Zombies Devour the Airwaves!

Effective radio producers understand the importance of relating to their audience. If your work reflects your listeners’ interests and experiences, you’ll be better able to establish relevance. This is essential in these times of rapidly evolving and expanding media options. Integrating pop culture into your imaging is one way to build relatability.

Here’s a sweeper I produced to capitalize on the zombie genre’s current popularity. I recently wrote about the importance of music in radio production. This is another example. After it was written and voiced, the only thing this piece really needed was the “Walking Dead” theme. Voila. Instant recognition and relatability.


And sometimes your work is lent extra relevance by unexpected events, like the recent bizarre occurrences in Miami and elsewhere. I wouldn’t call them happy accidents, but I got a big grin from WODZ’s program director.



The Importance of Music

When you produce radio commercials, one of the toughest decisions you face is whether to use music, and if you do, what music to use. At least it should be a tough decision. You should devote as much care and consideration to choosing an underscore as you do to every other step in the production process, including copywriting. In fact, writing with a specific piece of music in mind is a useful way to overcome a creative block and to make sure your message is on target. The spot below was written specifically for the music. In other words, I chose the music first and then wrote the story.


Music—or the lack thereof—is absolutely vital to producing engaging radio. The “radio commercials are supposed to have music, so I’ll throw any old bed under this voiceover and call it done” attitude is unacceptable. Every piece of music you use should serve a purpose.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the power of silence. Music can, and should, be used in the same way. Music can evoke a desired mood. The right bed can lend a humorous touch, or help create drama or suspense. Choosing the right music will help you produce spots with emotional impact. Emotional impact is essential to your primary goals: entertaining your audience and delivering results for your clients.


Last week I wrote about opposites and gave an example of how you can use them in ad copy. Here’s another example.

If you work in radio long enough, you’ll be asked to do spots for every type of business imaginable. The commercial below is one I wrote and produced a few years ago for a portable toilet supply company. It was one of those occasions when the account rep came in with little more information than: “Can I get a spot by tomorrow? They do port-a-johns. Oh, and make it a :60.”

So as I sometimes do when I need an idea but don’t have much time, I started thinking about opposites. In this case, I focused on music. What music is the polar opposite of what you’d expect to hear in a commercial for portable toilets?



I think this commercial works for a couple of reasons. First, the juxtaposition of the music with the subject matter makes the spot humorous and memorable. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a comedic writer. Sometimes it happens by accident. The content is mundane (if not objectionable to some), but the music makes the ad entertaining enough to hold the listener’s attention. As a radio producer, you have to do what’s right for the client and the station. You have to make your audience listen through entire stopsets. Second, there’s the psychology aspect (if you buy into that sort of thing). Carl Jung theorized on the integration of opposites and its importance to an individual’s development into a “whole.” Similarly, in a commercial like this one the listener’s subconscious reconciliation of opposites—recognizing two contradictory things as a cohesive whole—demands active cognitive engagement. And that’s what you want.

Again, the music plays the role of the opposite here. Choosing the right music—or deciding to use none at all—is absolutely vital to producing effective radio advertising and imaging.

More on that later.



Writing in Reverse

I promised in a recent post to offer some methods for generating copy ideas when you’re short on time. That was almost a month ago. My attention has been diverted during these last few hectic weeks, but the pressures of meeting deadlines despite a very tight schedule gave me plenty of opportunities to practice some of my favorite time-saving, thought-starting techniques.

When the clock is ticking and I’m out of ideas, I sometimes try to come up with an unexpected approach to the copy by thinking about opposites. There are lots of ways to do this, more of which I’ll share in future posts, but the example below is an idea I picked up years ago from Jeffrey Hedquist. (I may have even pilfered some of the script verbatim. I honestly can’t remember.) The spot is for a local music store. The strategy is to emphasize the business’s strengths by deconstructing the things that make it different and special. That is, think backward. Do the opposite of what you’d normally do. (Beyond the copy itself, note the absence of music. In a commercial for a store that sells music.)



This is a simple, effective—and unusual—way to spotlight your client’s competitive advantage. You can’t use this exact method very often, but maybe it will work for you sometime when you’re stuck.


Creativity Takes Time

Big ideas rarely come to me spontaneously. The creative work with which I’m most satisfied is usually the result of a lengthy process, and a good portion of that process involves little time spent actually working on or even thinking about the project.

For example, when an account rep requests a new commercial or campaign, I’ll first make sure I clearly understand the client’s objectives. I’m most concerned with the big picture stuff at this stage. I try not to bother with the details yet. Then—when possible—I do nothing. I have a strange little compartment in the back of my mind where I file things away to stew for a bit. The information’s there, I just don’t consciously think about it. Eventually an idea will occur to me. It usually takes a day or two—sometimes more, sometimes less. The idea may blossom from ordinary conversation. It might be triggered by something I see, read, or hear. Even once I have a workable concept, I’m a painfully slow writer. I agonize over every word and phrase, question my choices, scrap the draft, write, edit, write again. That’s the method that works best for me.

Unfortunately, I seldom have the luxury of time.

I’m not alone. Demand for fast turnaround is the bane of all creatives, especially in radio. We can complain about it all we want, but it’s a fact of life. We will often be asked to deliver too much in too little time. In one way, it’s a good thing: it means we’re making money. But sometimes the work suffers.

I had planned to write about some of the techniques I use to generate ideas quickly when I’m under the gun. But I have a couple of deadlines looming. It’ll have to wait until next week.

In the meantime, here’s a smart video a friend shared with me a while ago. It vividly illustrates the relationship between time and creativity.


Silence is Golden

Few things speak louder than silence. Whether you’re producing audio or video, commercials, documentaries, imaging, or any other storytelling form, silence is a powerful tool. Silence can be used as a punctuator to convey uncertainty or suspense. It can be a comedic setup. Remember the old saying “it’s all in the timing?”

Silence demands attention.

This year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival Short Docs Challenge calls for producers to submit short audio stories that, among other things, include three consecutive seconds of narrative silence. In other words, the silence should be an integral part of the story itself. The challenge is essentially to use silence as sound. The folks at Third Coast have provided a great example from producer John Biewen.

Years ago, EF Hutton’s ad agency built an entire campaign around strategically placed silence.


When I was a grad student at the University at Albany, I produced a radio documentary about Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. Here’s a short excerpt:


As I listened to this segment with my advisor, I recall him stopping playback and groaning: “Jesus. Don’t do that to him.” I was confused. “Do what to who?” “You’ve got a guy doing a very dramatic reading, and then you just stomped on him with the announcer,” he explained. “Show him some respect. Give it a second to breath. And most importantly, give the audience a second to digest what’s been said. Let the emotional impact settle in.” Note the difference in the edit:



Being so accustomed to commercial radio’s fast, tight editing, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of space. But today, I often incorporate silence. Here’s a promo I recently produced for WODZ.


It’s okay to shut up now and then. Silence really is golden. Use it and do work that demands attention.

Radio Badvertising

A couple of weeks ago I suggested a few ways to tighten up radio ad copy. At the time I promised a future post dedicated to clichés that should be avoided. Here are some of my (least) favorites:

“Attention!” Yes, the idea is to get the listener’s attention. But is that really the best you’ve got?

Opening with a question. Consider the old standard “are you hungry?” What if your audience answers no? You just lost them.

“Deals so good we can’t mention them on the radio!” What does this even mean? What this line tells me is that the deals probably aren’t that good. Otherwise, you would mention them.

“Prices have never been lower!” At least not since the last sale.

“There’s never been a better time to buy!” See “prices have never been lower.”

“Don’t delay!” Yes, a call to action is often important, but not necessarily because “our prices have never been lower,” “quantities are limited,” “our prices can’t be beat,” or “we won’t be undersold!” Demonstrate why delay could be costly. It’s not always about price and supply. Make it relatable. Tell a story. Explain why the customer should make time in her schedule to “hurry in today!”

“If you’re looking for (product), look no further than (business).” This phrase is just a crutch for a lazy writer. The same goes for “if you’re in the market for (product),” and “for all your (product) needs.” Again, make it relatable. Anticipate and address your audience’s needs and illustrate why your client is best able to meet those needs. Hint: it may not because they’re a “one stop shop.”

“No job is too big or too small.” But apparently the writer considered this job too small to craft a better line.

“A friendly, knowledgeable staff.” I’ll also include the meaningless “service after the sale.” Why not develop a commercial that focuses on the client’s exemplary service? Why not go into the business with a microphone and record the staff being awesome? Why not interview customers who have had great experiences with the business?

“Over (many) years in business.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the business understands its customers or their needs.

“Conveniently located.” Isn’t this dependent upon the listener’s proximity to the business and means of transportation? Which reminds me…

“Make that short drive” usually means that it’s actually a long drive. And your listeners know it. Of course once they get there, they’ll find…

“Plenty of free parking.” This might be valid for a business in a very congested urban area, but in most cases it’s a waste of time and words.

The above phrases are simply valueless. They’ve been overused to the point of emptiness. I thought it might be fun to illustrate the point with the mock commercial below.


Isn’t that silly? And yet everyday we hear actual radio commercials that sound just like that. They’re just noise. Clean up copy clutter and you’ll be better able to create spots that make an impact. In the demo, I also used one of my least favorite cliché techniques: the pukey, hard sell delivery. I was talking with Gary Bouton last week. Gary’s a former Madison Avenue ad man who I find inspiring. Gary commented, “Geoff, do you know how to really get an audience’s attention? You don’t shout.”

You whisper.”

By the way, “badvertising” is a term Gary used during our conversation. I’m only borrowing it for this one post. I wouldn’t want it to become a cliché.

“Make Me Care”

I love a good story. I like hearing them; I like telling them. Knowing this, a friend recently tipped me off to this TED talk from Andrew Stanton, director of “John Carter.”


For me, Stanton boils the goal of any effective storyteller down to three words: “Make me care.”

Simple, right?

Storytelling is one of the most fundamental—and powerful—forms of human interaction. “We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning,” Stanton says. “And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories.” Advertising guru Roy H. Williams points to scientific evidence that “a good story can cause the listener to see and feel what the storyteller is seeing and feeling, thereby empowering the storyteller to transfer ideas and emotions intact.”

What better way to help your clients’ businesses?

When using the storytelling approach in advertising, I often refer to the guidelines set forth by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman in “The Elements of Persuasion.” According to the authors, the most important elements of storytelling are passion, protagonist, antagonist, awareness and transformation. Passion is the “make me care” element, the emotional stimulus that draws the audience in and causes them to empathize with the protagonist, or hero. The antagonist introduces conflict that the protagonist must overcome. Awareness is the protagonist’s discovery of a potential solution to his or her problem, provoking a transformation that leads to the resolution.

Here’s a spot I wrote and produced years ago, long before I’d read Williams or Maxwell and Dickman. The commercial was for the local Labatt Beer distributor. Labatt Blue’s tagline that summer was “Look up. See Blue.”


The relatable emotional element, or passion, is indecision. Yeah, yeah, maybe that’s a little weak, but we’re selling beer here, not world peace. Obviously “Moldy Socks” is the protagonist. She struggles with choices, with the beer selection itself (the antagonist need not be a human). Her moment of revelation, or awareness, is when she tries the Blue. She’s then (presumably) transformed into a devout Labatt Blue drinker (and lives happily ever after).

When I created this spot I did not understand the elements of storytelling. I suppose I was operating with an innate sense that storytelling could be an effective advertising technique. I suspect that’s one of the reasons I framed the narrative on the tale “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” even though my version was intended to promote an adult product. From earliest childhood, stories help shape our perceptions of ourselves and the world. They can move us and inspire us to act. Isn’t that precisely what advertising is supposed to do?

For Copywriters

I’m getting caught up on some long-neglected reading and I came across this correspondence from David Ogilvy featured on the wonderful Letters of Note. I just had to share Ogilvy’s tongue-in-cheek thoughts on his creative process.

What copywriter can’t relate? I’m “postponing the actual copy” right now, which is the reason I discovered his letter in the first place.

The Value of Failure

So maybe the term “failure” is a little extreme. I’ve gotten plenty of compliments on the videos below.

I suspect those people were just being polite.

Still, “mistakes” might be a better word. These videos are full of them. But I hate to put out crap work, so to me, these mistake-laden pieces are failures.

Epic. Failures.

But that’s how I learn. I don’t have the patience for tutorials. I rarely read instruction manuals. I prefer to explore, experiment, see what works and what doesn’t. I also emulate things I’ve seen and heard until I develop my own style. Put simply, I plunge in, screw it all up, and try to do it better the next time.

Over years of working in radio, I think I’ve become a pretty good audio producer. I’ve learned the recording and editing techniques, and maybe even come up with a few of my own. I know how to write for the ear and how to construct narratives that work for the medium. But over the past few months I’ve been dabbling in video production, which is a whole different animal.

Last week my coworkers from the digital team at Big Frog 104 asked me to shoot video for an acoustic concert the station was putting on. I thought, “How hard could it be?” So my friend Vicky and I scrapped together some gear—just consumer stuff, nothing fancy—and plunged right in.

The show was what Nashville folks call a “guitar pull.” A few artists take the stage together and go down the line playing songs one at a time. We’d booked some of country’s young up-and-comers: Dustin Lynch, James Wesley, and Gloriana.

Here’s Gloriana playing “Carolina Rose.”

There are obvious technical problems in the video: poor picture and audio quality, questionable framing, shaky camera work. We did little to coordinate our shots. There was no real plan. I discovered that “fixing it in post” is not easy. The editing is bad. I love storytelling in all its forms, so I really wanted to include Tom Gossin’s set up: the backstory about the band’s formation, the announcement of his engagement to “Rose.” But the story seems to drag the piece down. And the pace of the performance itself is off. Some of my shot choices don’t even make sense.

I decided to tackle another song and try to do it better.

On Gloriana’s cover of “Amie” I skipped Gossin’s introductory story and went straight to the music. I tried to tighten it up and incorporate more editing techniques (zooms, pans, crops—which in some cases created new problems) in the hopes of making the piece more visually interesting. To me, it’s still a failure, but I think it’s an improvement on “Carolina Rose.” It also forced me to explore the editing software, to experiment and try things I hadn’t tried before, to screw it up and go back and try again. That’s how I learn.

I also learn by soliciting criticism and advice.