I had a personal service contract, no longer staff, making big bucks and very happy. Bob Forward contacted me April of 1959 and made a deal I couldn’t turn down a month later. I signed when my ABC contract ended and joined KMPC in November 1959. The BEST move of my career. KMPC pushed freelance which ABC wouldn’t allow. My point in this long tale, I was a DJ that did many, many, national commercials — Chevy, Ford, American Airlines, Chesterfield cigs just to name a few — and hundreds of billboards on national TV shows.

Harvey Mednick, former Promotions Director, RKO/ KHJ: You’re absolutely correct, and the problem is exacerbated by the absurd necessity/habit of having sales reps write the copy in the first place. They a), don’t know how to write for the ear, b) don’t often get a complete brief from the client to create a selling proposition, and c) they don’t have the foresight or knowledge to utilize voices outside the booth that might work better and sound more natural.

Because of consolidation, many people wonder where we will get our next heroes or role models, or where the next Rick Dees will come from; continuing to learn, attending workshops or working out with other pro’s to keep at the top of your craft is a start! In a way, this reminds me of the plight of many singers: anybody can sing... a song or two; but try SUSTAINING it, performing in theater, or a nightly show, and see how long the voice holds out without having paid the dues with professional training and the experience! I can’t tell you the level of frustration I see among those who get their first “national” spot and think they have made the big-time, and then wait seemingly forever to get the next one! When you get to that point, the work has just begun!

While many complain that things aren’t the way they used to be, quality, blah, blah, blah, and moaning about the “good old days,” I instead see opportunity here at the present stage of the business. At a time like now, take a look around you and see the fabulous opportunities to shine and stand out from the mediocre!

There are 40,000 registered AFTRA and SAG members in the Los Angeles area alone. There are only around 400 of us who can legitimately say we make a living at it. That’s ONE percent. So you can see that it is important to make the most of every audition, have the best demo you are capable of, and stay at the top of your game!

One of the biggest stumbling blocks we in radio have is our EGOS and sense of entitlement. I mean, look, we’ve made major bucks with our voices for most of our careers, and suddenly, some voice coach or agent is going to tell try and us something different? Yep... believe it. It’s not the same business as radio; you’ve just approached a new plateau of professionalism. It’ll be your choice whether to stay down or to move up to the next level!

Where’s it going?

Thanks for getting me started! It’s coming to a focal point for a solution though; accountability is the new buzzword that encompasses this problem. Good management can solve all of this when they have competent people they have hired whom they can trust, and then guide them… but let them do their jobs!

This would be a good place to mention that I do seminars for local stations on “How to Make Your Local Spots Sound Like Nationals”! Or you could just wait until after the July Fourth holiday when maybe you’ll get to hear those great Hebrew National commercials again.