R.A.P. Interview: Tim Burt

Tim Burt, Commercial Production Director, KYKY-FM & KEZK-FM, and "Commercial Professor", St. Louis, MO

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By Jerry Vigil

Tired of producing boring, ineffective commercial scripts that come from your clients and/or salespeople? There is something you can do. Educate them. Tim Burt is the Commercial Production Director at CBS Radio’s very successful cluster in St. Louis. Tim takes the success of a commercial very seriously and has discovered ways to achieve that objective. A chance meeting with an out of town visitor taking a tour of the station has catapulted Tim’s drive for the better commercial to a side business that appears to be exploding. He’s “The Commercial Professor”, and he’s gone global! Tim has a ton to share, and we only scratch this surface in this month’s RAP Interview. But you’re sure to find several nuggets of valuable info you can start using today to create more effective spots for your station and your station’s clients. Be sure to check out Tim’s audio on this month’s RAP CD for more tips & commercial samples from Tim! It's a free mini seminar!

JV: Looking at your site it almost looks like you might have started in advertising and wound up in radio. How did you get your start?
Tim: It’s actually the other way around. I started off in radio, and I’m still in radio. I actually started on-air in Rapid City, South Dakota back in the early 1990s, but I’ve always had an affinity for commercials, even as a kid. I remember back in the fourth or fifth grade, one of our assignments was to do a commercial for a restaurant. I can’t remember the restaurant that I did, but I came up with the limerick and I remember the teacher was so impressed. I thought, hey wait, there might be something here, and it just kind of stuck in the back of my head.

I actually got into radio right as I was getting out of the Air Force. One thing led to another. You do the on-air thing for a while, and then after a while I realized that being on-air is great but it’s not the most stable thing in the world. I then realized that the one constant is the commercials. There’s always going to be a need for a commercial somewhere at some point. I thought, this is the path that I think I want to go down.

After studying a lot a material -- especially from Dan O’Day, I really learned a lot from him -- it’s just blossomed and here I am, about 30,000 commercials or so later. I’m the Production Director for two very large FMs in St. Louis with CBS radio, and on the side, I coach, consult, and speak with businesses around the world. In fact, I consult businesses in six other countries on advertising and marketing. So it’s really taken off in a way that I don’t know that I ever plotted out.

JV: How did you wind up at CBS?
Tim: Just one of those things. A friend of a friend of a friend of a coworker said, “Hey, call this guy in St. Louis.” I was actually living in Indiana at the time, so really it wasn’t that far of a move for me. I ended up working for about a year part-time just doing some on-air stuff for them, and the next thing I know, the Production Director job opened up. I applied and got it, and I’ve been there ever since – 13 years now.

JV: Were you at another station when this happened?
Tim: I was working part-time on-air for another station, and I was working for Mediabase back when they were fully staffed with humans and not completely robot automated. I guess I was early in that cycle with Mediabase. I was with them for a few years, but I’ve always been in radio at some point for the last 20+ years.

JV: The two stations there are an AC and a Hot AC. In the February PPM, they are the number two and number three stations. That’s pretty impressive.
Tim: Yeah, they are big. They keep me busy, that’s for sure. And then our third station here is KMOX, a heritage station. I do some stuff with them from time to time as well.

Marty Linck is our Operations Manager, and boy, he’s taken these two really solid properties and just elevated them to the heights we haven’t seen in quite a while. We are running on all cylinders right now.

JV: Your title is Commercial Production Director, which is probably self-explanatory -- you oversee the commercial stuff for KYKY and KEZK as well as for KMOX from time to time.
Tim: That’s correct.

JV: Your website is CommercialProfessor.com, where you promote being an advertising consultant and seminar speaker. When did this part of your career come into existence?
Tim: Probably within the last year is when that has really taken off. Like I said earlier, some things you don’t plan on. Everybody thinks about their radio career and you think, gosh, when I started out, I just wanted to be on-air, or I just wanted to do blank. Now, with the way the industry has changed so much, you have promotions people that are writing copy, and now they have to do web things and all of this stuff.

It’s sort of the same for me, but I saw a pretty big gaping hole that I thought I could fill and that is instructing not only salespeople but also clients: I don’t care what you’ve heard, I don’t care what you hear on the air, I don’t care what you see on TV or read in the paper or on the web. Most of it is garbage and here’s why.

I studied psychology in college briefly, but thanks to the Internet, I’ve delved in and really broadened my knowledgebase in that area. One of the things that Dan O’Day taught me is that there are a lot of psychological techniques that work in advertising. I’ve taken that and run with it. That’s one aspect of what I’m doing.

The speaking/coaching/consulting part of it, how that really took off happened about four years ago. I was at the radio station one day, and our Promotions Director at the time brought this gentleman by who’d just popped in and was taking a tour. He was an older guy. He came into my studio and she said, “This is Chris, and he’s just here from out of the country but he wanted to take a tour.”

Well, it turns out that Chris was reviving, over in Mozambique, a station called LM Radio. A brief background on LM Radio: LM stood for Lorenzo Marks Radio. This is the station that back in the 1940s had their transmitter on top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and they were broadcasting to Africa, to Europe, all over.

Well, the station has a really long and sordid up and down history, and at one point, I believe in 1975, the country was taken over by rebels and the government shut the radio station down. Right around ‘07 or ‘08, after the station went through that period and everything turned around and started coming out of this dark period, Chris said, “I’m going to revive LM Radio.”

So he told me the story and I said, “You know what? If you are looking for somebody to do some liners for you and voice stuff, I would be happy to do it for you for free just because it would be so cool to say I am the voice of the only English-speaking station in Mozambique and broadcasting into South Africa.” He said, “Absolutely”.

So he’s from South Africa, and he comes over here for side business. We’ve maintained a relationship. I did a bunch of work for him, and it was just about this time last year when he said, “I want to bring you over and have you speak and do some seminars for small businesses over in Mozambique and in South Africa.” Okay. Who’s going to turn that down?

It was on the strength of that that things began to blossom. Even before I went over to South Africa and spoke, I was able to turn that into a speaking gig at the Conclave, among some other things. I used that to get into the Wall Street Journal. I was on their Super Bowl panel this year, live critiquing the spots along with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Harry Hamlin. You couldn’t script this. You just couldn’t script it.

But my point is, those are the opportunities that are out there because of things like the Internet and YouTube and such. Radio people, production people, salespeople, there’s a lot of opportunities to be had that you just don’t know are there. All you have to do is put your work out there and you will be found. Now, my deal in South Africa is a really unique circumstance in that he came to me, but most of the international business that I get, is because of the things that I put up on YouTube. That’s a fact. I can show you email after email of people saying, I found you on YouTube.

So don’t think that just because you put a demo up on SoundCloud or on Audioboo that that’s the end all, be all. Oh, I have a website. Well, great. YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world. Why aren’t you putting your stuff on YouTube? And I know I’m giving away trade secrets here and there are a lot of people like me that do that stuff, but you have to know how to do it. I don’t put videos on YouTube that say, “Hey, here’s this commercial I just made. Isn’t it awesome?” I don’t brag. I help. That’s the key. When people go to a search engine and they type in something, they are looking for an answer to a question most of the time.

I can’t tell you how many people have said, I’ve searched how to write an effective commercial or how to create an effective commercial or how to sell something in a commercial or an advert or an advertisement -- I can’t tell you how many of those emails I’ve received. It astounds me. I’m doing work for a company down in Antigua that is trying to attract multimillionaires to come to their country to spend $400,000 to buy dual citizenship. I am writing a commercial for that because of the videos that I put on YouTube.

You have to get outside of the mold of just thinking about radio. We are not just radio people anymore. We are media people. I said this 10 years ago and people looked at me like I had three heads. More true now than ever before.

If you are a Production Director, when was the last time somebody asked if you could do a commercial for the web that’s only going to play on their stream? Guess what? It’s not going to be the same as a commercial that is on the air because the call to action in a streaming commercial is going to be click the banner or go to this website or click the button now. There’s going to be a direct and immediate call to action that’s going to be on that screen. It’s not going to be on the radio. So you have to get out of the mold of thinking that you are just in radio. Once you clear that hurdle, the opportunities are almost limitless.

JV: So you’ve already gone to South Africa, right?
Tim: Yeah, and I’m probably going back. I was just talking with Chris, and he’s probably going to have me back this year. It’s like any other business. It’s cyclical. I have a lot of hits and a lot of interest. I’m trying to get in Alaska. I’m trying to get to London. I’m working on a real big thing in Kansas City. But my primary focus is international because there is such a bigger field to play in over there, outside of the US. Not that there’s anything wrong with the US, don’t get me wrong. But this is where everybody outside of the US looks -- I would say us and the UK. I work with people that go to China to speak to organizations over there, and it’s really different over there from what I hear because there’s no free speech and all that stuff.

But the Mozambique thing, I did two seminars there, and I did one in Johannesburg. What I did was, I sat for about three hours one day just listening to radio stations in Johannesburg and using some audio capture software. I just sat there and recorded stuff online. All I did was pick out their commercials, and I’d play the ones that were truly heinous, the ones that were really bad. I said, “I know that you are looking at me as somebody from the United States and I’ve flown halfway around the world to tell you these things but look, all of these things that I’m telling you, all of these tips that I’m giving you, guess what. They don’t just violate them in the US, they violate them over here too. And then I would play a commercial from a radio station in Johannesburg and the room just burst out laughing because they go, oh my God, he’s right.

When you can show people that a lot of the stuff is universal, you come off looking like a real expert. And it makes you an expert, too.

JV: How do you juggle the work at the station with all this other stuff you’re doing? It sounds like you would have to be putting in 18 hours a day.
Tim: No, it’s really not that bad. I have a really great team of people that I work with at CBS that have my back, and you know what? Some days are worse than others. Every Production Director will tell you Thursdays and Fridays are absolutely horrible because that’s the race to the finish for the week, getting things in under the wire. I have a really incredible team of people with me at CBS that help me out a lot.

JV: Tell us about your team.
Tim: I’ve got Guy Phillips who has been on the air at KYKY Y98, for I think 34 years doing mornings, which is just unheard of anymore in this industry. Jill Devine does middays, and Paul Cook does afternoons on Y98. And on Fresh KEZK, there’s Vic and Trish in the morning, they are a long-time team. They’ve been at a number of stations, but they have only been with us for a couple of years now -- just terrific to work with. Greg Hewitt does afternoons. There’s Steph Duran doing middays. They are all great and they know what to do. They’ve been through my “training” and so they know where I’m coming from when I give them direction or I give them a script or just give them bullet points. They’ve all been through, essentially, a very light version of one of my seminars. They are getting it, and it helps when everybody is on the same page.

JV: So when you speak of them as your team, they are your voiceover talent?
Tim: Yeah, they are voiceover talent, but they dub in commercials for me too. They really don’t write a whole lot except for their endorsement commercials, but they are really, really good.

JV: Are you the only full-time commercial producer there?
Tim: Technically, yes. I oversee the commercial production department, and if I’m out sick or on vacation or something, they all step up and chip in to get everything done.

JV: So some of the jocks will get in there and do some actual hands-on production, not just voiceover.
Tim: Oh, yes, absolutely. It’s just another hat they have to wear and they know that going in.

JV: I’m assuming that there is a good deal of local-direct that you are involved with there, is that correct?
Tim: There is a pretty fair amount. It’s more so on the KMOX side than it is for me, but it seems that my side is picking up a little bit. I probably do anywhere from two to four client recordings a week. I know a lot of people who would think, gosh I wish I only had two or four. KMOX does far more. Over there, they will do two to four a day because it’s AM, it sports, it’s talk. It’s just a different animal than a music intensive station.

JV: What have you learned about client recordings?
Tim: Let me give you my secret to recording clients. I never have them use a script. Clients will sit down and they will fret, especially if it’s one person or just two who owns this business. They will sit down and they will try to write something. Then they will talk to the salesperson and they will try to come up with something. And when they come into record their commercial… well, this is their baby. They will say, “We have a script.” And then you look at it. As a Production Director, you give it the once over and you think, this is absolute garbage, because the goal of a commercial is to convince people to buy stuff that they don’t really need, primarily. The key word is convince. We want to convince.

If you are the Production Director and you have a client sitting across the desk from you ready to record this commercial, if they can convince you to buy their product or at least look at their product, then you’ve got something. If it’s just a bunch of clichés and things that sound like they came out of a brochure, then it is a waste of money. And you as the Production Director have to be able to tell them that and say, “Look, I’m here to help you. I’m on your team. I want to make this better.” And the phrase that everybody says is, I want this to work. Well, what does that really mean? What that means is this needs to bring money back into the business. Return on investment. When you hear people say, it’s not working, what they are really saying is, it’s a failed investment.

How do you take that perceived failed investment and make it into something that has a far better chance of succeeding, i.e. bringing in money? Just have them talk to people. Remember, all marketing, all advertising is one to one communication times the number of people that are in the audience. That’s it. It is one to one communication.

So when they have a script, the first thing I will say is, can I see your script? And they will hand it to me and I say thank you. And they don’t get it back. Then I will look at them and say, “So, what’s going on? What is your business? What do you do?” This is where you have to ask leading, probing questions. This is where you have to go on that journey of discovery, as the consumer, with them. Have them take you down that path.

“So, what do you do?” Here’s a little $5000 tip for you. This question always works. It works every single time that it is used. It’s never failed me yet. If the client hands you the script and its absolute garbage, if even having the words in front of you, you can’t figure out what they do, then how is anybody in the audience supposed to decipher that and act upon it?

So what you do is say, “If I filled up the Dallas Cowboys Stadium” -- or whatever city you are in; take the stadium that’s nearest you – “if I filled up the Edward Jones Dome here in St. Louis with 70,000 people who are in your target audience, and they have cash in hand and they are ready to go to your competition today, and I gave you 30 seconds on the public address system to convince these people to come to you, what are you going to say?” I highly doubt you’re going to talk about your friendly knowledgeable staff, that you are open Friday night until eight, or that you’ve been in business since 1947. “Come by and see us for all your blank needs.” You are going to tell me the differentiation between you and your competitor, what makes you different.

And then, when you can get them to answer that question honestly, you will see the light kind of go off in their head and they will say, “Oh, wait. Now I get it.” If you can get them to that point, you’ve got the hook in their mouth. It’s your job now to keep reeling them in.

JV: How do you deal with the scripts that come in than need to be written, that the client is not involved in? The AE says, “This guy sells furniture. Here, write an ad for them.” Do you have procedures in place where you go and meet the client and talk with them or something similar?
Tim: Every once in a while I’ll do that. I haven’t done that in a while but I can and I do. I will go out there and sometimes we see better than we hear.

If I go out to a store, say a furniture store, it’s kind of like buying a car. You’ve got your basic low-end stuff and then you’ve got your super high-end stuff. And then you’ve got the things in the middle. So what’s the differentiation between you and your competitor? Oh, our direct competitor is XYZ Furniture. Okay, well you are ABC Furniture. Tell me why I shouldn’t go to XYZ? I have $2500 in my pocket right now or on my credit card that I am ready to use to buy a bedroom set. Well, because we have this, this and this, they will start telling you. You have to know the correct questions to ask. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.

Clients who write their own commercial and even salespeople who write these commercials are so conditioned to follow the formula -- say the phone number three times, give them the web site twice, give their address, say when they are open. And usually there’s nothing in there that is going to compel people to go to that store and buy that product or pick up the phone and start calling.

In my seminars, I call them marketing interventions because most people need an intervention in this industry. An intervention always starts with a shocking statement and my shocking statement is that I believe 99% of all advertising is a waste of money. And people say well, how can you say that? Some of it has to work, doesn’t it? Well, sure. Some of it works. The problem is that the really good ads are buried under so much other garbage that they never get heard or they never get seen or they never get read.

So how do you be that ad that is acted upon in the mind of the consumer? The question I always ask salespeople and clients is, name for me the last commercial that you saw, read or heard that made you buy the product. I get silence. This is why infomercials are a $2 billion industry. It’s a call to action. It’s immediate. It’s repetition. It’s compare and contrast. There are so many great psychological techniques that are proven to work in infomercials. You could learn a lot from infomercials that you can use when writing radio commercials. Obviously you don’t have the benefit of a clock in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, but compare and contrast. Is your mom pushing around dirty water? Well, the new Super Mop will not only get rid of that dirty water, it will make your floor smell like lemons.

It’s really that simple. And going back to the client, when I said I take their scripts from them, I will just ask, “What’s going on? What do you do?” Well, we do this, this, this, this, this. Okay, now say that for me in 10 words or less. Say I am meeting you for the first time, what do you say when I ask, “What do you do?” “Oh, I run such and such store. We are the biggest seller of blank in the Midwest.” Okay, now I’ve got something. That’s something to go on as opposed to things that sound like they came straight out of a brochure or on a script that they would have written. You have to know the right questions to ask.

JV: Do you go to radio stations and do seminars for the salespeople?
Tim: Yes.

JV: What are some of the mistakes that you find salespeople in general are making that you try to improve upon?
Tim: I will tell you the biggest one, and you can turn on the radio -- I don’t care where you are listening to this right now, anywhere on the planet. You will hear this daily, repeatedly. The most damaging word that you can have in any commercial is the word “or”. If you get a script that says, call us at this phone number or visit us online at blank blank blank. As a consumer, what do you want me to do? You’ve given me two options.

Studies have shown for over 50 years that if you give people more than one option, it actually induces anxiety. Ask a woman how long it takes them to buy a pair of shoes, because they go into the store and it’s, “Oh my gosh, I like this one. Oh wait, I like that one, too. Wait, I like….” What does your budget say? “Well, I can only buy one.”

Tell the people where to go and why to go there. It’s incumbent upon the business owner to tell you what their most preferred method of traffic is. Do they want phone calls? Do they want website hits? Do they want people in their door? What do they want? Whatever that one thing is or whatever the most common method that people contact them is, that’s what you give them.

For example, you know there’s this big rash of food trucks going on right now, at least here in St. Louis. I’ve never understood why a food truck company would say, “Oh, we are going to be at this location and this location” and then they give a website. Well, wait a minute. Shouldn’t you have your locations on your website? Virtually everybody has a mobile phone now so they can go to the website. A lot of these food trucks are on Twitter. Get a Twitter app on your phone.

JV: You’re suggesting that the salespeople make the mistake of trying to include too many messages in the ads they bring to the production department.
Tim: Exactly. What is the one thing you want me as the consumer to remember about your business? Play the association game. Those furniture stores, like Nebraska Furniture Mart. A lot of people have heard of Nebraska Furniture Mart. It’s about 60 miles outside of Omaha. This place is a booming, booming furniture store. People will drive 60 miles to go to the Nebraska Furniture Mart when you have all of these stores in Omaha and Lincoln and all these other places. But they go to the Nebraska Furniture Mart. Why? Because it’s been around forever and they know exactly what they’re going to get. It’s a great deal, great price, all that stuff. And they are not flashy.

So if you are a furniture store in Omaha, Lincoln, all these furniture places in Nebraska, you have really stiff competition an hour away. You have to know the competition. That’s why you always ask them who their direct competitor is and what do they do differently than them. The stadium illustration that I gave you earlier -- ask that to a business owner and watch their reaction. They will be stunned because, I guarantee you, nobody has ever asked that of them.

JV: So in the seminars with the salespeople, you are trying to get them to be actively a part of the advertising, not just selling the time.
Tim: Think about this. The consumer, Susie Cream Cheese, driving her minivan with her 2.5 kids in the back, all she knows is what’s coming out of the speakers and going into her ears and hitting her brain. She doesn’t know about cost per point. She doesn’t know about bonus spots. She doesn’t know about make goods. She doesn’t know about rates. She doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. All she knows is what’s coming out of the speakers. The commercial is the most important part of the transaction between the radio station and the client -- period, paragraph, page. It is the most important thing because that is all we know. We don’t know about the back story, we don’t know about the owner’s split up and now this guy is starting anew – we don’t know and we don’t care. What are you going to do for me?

When I can get the salespeople to get over those hurdles initially, the odds of creating an effective commercial that’s going to bring money back into that business absolutely skyrockets. Now, I’m not saying that these are guaranteed, foolproof systems. You are always going to have the business owner that says this is the commercial I’ve got. This is what my guy that I hired in Toronto wrote for me. This is what we are doing. Okay, fine. I can’t help you.

When you start breaking it down and you ask those questions like I gave you earlier about the stadium and what makes you different from your competitor and all those things… they’ve never heard those questions. And it makes you look smarter. It makes you appear to be on their team. And you really are on their team. You’re just there temporarily. But it shows a vested interest.

These business owners, they want to know that they are dealing with somebody who actually cares, as opposed to a bunch of order takers at radio stations. “Oh, you want to buy some time? Great. We will just slap of commercial together.” Well, good luck.

JV: What would you tell the production personnel at radio stations to try and raise the level of what they are doing up a notch?
Tim: Each radio station is its own little planet. There are different dynamics at every radio station – some are union, some are not, etc., etc. But there’s a commonality among all the production guys. We all want to have our stuff in on time so you are not working weekends, etc.

Educate the salespeople to be sort of your frontline and ask those questions of the clients on this local direct business that a lot of us deal with, especially in the really small-markets. That’s what they live off of. It doesn’t do you any good to have a parade of clients come in day after day after day, and they are all saying the same thing. Each radio station is its own little planet unto itself. So is every commercial. You cannot copy a formula from one commercial over to another.

If you just put yourself in the position of that client’s core customer for 10 minutes and say,  “sell me” when they are sitting across from you, if you can do that, that shows that you are interested and generally care, and you are going to get a far better commercial than what they are doing.

Remember what I said early on in this interview. I said if the client comes in with a script, I take it from them because they are not going to be reading it. There’s nothing worse than a non-voice actor trying to sound like a voice actor.

JV: Go to the salespeople and get them involved in the spot.
Tim: Absolutely, because we can then ask the salesperson, “What makes them different from their competitor? “Well, they do this, this, this.” Okay, great. You’ve given me some little nuggets that I can try to build a script off of now, as opposed to “we’ve been in business for 85 years” and all that garbage that nobody cares about.

JV: Sounds like you should have a manual for production folks that they can hand out to their salespeople.
Tim: Maybe that’s my next info product.

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