R.A.P. Interview: Dick Orkin

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RAP: What are a couple of your basic rules to writing comedy dialogue?
Dick: If you're writing dialogue, make sure the people are really talking to one another. You can best do that by having a conversation yourself, speaking the words aloud. The problem with too much terrible dialogue copy is that the writers are just sitting in front of a word processor, and they're either saying it silently to themselves or they're not performers. The result is a very stilted and un-conversation-like dialogue, and what it does mostly is just include a laundry list of features and points. But it doesn't sound like the way real people talk. To get close to the way real people talk, you need to really dialogue that with yourself.

RAP: What are some other common mistakes you hear on radio spots?
Dick: Too many sound effects when they're not necessary, sound effects for their own sake. Sound effects are supposed to be like scenery and lighting on a theater stage, a means to an end. People forget that with radio. They use sound effects for their own sake, and it doesn't work. It calls attention to the sound effects but not to the message. The sound effects are there to call attention to the message and dramatize the message.

In radio, there's also a tendency to believe that merely creative is okay. In other words, as should be the case, people have a very broad definition of what creative means in radio, and sometimes, just making a lot of noise and having DJs shout, putting in lots of sound effects and maybe one or two funny lines that someone thinks are funny, is what people regard as a substitute for creative, and it's not. It is a surface attempt at the creativity process. And if you put it against some of the truly clever advertising in television and radio, not the least of which is coming out of television, then it just doesn't measure up. Radio's copy doesn't measure up to those kinds of clever ad campaigns that are out front, that really are rooted in something more than just self-conscious sound and vocal exercises.

RAP: There's definitely a lot of boring ads on radio, and I think a lot of that comes from managers who enforce an unwritten policy that says if a client wants a spot to start tomorrow, it starts tomorrow...just throw something together.
Dick: Well, radio has come to believe this notion that it has the capacity to respond instantaneously. Remember years ago, most of the RAB campaigns and most of radio's own local and regional promotional campaigns were focused on this notion of instant responsiveness. "If you're going to have a sale and solve a problem that you have moving a product, we can write it today and get the product moved tomorrow." That may have been true twenty or twenty-five years ago, but radio now has become such an electronic post-it note in the world of advertising that it's just a series of electronic post-it notes everywhere you go. As a result, with the parity between all these products and services, just informing people doesn't make a difference anymore. Just announcing it doesn't make a difference anymore. You need to dramatize it. You need to tell a story in some way. You need to find some unique and clever way to focus on what is the major selling proposition. And it's hard not to use the term "unique selling proposition" but you need to find a way of demonstrating that through story telling or some kind of dramatization. And you don't have to do dialogue to make that happen. Most radio stations are convinced that when I say story telling I'm talking about story telling in a dialogue sense--you have an expository thing at the beginning, then you have a middle, and then you have an end. And they also think I mean humor, and I don't. Story telling can be simply a matter of single-voice copy with a headline proposition at the top that grabs us, that compels our interest because it relates to our own lives, relates to our own experience. And words alone won't do that. Radio is really bound up and management, particularly, is bound up in this notion that radio is simply about making announcements, and that if you announce, people will respond. It just isn't true any more. It just won't work like that.

There are exceptions to that, of course. Sometimes the announcement is truly of such significant and substantive news that it will work just by saying it. There aren't many situations like that anymore. There are very few car dealers who truly have a competitive point of difference. They are all pretty much the same. We're, at the moment, advertising some new computer technology products. We just did spots for First Aid, sort of a fix-it program for sick PC computer programs. It's called, I think, Deluxe First Aid. We're doing another one for a voice technology device that you train with your own voice that remembers phone numbers then plays it back when you vocalize it. Those ads we can do easily by demonstrating, and there doesn't have to be a major story with it. It's truly news in the sense that advertising was once. If you had a product or service that was brand new, the news of that newness was sometimes enough because there wasn't anything else like it in the marketplace. We don't have that many advertisers who can make that kind of claim anymore. And you're right, it is management believing that the solution to it is simply put it on the air and people will respond to it. There's a kind of presumptive arrogance about how people listen to their radio station or listen to radio. And you may get a few, but you won't get enough response to be competitive with print and television. And that's why print and television win out so often over radio.

It just takes the time to understand the nature of advertising and, unfortunately, radio management has not invested a great deal of money in understanding the nature of advertising or the nature of the consumer. They're quick to spend money on finding ways to get salesmen motivated to go out and sell, and what I call the contractual arrangement between the radio station and the advertiser that involves signing a piece of paper that says you pay us this amount of money and we'll run this many spots, is only one-half of the contract. The other half of the contract is that you get results, and that part, in terms of investment of energy and money, seems to be the most neglected. As a result of that, I think radio suffers.

RAP: Do you see this attitude changing?
Dick: Oh, it is changing, but it's changing much too slowly. If radio wants to take its place alongside the mainstream advertising media in 1996, it can. The potential for doing that is powerful with radio and has been for years and years and years. Some people are willing to take the time and make it work, make the investment of energy and focus and money to make it work. Some are not. And there are many radio stations in the country who do that. I've gone and spoken to them, and later, on a follow-up, they've demonstrated to me what they're doing, and they are very serious about that kind of thing.

You know, it's a rare thing to hear a General Manager sit with the Sales Manager and talk for some sustained period of time--a half-hour or forty minutes--about a brand new advertiser that just signed up that they want to get some results for. I mean, I did a survey one time and asked General Managers how often they participated in brainstorming for some kind of approach to a radio campaign for a brand new advertiser or an advertiser who is complaining that they're going to go off the air, and the answer was zero. They just won't do it. In my survey, however, I've learned since then that there are a number who are willing to do that. But the number is minuscule compared to what radio needs to do.

And the same thing with Sales Managers. Sales Managers will simply take the material and hand it to a Production Director, or if there is a copywriter at the station, give it to the copywriter. The copywriter will put it into a template they use for this sort of thing, and the result is that you get this kind of cloned radio advertising sound.

The issue has always been, is radio getting enough of the pie, and I don't think it is. It's not an accident that radio's national advertising revenues have dramatically fallen off. One of the reasons is that major advertisers are not persuaded that radio has the capacity to get the results. And they base it, not necessarily on campaign results, but on what they hear. Remember, every key advertising decision-maker may be a radio listener in a local community somewhere. He listens to advertising on his local radio station and says, "What crap that is. Boy, hope our advertising agency does better work than that." Then the agency, of course, says, "Yeah, well, radio really doesn't work that well. We're going to do television. We're going to do print for you." So it's not an accident that radio loses out on that, and I always have believed that if you want to change the way national advertising works, change the local advertising work because it will become a model and an inspiration for national radio decision-makers about the effectiveness of radio. They'll make their judgment on what they hear. And I can quote until I'm blue in the face all of the results from our clients, and we do when we talk to new national clients. But I know they are really basing their expectations of what we're going to do and what radio can do for them on what they have heard locally, and that's too bad. They just don't want to be associated with the medium, and that's not a grown up way for a major advertising medium to act. I've often wondered why there is this reluctance.

If you want an interesting book to read about advertising generally and in some cases radio, you should read "The Book of Gossage." It's a brand new book of essays and stories about a wonderful San Francisco advertising man called Howard Luck Gossage. He was very irascible. Remember the Beethoven T-shirts and all that kind of thing? Well, he invented that over twenty-five years ago. He died in the nineteen sixties, I think, and a lot of his fans and associates put this book together. In it, he is quoted as saying, "Nobody reads print ads. People read what interests them and sometimes it's a print ad." He was saying that to point out that it's an uphill battle in this matter of making advertising work. So, I sort of paraphrased that for radio and said, "Nobody listens to radio spots. People listen to what interests them and sometimes it's a radio spot." There's so much wisdom in this book. It's called "The Book of Gossage." It's in most book stores right now. It came out about nine months ago.

RAP: Laughter and joy seem to be the most common emotions evoked from the listeners in "Theater of the Mind" advertising. What about the other emotions like sadness or love or anger?
Dick: All available, all part of the arsenal available to radio writers and producers and performers. But it can only happen if you connect it to your own life experience. You can't manufacture it by dealing with the audience as something to be manipulated. As all good creative people have always understood--novelists, painters--you have to begin with your own life experience, and then you can connect.

Humor is not the only emotion available, but there's a practical issue here. You can't talk about tube socks, two for ninety-nine cents, by doing a very sad spot or a spot that calls upon the emotion of anger and all those things. But there are tons of extraordinary public service spots that have been done using emotions other than humor. One of my competitors, Chuck Blore, has done an extraordinary job with that for the people who wanted to reduce traffic deaths in Texas and get people to buckle up their seat belts. He did some wonderful spots that really played on our heartstrings about children involved in automobile accidents. So there are ways to do that. We do U.S. Health Care, which is an HMO on the east coast, and we often just do testimonials from people and definitely call upon emotions other than humor.

Radio can do it. The problem is that leader products such as snack products and potato chips don't lend themselves necessarily to something other than humor. That's why there's so much humor. Also, the fact of the matter is, today's post-modern sound is playfulness. I mean, we want to say to the audience that we know we're doing a commercial, and you know we're doing a commercial, so let's have some fun with this. That playfulness is part of the advertising sense. It's sort of the spirit of our times. Look at the milk spots, the Budweiser spots for radio and television. It's about playfulness. It's about saying, we know this is a commercial and you know this is a commercial, so let's all have fun in the context of that understanding between us.

RAP: When do you know you have a good spot, even though it hasn't hit the air yet, hasn't been tested or heard by the audience?
Dick: It's a good spot if it reaches you in some way and makes an impression on you, and after hearing it you can say, "It called attention to the product or service. I remember what it said. It set it apart from other products or services and it leaves me with a feeling that I like the people who make this product or service." That's not unimportant--"I like the people who make it. They have a sense of humor. They can make contact with the human condition. I like these people." Likability is a major factor in modern advertising or post-modern advertising. So, if you have all of those things working for it and it's not just about words, it's a good spot. If it appeals to you intellectually only and just gives you information, you may want to look at the spot again. If, on the other hand, it affects you in some kind of positive or emotional way, if after you've laughed you have some memorable sense of the position of the product vis-a-vis other products and services, the spot probably has worked for you.

RAP: What advice would you give programmers who want to get more quality creative work out of their Production Directors and production people?
Dick: Give them the opportunity to take more risks. You've got to be a little uncomfortable. I think there's a tendency sometimes to think you can take--Garrison Keillor called them dumb shits in a barroom--and put them on the air and expect that to work, although we do have our share here in Los Angeles. I do think you need to find somebody who has some kind of life experience, emotional maturity and opinions--not dumb shit in a barroom opinions, but something that works. All creativity, whether it's programming or commercials, is about risk taking and somebody in management having the capacity to stand the heat during that time and recognizing that failure is a part of growing, a part of the process. People have to fail in order to get from point A to point B.

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