Jim Conlan & Bill West, Radio Works, Houston, Texas
by Jerry Vigil
It’s no secret that radio is rapidly going through some major changes, and we’re not through yet. Our heads are still spinning from consolidation, and there are other things to deal with, like the threat of digital radio and the fact that the Internet is quickly becoming the next major medium. Radio’s survival will depend solely on one thing, it’s ability to generate revenue. That revenue comes only from advertisers, and now, more than ever, it is of the utmost importance to take a hard look at how radio deals with its only source of income.
Jim Conlan and Bill West know the power of radio, and they know how to make it work for advertisers. Their long list of distinguished clients speaks for itself. (Check it out at www.usradioworks.com.) Fortunately for us, Jim and Bill are eager to share their secrets and are doing so in their new book, “Radio Advertising 101.5—A Step by Step Guide to Better Advertising.” This month’s RAP Interview takes a look at the super-duo behind Radio Works, and we get a sneak preview of the book. There’s lots of info in the next few pages for every radio production person, copywriter, sales rep, and manager. Pass this RAP around and give your station(s) a boost where it counts…on the bottom line.
JV: Let’s get some background on you guys and start off with you, Jim.
Jim: Well, my background goes back to my days in the Peace Corps. When I was out in the South Pacific, I hooked up with a local radio station out there, WSZO, an Armed Forces Radio affiliate. We got in a lot of records from Stateside, and a lot of them just sat there in the studio because there was no DJ to sort them out and play them. So I started a program to bring people up to date on what the current music scene was in the States. I also started another program that introduced the people in the Islands to classical music, which everybody got a big kick out of because they had the idea that it was good for putting people to sleep and not much else. We had a lot of fun. The final thing I did there for a couple of years was to do field trips interviewing some of the older folks, people who weren’t going to be with us much longer, who had a lot of oral tradition to pass down before they passed away. So I managed to get a lot of the old stories on tape before they were lost forever, and I enjoyed that so much that when I got back to the States, it kind of stuck in the back of my mind as something that would be fun to do.
I did a number of things for a while after that, and finally wound up working for McCann-Erickson in Detroit. At McCann I did a little broadcast and enjoyed that, too. And for the next fifteen years or so, I was with various ad agencies in Detroit and in Houston, and it seemed the thing I felt was most fun to do was radio. I’d had experience with small agencies serving very localized clients, and I had experience with big national agencies like McCann and J. Walter Thompson doing national type stuff. For the most part, it seemed like there was an opportunity on all levels of the advertising field to do better work, and I didn’t know where to get the training, other than through experience, to get the kind of job done that I could see needed to be done.
I was fortunate in that I had models to guide me, and naturally those models included Stan Freberg, Dick Orkin, Chuck Blore, and a number of others who were, in a very great sense, breaking new ground in the way radio advertising was done, and that appealed to me a great deal. This was not just slapstick humor for its own sake; this was funny radio that sold really hard. This was stuff that I could understand as a consumer, as well as a listener, and I thought that the listener deserved to be both. That’s why in 1987, when I met Bill and we were doing a few commercials together, he as a writer and me as a voice talent, I suggested we drop whatever else we were doing, hook up, and get Radio Works started.
JV: Bill, tell us about your background.
Bill: I was born a sharecropper’s son. No, actually, I was an attorney in Southern California and liked the practice of law much less than I had hoped. I wanted to get into advertising but did not have luck with advertising agencies thinking that I was a safe bet. I just seemed like a flake, some attorney who didn’t like law, coming through and wanting to get into advertising. So, I just started on my own. I got a client and started writing some radio. I was really only interested in doing the radio, and that’s where it began.
JV: What background in writing did you have?
Bill: The background I had primarily was just the kind that people get when they’re going through school and such. But law school really demands a lot of writing because most of your tests are in the form of essays, and you have to learn to be pretty articulate on the written page as opposed to just articulating in front of a group of people. It really is a different knack. But beyond that, I had kind of the same models Jim was describing. I was noticing that I was paying attention to radio spots, and certain ones seemed to me to be very compelling and would really draw me in. I was fascinated that they could play with my mind that way, in a way that I didn’t resent or resist, in fact kind of enjoyed. That was really a strong appeal for me. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been attracted to advertising, for some weird reason. We had to do a lot of writing through law school, and when I was in practice with this firm, I handled their appellate brief writing. In fact, if I were going to stay in law, I would have started my own firm to do nothing but appellate brief writing and do that as a specialty because a lot of attorneys don’t write very well and they don’t like to.
JV: So how long did you stay in law?
Bill: I was admitted to the Bar in 1979 and got into advertising in the mid-eighties. So, I did stay with law for a little while and even had a retail business in the early eighties as well.
Jim: It sounds like kind of a weird background for somebody like Bill to be in radio, but when I started working with him, I had hired and fired a lot of writers. I had seen some great work of writers and so on, and I couldn’t believe how good this guy was straight out of the chute, without very much prior experience. His scripts were just outstanding. They were funny and to the point and crisp and clean and a lot of fun to act, and I just couldn’t believe he had picked up, just from his own listening experience, just how good a script he could write. At that point, it was my opinion that if we were to team up together, we could do work on a daily basis that was among the best in the country.
JV: Jim, tell us a little bit about Radio Works, its goals and philosophy.
Jim: We did something right away that’s kind of unusual for a couple of guys sitting around a coffee table in Houston, Texas. Right from the start, we made a statement to ourselves that we were not going to become a national company, but we were a national company. We just put it out there. And there was a practical reason for it. We did not feel that the two of us could support ourselves in the style that we would like to become accustomed to just by prospecting local advertisers, especially in view of the fact that many of the local advertisers with any kind of a budget were already hooked up with ad agencies. What we felt we needed to do, which was a tremendous challenge, and frankly it still is, was to market ourselves nationally as a resource, both directly to advertisers, and also to ad agencies as a kind of SWAT team. There are reasons for that, and I could see the climate for that changing back in the eighties. Ad agencies were changing in their nature, and advertisers were no longer marrying themselves to an ad agency for all of their advertising and marketing needs. And over the course of time, many ad agencies were losing their ability to even care about doing radio effectively. They just were interested in other activities, partly because there’s no glamour in doing radio for some of them, and partly because there isn’t as much revenue potential the way it’s set up. So we wanted to become a service to those agencies that recognized that they didn’t have to do everything brilliantly if they had partners out there who could. And, likewise, with direct advertising. The direct advertisers might feel they had a good relationship with their ad agency, but if they needed radio and they weren’t getting it from their ad agency, they were feeling more and more like they were giving themselves permission to go outside for that. And, of course, we’ve been part of that any number of times, and we’ve worked very closely with the ad agencies’ positioning statements and their strategies and so on so that the campaign we developed for the advertisers is consistent with everything else they’re doing. And that’s been our operating philosophy ever since.
So it’s been kind of a fun ride because we have been able to deal with the small local advertisers, not just in Houston, but elsewhere in the country through our contacts here and there, and we’ve been dealing with some very large advertisers and with regional advertisers in between. Our goal has been to deliver the same quality of product to all of them, so it’s really fun to me to hear from another market, Salt Lake City, for example, that a small local restaurant chain has been gaining notoriety on the radio, and people are talking about them because their advertising is so good. It’s fun to get a call from a plumber in Fort Pierce, Florida who says that his competition is calling him up and saying, “No fair. We can’t compete with that kind of advertising. It’s just not fair.” That’s the kind of impression we’re trying to make as far as the atmosphere goes. And, of course, the impression we’re trying to make with the advertising itself is to boost the awareness of listeners that there is a specific brand out there as opposed to all the other competitors, that they need to pay attention to in a special way, and that’s working.
Bill: It’s interesting; had we started this company with a focus on television, it would have been a much harder road to travel down, especially trying to get advertising agencies to pay attention to you, because with television and print, especially magazines and such, they don’t want to give it up because there’s a certain cachet or glamour attached to the medium that really lacks in radio. They are not that resistant to giving radio away because it doesn’t matter that much to them. It’s a great opportunity for us to step into that because they don’t have that much ego attachment. They haven’t prided themselves on doing good radio, and they’re not that motivated to do it. So as a business opportunity, we have a great occasion to step in and be heroes for them. The downside of that is that most of the radio that you hear, because that’s kind of the background that goes into the creation of it, is pretty poor. And nobody is being trained to do this. They just either are good at it, and they seek out the help on their own; or they just have an interest level that motivates them to improve. And it’s hard to find resources to get better, which is the thinking that went into the book we just wrote. We wanted to give somebody a source. I’ve looked at the book since we’ve written it, and I’ve said, “Jeez, I would have given my left arm to have this twelve years ago.”
JV: Would you say most of the poor radio ads you hear are coming from the radio station production departments?
Jim: It would be logical to assume that, but it’s not entirely true. A great deal of the poor radio that is on the air right now is being done by folks who are doing their best at the station, but just don’t have enough training. Many of them don’t lack the talent. They just lack the training, and we’re trying to do something about that. A lot of the advertising is actually coming from agencies, and it’s either being written and produced and delivered to the stations in a lousy form, or else they’re just passing a fact sheet off to the stations and saying, “Here, do this and make it so it’s something like television ads.”
JV: How did the idea for the book come about?
Bill: Jim and I go out and give speeches to ad clubs, and one of the things we would notice whenever we were finished with a speech was that a lot of people would come up afterwards and talk about things we had brought up. They wanted to know why they weren’t getting that kind of training anywhere and where they could go to get this kind of information. And really, there was no place to direct them. I actually missed a flight once because the people were keeping me in the hotel for so long with questions afterwards that it was hard to get out. And I didn’t want to walk away because these people were very interested in doing better radio, and they found somebody who was willing to talk about it and had some specific points to share, which they were really attaching themselves to. They wanted to get more because they don’t have many opportunities for people to come and train them in any real fashion. Also, sometimes I would have radio station owners grab me and say, “Before you give your speech or after, can you come by and talk to our people at the station a little bit?” Or we might have a group of stations and meet at a conference facility and talk to these folks. There seemed to be a need for the information and a receptivity towards it, but there was no information source that people could tap just real handily to go train themselves with.
JV: The book is called Radio Advertising 101.5. What’s inside?
Jim: The book is laid out so that it becomes a kind of quick text with examples scattered throughout the book that will allow a person to understand, first of all, how to create a climate for the advertising. And then there are tips on writing—monologues, dialogues, other common forms of script—in a way that communicates solidly. Finally, there are some production techniques, not only basic but maybe a little bit more advanced, to take advantage of the kinds of equipment that most radio stations are privileged to have right now. We wanted to give an overview that would be not just a “how to” because then you just find people copying scripts mechanically without any understanding of what’s behind them. So the first section of the book delves into the idea of getting into, not just the advertiser’s mind, but the listener’s mind and finding a way to come to a point where both the advertiser and the listener have a place to be together. We call that place The Intersection, and the first part of the book really is all about finding that Intersection.
What we’re saying here is that if you were to stop being an advertiser for a minute, or stop being a radio person, and just be a common, everyday listener, you would probably approach the commercials that you’re doing a lot differently. Just listen to everybody else’s and ask yourself what’s wrong with them, or listen to a good one and ask yourself what’s right with it. It’s probably that there is some connection that you perceive between not necessarily what the advertiser is saying, but maybe even just how they’re saying it that resonates with you. As a person, it’s part of your daily life. We feel that the most successful radio advertising—and we’re not just talking about funny here—is the kind that first establishes a connection between the listener and whatever the message is that the advertiser wants to get across.
Bill: Most advertisers do “me centered” ads. Let’s talk about me,the advertiser, and I’m going to talk at you about me. The first part of the book talks about stepping back and developing an advertising message in advance of even getting into the craft aspect. It talks about developing an advertising message that’s going to increase the receptivity that the audience has to the message that the advertiser wants to get out. And it’s not the information-laden scripts that they fax over to the stations that are going to work. There is a way to attach yourself, your message, to an emotional core that will resonate with the listener. So we really deal with that, even in advance of getting into the specific craft tips.
And a kind of neat feature of the book are tips that are scattered throughout that you can just pull out. In fact, they’re listed right before the table of contents. Additionally, the examples that are given in script form in the book are accompanied by a CD. So, when you buy the book, you get a CD, and you can hear how the written word translates to audio. One of the things we noticed is that there are a lot of people out there saying, “Radio’s bad and it needs to get better.” And they just use these little sayings like “be emotional” or “do better advertising by using better, more powerful, colorful words.” You know, that’s like telling someone who wants to be an artist to use colors better, and texture and form are important, too. But it’s not how to. It just tells you that there’s a goal to strive for, and everyone agrees it’s a worthy goal. How do you get there? There’s really a dearth of information on the steps you take to develop those talents so that you really can practice the craft with greater effectiveness.
Jim: That’s why the sub-title of the book is “A Step by Step Guide to Better Advertising.” We really are trying to take them step by step so that we establish a context why the advertising needs to be the way it is, then the kinds of approaches you can take and some of the techniques you can employ to bring that kind of context to life.
Bill: There are pitfalls to avoid, shortcuts to brainstorming and things of that sort. There are tools, actual tools. The interesting thing is that the editor of our book called us up after she read it and said, “You know what? After reading this book, I feel like this afternoon I could go out and do good radio commercials.”
Jim: And that is our goal. There is a little bit of that “instant fix” promise in the book. Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but our goal is to make it so clear and direct and step-by-step simple that someone having read this book could go out and write a better radio commercial and produce a better radio commercial than the ones they’ve been doing.
JV: Is your book available now?
Bill: Soon to be. The book has actually been printed, but we’re revising cover and layout, just fiddling with art direction at this point. Hopefully that will be resolved fairly quickly.
JV: In a radio station environment, one of the biggest problems we have is clients who want to get too much into the ad, not to mention that they want to get it on the air right away. How can one combat that?
Jim: Let’s talk about the first part of that first, and then we’ll talk about getting it on right away. The problems that many radio advertisers lay on the station are that they have a lot they want to communicate, they have a limited amount of money for air time, and they want to make sure they get the entire message out because they think it’s only by getting the entire message out that they can differentiate themselves from their competition. There are two things we do. The first thing and the easiest thing is to play them some of the spots we have done for others, who may or may not be in the same exact category, in other markets that don’t have an information intensive context. And they light up when they hear it. That’s the simple way. In fact, it’s very simple if they’ve said, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that spot on the air. It’s terrific.” That’s a very simple sell then, because then we can say, “Did you notice any of the details in that message? Did you memorize all the facts?” And, of course, they didn’t. They can’t. It’s just not the way we’re set up. But what they did remember was that these people did have one powerful thing to sell, and that it was sold in the commercial in a way that the listener, that is the advertiser who’s listening, could get it right away and respond to it.
There’s another way that we can do this, and that is to play one of their competitor’s commercials and ask them how much they enjoyed listening to it. We don’t often find it necessary to do that because our track record kind of speaks for itself at this point, and an advertiser we get together with—this sort of advertiser—already has a predisposition based on their knowledge of our previous work. But if they don’t, I think— and this is in the case of any radio station who wants to steer their customers away from this laundry list approach—they have to ask them how much they appreciate listening to other ads of that type on the radio. They have to ask them how much they remember of it, whether they were able to play back the phone numbers, for example, or the street addresses of any of these ads, whether they were able to get down into the sub-text, the sub-list of all these points and that that was what convinced them to seek out the advertiser. I can guarantee you that in no case would any advertiser just pretending to be a listener for a moment, none of them would respond to another commercial of that type.
Bill: As Jim mentioned, when we get people coming to ask us to do their spots, they’re already predisposed to using our type of approach, so it’s not really a hard sell. Were I at a radio station, I think that my approach would be, “Listen, we can deliver you an audience, and you want results from that audience. This kind of information crammed approach with you yelling at us for thirty or sixty seconds about how great you are is not really going to work. That’s just you playing Tarzan, beating your chest. Let’s work towards results here because I think that’s what you want. Right? You want to spend these dollars in the smartest possible way, and you want the greatest possible results from the dollars you spend. Correct?” And I think I would just keep redirecting them back to the goal that they have, which is successful advertising.
There’s a lack of trust right now. Stations aren’t being trusted by the advertisers to do this, so the advertisers force all this information. They say, “Well, if I know that’s going to get done, we’ll at least communicate all the basics there.” The radio stations really need to position themselves with more authority and credibility by producing better spots and helping people create better spots when they’re called upon so that the advertisers will then trust the station when they go back and say, “We don’t think your solution is really going to work here. We’ve got a better idea, and we have a track record of these kinds of ideas working.” And as Jim mentioned, then you can play them the good spots that work and the poor ones that don’t. And if they really have to get on right away, you say, “Okay, let’s do this as a Band-Aid. Let’s give you something right away because that seems to be a necessary component of getting the buy here.” I’m not suggesting that people walk away from buys, but I would make it clear that if they have to be on tomorrow, and you’re talking to them today, say “Fine, we’ll get you started right away. Can we come back after we’ve done this little Band-Aid approach here? Can we come back with a long-term, more effective approach for you?” I think advertisers for the most part will be open to that.
Jim: I would like to ask also—and I ask this not really knowing but maybe with a suspicion behind it—I would like to ask the reps at the station, “Whose deadline is this? Is it really the advertiser’s deadline, or is it your deadline, so that you can start making commissions right away? Or is it just reflexes, just knee-jerk reactions. When the advertiser says, ‘How soon can I get on?’ the rep says, “I can get you on tomorrow,” rather than asking “How soon do you want to be on?” or replying by saying, “Anything that we put on this station is going to enhance your results if we are allowed to take a little time to get to know you better, to understand all of the aspects of what you’re trying to communicate, so that we can sift through it and find that golden nugget that’s going to make that commercial work. And that is going to take more than twenty-four hours.”
JV: I’m sure many readers will highlight those words and shove them in the face of the next salesperson that comes in with a last minute order.
Jim: Well, it doesn’t have to be an antagonistic situation. I think you’re bringing up a real interesting phenomenon. I noticed it in the advertising agency business as well as at radio stations that there’s always antagonism between production people and salespeople. And can you imagine how much better it would be if they did have some kind of operating philosophy that allowed them to work together on this? And I’m just throwing that out there. I’m not suggesting that we create that operating philosophy, but there is, after all, a common goal, and that is to provide an environment for listeners to enjoy coming to listen, and an environment for advertising people to display their products and services so that they keep on coming back because you’re producing great results for them. That’s got to be a collaborative process.
JV: Does the laundry list ever work for some advertisers? Is there a way to make it work?
Bill: Well, if there is a context for the list that fits into what we call a story, then yes, the information will work, but because it plays up and supports a central point, and that point may simply be that all these things indicate that the advertiser really is prepared to take care of any situation the customer might have, or things of that sort. We’ve had those kinds of challenges before, and we’ve been able to incorporate them in a way that makes the information enjoyable and manageable without being an information-based, context-less message that we can’t grab onto. But I think the success we’ve had has always been because we placed the information in a context that was supporting the overall story, and it was not information for its own sake.
Jim: Right. I think I may be saying the same thing in different words if I say that a laundry list only works if it’s relevant to selling the service or product. If it’s just a bunch of “me too” things, or if it’s a lot of technical stuff that nobody can follow anyway, then it’s not going to serve the advertiser to include it. On the other hand, for example, there are certain kinds of hardware companies that have transcended their category to become kind of a super store of gadgets, and one of those stores is our client. It’s called Bearings. And the reason that a laundry list was interesting in their particular assignment is that they carried so many different kinds of items far beyond what the normal hardware store would carry. And that was the point that they wanted to make with people who were not familiar with Bearings, that “we’re not just an ordinary hardware store.” But as Bill said, we put all that into a context that made it approachable, and the context in this case, if I could summarize it quickly, is based on that old urban legend about the guy who goes out for cigarettes and comes back ten years later. This guy goes out to get fusers for the Christmas tree lights and comes back eight years later, and it turns out he was at Bearings the whole time because he kept on finding new things to distract him. So we just did a reduction to the absurd about all the stuff that he loaded up with, and he finally came home in triumph.
Bill: And then what we did was work these items in so that when she says, “You know, you’ve been gone for years. You never called. You never wrote,” and he says “…and Bearings sells phones and stationery, and I guess I just lost track of the time.” So we were able to fit it into a context, and the person then had a picture and association to attach the information to. And that’s the only way you can hold information like that.
JV: One type of client that often comes to the station with a laundry list is the car dealer. Is that a necessary thing for car dealers?
Jim: Let’s back up from that, because it’s a great intro to what makes the great car dealer advertising different from lousy car dealer advertising. It isn’t just the shouting, and it isn’t just whether there is a laundry list or not. The problem with car dealers is that they never stick with anything. If they don’t see an immediate rise in sales this weekend, they’ll try something else. The other problem is that sometimes they will keep on trying the wrong thing because they think that is the only way to do it. That’s the way car dealer advertising is done. But the truth is that it’s hard to distinguish one car dealer from another these days, especially when they have so many different marks at the dealership. It isn’t like it’s the Pontiac/GMC dealer anymore. So what they need to be doing is creating what we call cachet, that generates a preference for the dealer whether they’re blowing them out the doors this weekend or not, because on any given day, many, many people who are their potential customers are not looking for a car. And if they’re not looking for a car, then they’re just going to be offended by this jabbering away at them. In fact, a lot of people I know will punch out the station if a car dealer ad comes on.
So the goal here, for car dealers, is to establish a brand identity on the radio and save their laundry list for the paper. That’s really where it belongs, and that’s whether we’re talking about used car or new car offers. Now, I’m not saying you can’t do promotions on the radio. You can and you should. But again, they should be done in the context of developing a clear and distinct brand for the dealer that distinguishes them from all that other jabbering that’s going on out there.
JV: This sounds like a book that’s not only good for the station’s personnel, but for the clients as well.
Bill: If I were at a radio station, one of the first things I would do would be to go drop this book off at the advertiser’s location because once people get philosophically aligned with this notion of having a cachet or a brand…I mean, if you look at the power of radio, with it a local advertiser has a chance to establish himself as a brand in that market. He’s not going to be able to do it on TV because he’s not going to have the production money to look impressive there. Additionally, newspaper is not a viable medium for that. But radio really can make this company very special.
Advertising Age Magazine had Jim and me come out and do a seminar a while back called “Bigger than P&G on the Radio.” And it’s true. You can, in a local market, be the Proctor & Gamble in your local market, but you have to do it with advertising that makes people emotionally connected to you. You can start a relationship with people before you’ve done business with them by virtue of your advertising. And if I were at a radio station, I’d go hand people this book and say, “Look. Here’s what you can be. Here’s the potential of the medium for you.” And once they experience it and say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and they start having success with it, they’ll never go back to the other for two reasons. One, it’s not going to work as well. Second, they become, as a company or a personality, emotionally attached to their own image, and they don’t want to go back and become something less.
JV: In radio, when production departments are given the opportunity to get creative, I think most people will steer themselves into humor. Is that the best way to get to somebody to listen? Is that the most common way?
Bill: I think it’s a great way if it’s done well. The problem with humor not done well is that it’s worse than humor not attempted at all, and that’s what has ended up happening. We don’t even like to use the word humor here. It’s either funny or it’s not. When people say humorous, it tends to be attempted humor, and too often it ends up not being all that funny. The great thing about being funny is that people will drop their resistance to your sales message. Secondly, it has an entertainment component to it that is the very reason that they have tuned in to the radio in the first place. They are there for the programming, which is either going to be songs or news/talk and so on. Whatever it is, there is an entertainment component that they’re tuning in for. When advertising comes on, that has none of that and does not engage anybody on any level other than information, people will tend to disengage from it. So it’s not going to work as well. People appreciate the effort that’s gone into a radio spot that actually engages them. Additionally, then they’ll pay attention and respond and remember and all the other things you want them to do. Humor seems like a great way to go because people appreciate it. It’s a great barrier breaker, and when it’s done well, it has great legs. People will want to hear stuff over and over if it’s fun to listen to.
Jim: The thing about breaking barriers deserves another comment, and that is simply that for the most part, when a listener first hears a commercial, they feel like they are going to be antagonized. The advertiser is going to try and talk them into something they don’t want. The advantage of humor is that it becomes something that the advertiser and listener can share, and the listener thinks, “Well, these guys don’t take such a serious attitude about themselves. Maybe they’re okay.” Now, admittedly, that’s a device, and it only works, as Bill says, when the humor is done well.
There are other things that a writer can do, and do very effectively. I think the great resurgence of direct address advertising, for example, is indicative of that. There are lots of commercials out there that aren’t necessarily designed to be humorous, although many of them are, that are simply a single voice talking to a single individual, me to you. And I think that’s very effective if it’s done well. I think the secret to doing that well is to make sure it is a personal statement. Whether you hire a voice talent to do this or it’s direct from the person who authors the sentiment, it has to be a real true feeling about either the product or the service that can relate to the listener on a personal level. Now, you can do that with direct address. You can do it in the form of a story. You can talk about, as an advertiser, “what it was like when we were kids and how things have changed…except at our place, they haven’t, because we don’t want to lose that little bit of magic that we felt was there when we were young. We want to keep it going, and you’ll find that here….”
Bill: And we talk about humor in the book. If you’re going to do humor, here are the elements that will improve your chances of having it work. How to integrate the humor with the information so that it’s not tack-on humor or humor that actually competes against itself in the message format. Also, as Jim had mentioned, direct address, narratives, things of that sort, we go into a lot of issues on how to construct and deliver those so that they will connect with people on a personal level.
Radio is very intimate. Isn’t it odd that the most intimate medium we have to work with is handled so impersonally? People will start with, “Hey, you, you’re not going to believe the way we’re blowing deals out the door!” That’s not personal and intimate, and what you have done is taken something that is very personal and intimate and made it not human. You’ve made it so there’s no human interaction going on. And the sad thing is that when you have engaged my ears, my mind starts putting pictures to it. People talk about theater of the mind,but they don’t know how to do it because they think it’s sound effects or something of that sort. It’s not. It is simply setting up something that engages the mind, and once that happens, like when people are reading a book, the pictures start forming, which is why people say the book is better than the movie. “I got to put those pictures in myself, and I made it work just for me.” And that’s the beauty of radio; once you’ve engaged me there, my mind will start being the art director of your words. And I’m not passive like in television or print where you’ve established the scene and I just observe it. I’m actually a participant when you engage my mind that way, but I can’t be engaged when you create distance by being impersonal.
JV: How has the consolidation of radio stations affected things from your perspective?
Jim: There’s a good side to that and a bad side. Let’s talk about the good side. The consolidation is making people pay more attention to the product from a global level. You’ve consolidated management as well, you see, and the management therefore has an opportunity to take a look at all the stations and see if they are performing up to snuff. It also avails each station of maybe a little bit more funding for things they had not done in the past, and I’m thinking that funding would maybe be available to do workshops in this area where they haven’t been done before.
But on a broader sense, more and more people are talking about the sound of a radio station and how that sound needs to be integrated across all of the air time. That includes the twenty percent per hour the commercials are being played. So the conversation has been elevated to a more global level because of the consolidation of management.
On the other side of that, there is a driving need, because of the consolidation and what it has cost to buy these stations, to justify the bottom line. And if that’s the case, then in some cases they may say, “We’re going to have to cut costs wherever we can,” and that is being done right now.
Bill: Additionally, you’ll have increased commercial loads most likely. One of the places they’re going to look to increase revenue is having more commercials per hour. Now if those commercials are good, that’s great. If they’re bad, if they continue to default their programming for twenty percent of every hour to annoying idiots, then that could be very bad.
Jim: So you’re going to actually find if you increase your commercial load in hopes of increasing revenue, you’re going to have the inverse effect of decreasing time spent listening. And that’s going to be a downward spiral because the advertiser is going to say, “nobody’s listening, and I’m pulling off your station.” And it’s going to be a frantic scramble to get more advertisers on.
Bill: Which will just increase the clutter again, so it’s a vicious cycle.
JV: That makes sense. It’s much easier to increase revenue by increasing the number of spots on the air, rather than saying, “Hey, what can we do to get our current customers to repeat their buys with even bigger buys? Can we do that with more creative commercials that get better results for them?”
Bill: You’ve hit on a great point there. If it’s working for them, they’re going to stick with it. They’re going to increase their buy and everything is going to work out. But I think there’s one other opportunity. And radio people just freak when you say this, and I don’t know why, but what would be wrong with making your commercial production facility its own revenue generating center? What would be wrong with charging for the service you provide, if you can make that a valuable service? Too often now, as I mentioned, they don’t have credibility because what they’re putting on is not worth paying for. It’s worth the free charge they’re giving it away at. But what if you had credibility and a track record of producing good spots, and you went ahead and acted like television, which charges for these production services and such, and actually made money that way? What’s wrong with that? I’ve mentioned this to folks they kind of shudder, “No! That’s such a sales advantage for us to have this free production!” And it’s really not because it means you can have greater turnover. And it’s not a sales tool when you have to keep renewing your client list because you’re having fallout all the time.
JV: What is the first thing stations can do, besides buy your book, to make a step in the right direction with their advertising?
Jim: I would say the first thing, certainly, would be to hold a meeting of all of the staff at the station and determine a course of action that is inclusive of each department so they can all contribute to this and feel they are a part of one operating philosophy. That’s got to be number one.
Bill: Yes, radio has got to change the philosophy. It really is a philosophical shift. The second thing is setting up a training program so it can happen, and a results based timetable where they can actually measure their improvement as they go along. Otherwise, they fall back on old habits.
JV: I’m sure there are lots of folks who would love to see things change.
Bill: You know, so many people are saying that, it makes me think that it has to start happening. But radio has been defining the same problem in different words for so long without really taking a serious attempt at solving it that it makes me suspicious.
JV: Well, it has to start at the management level, but it seems when they hire salespeople, they are looking for mercenaries who will go out there at whatever cost and bring in something “today.”
Jim: Rape and pillage.
Bill: It’s funny because I feel what I’m preaching to these people is to show more respect for your medium, and isn’t that an odd thing to have to be telling somebody?
JV: Especially management.
Bill: Yeah. You’re selling yourself short. You’re selling yourself on the wrong points—quick turnaround, low cost, all these things instead of results and the chance to really connect the advertisers with the audience. You’re really just delivering the potential because you’re delivering the audience, but the message is the other component, and they’re defaulting on that all the time.