Nick Michaels, "The Whisper That Screams", Pinecrest, Florida

Nick Michaels spoke at a recent Dan O’Day VO and Production Summit about his unique approach to radio imaging. He is an incredible voice talent who has managed to be in demand for over three decades. He’s also a master at writing copy that works. And when you put Nick’s voice together with some great copy, you have “the whisper that screams.” In this month’s RAP Interview, Nick explains his distinctive approach to promos as well as commercials. He points out the mistakes too often made by radio and explains why old approaches don’t work anymore!

JV: How did you get started in the business?
Nick: I got into the business when I was fourteen years old. My father got me one of the very first transistor radios back in the early ‘60s. They were about the size of a pack of cigarettes. This was in Montreal, Canada. And I was laying in bed that night tuning in AM radio stations like WABC in New York, and it was just an amazing experience. I knew what I wanted to do right then and there. Being able to reach all these people over all these miles, it was like seeing some kind of light.

I started working at it almost immediately. I called the local radio station. They had high school reps, and I got them to let me be the rep. I think I was a sophomore at the time. So I started doing stuff for this guy, and then I went down to the station after school and started working with him. His show was from four in the afternoon until nine in the evening. I would run down there, do the show with him and basically worked for nothing, just to be his assistant. Back then, you had to go to a library, pull records, put records back when you were finished, fill out logs manually. I did all that stuff, and the show became real easy for the guy. He loved it. He got so used to me, but the station couldn’t hire me cause I was too young. So he started paying me something like $5 a day out of his pocket, $25 a week, which I thought was great. I’m getting paid to do this!

Then I won a scholarship to a university on a public speaking contest up in Canada, and I went to college on a communication scholarship. I had started in radio when I was fourteen, so by the time I got to college I had been working in radio for three years. Friday afternoons I would go up to the copywriter and I’d say, “What’s up?” And he’d say, “Oh man, the salesman just walked in with these ten car commercials that I’ve got to write.” And I’d say, “Well I’ll do them for you.” He’d say, “I can’t pay you kid.” I’d say, “That’s okay, just teach me your job.” And then the next week I’d go to the production guy and I’d say, “Hey, what’s up Larry?” “Oh, man, the guy just walked in and I’ve got to produce these ten car commercials.” I’d say, “I’ll do them for you.” He’d say, “I can’t pay you kid.” I said, “That’s okay, just teach me the job.” The only job I didn’t do by the time I had gotten to college was sales. Just about everything else, I could do.

JV: The communications classes in college must have been a breeze having already been in radio three years when you started.
Nick: Yes. About three or four months into it, the professor came up to me and said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You should teach this course, not take it.” The other guys in the class were still at the basics level. You know, this is a microphone. I ended up giving back the rest of the scholarship and said, “I’m out of here. I’m going to get my first on-air job.”

I had done everything except an air shift. I had operated the board, and I had practiced enough air shift work in the college studio to be able to do one. So I go to this radio station in Cornwall, Ontario, CJSS, and the Operations Manager says, “Have you ever done an air shift? And I said, “Yes.” Basically it was like asking, “Do you know how to fly this plane?” And I said, “Yes.” So he took me into the production studio and said, “Okay, go pick the records. Here are your spots. Do me a two-hour show. I’m going to sit and listen.” So I went in there, got things set up, and bang, sure enough I knew how to fly that plane real good. He said, “You’re hired.” I think I was making $80 bucks a week, and it was amazing.

JV: When did you realize you had a voice for commercials?
Nick: Well, I did a lot of local commercials there at CJSS, and one day the guy who was the Program Director said to me, “You know, you sound a lot this very big Canadian voice-over guy.” He did a lot of work and had a great voice, and he made a lot of money. All I knew was this guy he said I sounded like was making, at the time, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and I’m making $80 bucks a week. So I’m thinking maybe I should try that. But the next job I had was as a writer at an agency in Montreal, and the fellow that replaced me at that agency said, “Do you want to do this commercial?” And I said, “Sure, why not. I’m unemployed.” It was a voice-over for panty hose of some kind. I did it, it was on TV, and it was a very well received. That’s when I started auditioning for commercials. Before I knew it, I had national spots on the air. I was voicing Air Canada and Bell telephone and Molson’s Beer and other clients up there.

JV: What happened next?
Nick: I moved from Montreal to Toronto in 1973 and did commercials in Toronto for about four years. Then in 1977 I moved to New York City and did the same thing there. I was the voice of Excedrin for twelve years. I was the original host and co-creator of a program on the NBC Television Network called Friday Night Videos. It was a rock video program. We were the first rock videos on network TV back in 1983. I did that for two years until the network basically wanted to make it a different show. They changed the creative too much for me, so I bowed out and went back to doing promos and voice work and commercials and stuff like that.

JV: Voice-over, writing, or both?
Nick: I did lots of voice-over, but lots of writing too. I got back to what I wanted to do, which is just writing the promos and commercials.

JV: Now is this mainly for television or radio or both?
Nick: Both. Most of the voice work I did was TV. The writing I did was for radio. I did some TV writing but not as much.

JV: I was just doing the math here and realized you’ve been doing voice-over for 30 years!
Nick: Yes. My voice has appeared on over 1 billion dollars of national advertising. Excedrin, has put over $250 million dollars of their money where my mouth is. It’s very, very rare to be the voice of a single account for twelve years. But that spot I got after an audition that lasted three months, and they saw a thousand voices in every city— New York, Chicago, and LA. And I won that because on the testing done by the client, Bristol Meyers, I scored higher in one category than anybody they had ever seen, and that category was “believability.” That’s the thing that advertisers want.

JV: As a writer, what is your approach to radio promos?
Nick: Intimacy and emotion. Radio is an intimate emotional medium, and it works best when it’s messages are based on that. And when it comes to the over-communicated world, this is more important than ever. Here’s the basic difference. In the over-communicated world, all these messages are predicated on this question: “Excuse me Jerry, may I have thirty seconds to tell you about this?” Well if the answer to that question is “no,” where do we go? As soon as you say that, I turn off, or hang up the phone, or shut off the TV, or push the button. What happens then?

JV: Your listener’s gone.
Nick: Your opportunity is gone. Game over.

So the whole thing about making messages in the over-communicated world is not making the message about your product, it’s making it about the audience. You do not see Nike talking about themselves in their slogan. It’s not, “Nike, expensive sneakers.” It’s, “Just do it.” Microsoft doesn’t say, “The world’s largest software company!” But that’s what it would be if a radio guy wrote it. “Classic rock that really rocks!” “Software that let’s you type!” But instead, they say, “Where do you want to go today?”

These guys have to make sure their message gets through. And they understand that in the over-communicated world the only messages that get through are messages that are about the audience’s deepest needs, wants and fears. Where do I want to go today? That’s my deepest need. Being free. And one of my deepest wants is to go and explore the world or see something or find out something. Talking to me about my deepest needs, wants and fears is what’s going to get my attention. Assuming that I give a rat’s behind whether or not you’re going to play 20 in a row is a big assumption on your part. You think when people are shaving or putting their make-up on in the morning they go, “If only B97 had a wider variety of hits, my life would be a lot better.” Do you actually believe that? You think it’s like, “I’m so glad it’s the station we can all agree on at work”? What kind of incredible, egotistic lunacy is this? The audience doesn’t care at all about your message because you haven’t even thought of putting it towards their life. It’s merely, “This is who I am, and I want you to understand that I play twenty in a row. Whether or not this matters to you, whether or not it’s relevant to your life, whether or not you’re even going to listen, I’m going to continue telling you I play twenty in a row.”

JV: Let’s say the Program Director comes to the production guy and says, “Look, this week we’re going to give away the new Nelly CD.” How does the production guy do a promo that makes giving away the Nelly CD speak to the listeners’ needs or their fears or their wants?
Nick: It doesn’t matter whether the message is vote for this man for president or give away the Nelly CD. How do I do it? Consciously and creatively. If giving away a Nelly CD is the objective, there is a way to tie in to people’s needs, fears and wants in such a way that you can connect those two things. Finding the interface between those two things is where your starting point should be for that message.

In the absence of that, deliver it in a very low key manner. In other words, be believable. Be humble. The problem with most radio is it sounds as if it’s speaking down to the listener. The commercials don’t sound like that—certainly not the national ones. But the messages created at the station level have a tendency to have a big snarly voice, they have him speak in incomplete sentences, which is the way a superior speaks to an inferior, and they treat the audience as if the audience was their pet dog.

I work for a great station in Denver called The Mountain. When you give away tickets, it’s supposed to be a gift, right? If you were to give away Steely Dan tickets, that’s a gift, right? Well the way most stations do it, you wouldn’t even give your dog a biscuit that way. It’s like they say to them, “Okay, we’ve got two tickets to see Steely Dan, front row at the convention center. But before I give you these tickets, Jennifer, what’s your favorite radio station? Okay, Rusty, before I give you this biscuit, bark for daddy. Bark for daddy.”

On the Mountain, here’s how we do it. You go to your mailbox, and there’s a little letter. It says, “We noticed you love Steely Dan. You’re part of our community. Here are two front row tickets. Hope you love it.” And we don’t even put their name on the air. It’s a real gift. The way it’s supposed to be. From a real radio station that’s a real friend. Not a commodity, not the place for weather, but a living, organic friend. Radio stations are too mechanical, too corporate, too inhuman.

The purpose of audio is to suspend the audience’s disbelief. My partner, Terry Gangstad is the genius at this. He has a style he developed called “audio cinema.” It’s like going to the movies with your eyes closed.

The thing is, it’s about understanding that the audience can only grab on to the humanity they perceive in your message. So the more human you are, the more vulnerable you are, the better. That’s why the spots by Tom Bodette for Motel 6 sound so great on the radio. Everything on the radio is so high powered; it’s like boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then here comes, “Hey folks, it’s me, Tom Bodette…, and how are you and what’s going on..." It’s just like, ahhhhh… relax.

It’s the whisper that screams. In an over-communicated world a whisper becomes a scream. In the over-communicated world the negative space is more important than the positive space. That means that the silence that surrounds your message is more important than the words. So in the over-communicated world, the worse thing you can do is fill all thirty seconds with copy. And the best thing you can do is put four words in a thirty-second spot. And fill the rest with sound. Silence in the over-communicated world is deafening.

JV: And this applies to more than just commercials, right?
Nick: It applies to anything if the message is going to a human on the other end. Who’s receiving the message? Is it a human being? Then it applies. Doesn’t matter whether it’s a promo, a newscast, on-camera essay, liner, top of the hour, contest… it applies. And something about contests; I don’t believe in contests. A contest is an admission of failure. A contest is, “Excuse me, my programming isn’t compelling enough to keep you. Can I buy you for a buck?” That’s what a contest is. The only contest that counts would be one where the listener loves the programming so much they agree to pay you five dollars a week so they can keep listening to your station. Otherwise you’re just buying your votes. That doesn’t count.

JV: But that’s the way it’s done almost everywhere. You’re talking a completely new breed of radio here.
Nick: As far as I’m concerned, a great deal of the way radio is done today is wrong.

JV: What stations are using your techniques, and how are they doing in the ratings?
Nick: The Mountain in Denver. The Drive in Chicago. They’re both doing just fine. They are startups that did fabulous. The Drive went from nothing to owning males 25-54 in Chicago in basically less than a year. The Mountain took a serious bite out of Denver in less than nine months. Sunny in Philadelphia against a super powerful competitor did very, very well in five or six months with a very low-key approach, an honest approach to the imaging that is like this: [soft, believable delivery] “No hype, no contests, no silly morning shows. Just great music.” When you take off all the junk and desire, isn’t it easier to listen to?

JV: Much easier, thank you.
Nick: Well wouldn’t that apply to radio listeners too?

JV: Point well made. You’ve been doing voice-over work for 30 years. How have you managed to still be sought after by the agencies when other voice-over talents come and go?
Nick: Because I don’t have a fad. I’ve been doing the same thing since day one, being real. Being believable. Believability never goes out of style apparently. A lot of stuff goes out of style, but I guess believability doesn’t.

JV: How do you train somebody to be believable? How do you coach that?
Nick: It has nothing to do with the voice. It has everything to do with forgetting about the voice and thinking about the message – believing the message. All the power of a message is vested in the words, in the writing. The voice is merely a container. It’s a vessel for the words. That’s all it is.

JV: So any voice could deliver the message?
Nick: Absolutely. It’s write powerfully, read humbly. I mean, what’s more powerful than a tiny little child reading the words to the constitution—“We the people…”—and making mistakes and stumbling. What makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up when it’s read, some big radio voice guy reading it perfectly or some little kid with incredible honesty and emotion, leaving in every mistake?

In the over-communicated world, production values don’t matter because the audience can’t be slicked anymore. They don’t care about that. They’d rather watch Ozzy Osbourne. They’d rather watch dogs pooping on a $25,000 rug. Doesn’t that tell you something?

JV: Are you doing the writing for these stations as well as voice-over?
Nick: Yes, I either write or co-write, or I will modify the copy. It depends on the relationship between me, the station and the writer. Many of them have great writers. Sunny does. I certainly have helped them get into the right viewpoint, but they carry a lot of the weight. They’ve picked up the stick and they’re great. Their writing has gotten so superb. Also the Mountain and the Drive, and many other stations. Those guys are great. They’re doing it now. It’s not me. It’s them.

JV: Can you give us an example of some of the lines they might use in their IDs or promos?
Nick: Take Sunny in Philadelphia. That’s a female audience, 35+, AC. When it comes to women, they want to be made to feel something. So most of the imaging on the station is about mood. During Christmastime we created very, very beautiful images of certain parts of Philadelphia under snowcap and stores with twinkling lights. It’s like Coca Cola does it. You know how Coca Cola makes a spot about summer and then at the end it’s just, “Summer and Coca Cola.” Coca Cola didn’t bring you summer. They’re not the creators of summer, God is. But they attached themselves to summer. And we at the radio station attach ourselves to the things of greatness and depth that matter to the audience. It’s allowing the audience to feel something.

JV: The approach of setting it up for twenty five seconds and then closing it with the station call letters puts the station at the very end of the promo. What about the premise that you only have three to five seconds to get their attention—get it fast and then deliver the message? Is this approach invalid?
Nick: It’s invalid in the over-communicated world because it requires you to scream at them and that’s too loud. Here’s the thing. In the old world it was about accepting and acting upon the message. In the over-communicated world, it’s all about filtering. Who gets in and who doesn’t. It’s like every day you go to your email box and there’s spam. You see the spam come up and it says, “Would you like a lower mortgage?” You don’t even read it. You dump it. You hit delete. You go to your mailbox and there’s a thing and it says, “Open house this Thursday for brand new development.” You’re not interested. You throw it away. Now somebody went to the trouble to make that message. Somebody printed it up on heavy four-color paper and spent the money to deliver it all the way to my house where it got all the way to my right hand, 99% of the way on it’s journey, and it got thrown out on the 99% mark. All it takes is money to deliver any message you want, but is the message being received? Not unless your message is a personal mail. What makes a message personal is when it is about the deepest needs, wants and fears of the buyer.

JV: What’s a good example of a national commercial with a personal message?
Nick: There’s that Audi commercial where a forty-five year old guy is driving in his car and it’s a beautiful summer day. He’s got his nine year old daughter with him, driving on the back country roads, and he’s thinking to himself, “I figure if I drive real slow and take all the back roads, maybe I can hold on to my daughter a little longer.” Now that’s the only copy in that thirty. Now tell me, what does that have to do with Audi? These guys spent 10 million or however many bucks on a campaign, and they never mention the car! They don’t mention the anti-lock brakes. They don’t mention where you get it. They don’t mention why it’s better than the competition. They don’t talk about anything except this guy’s relationship with his daughter. Are they nuts? Are they in the psychology business? No. They’re brilliant. Because while this has nothing to do with the car, it has to do with the deepest needs, wants, and fears of the buyer of the car.

Research indicates that those Audi buyers are fast trackers. That car costs over $50,000, so in order to get it you have to be on the fast track. That means that every day when that guy shaves or everyday when that woman puts on her make-up she says, “I am the executive vice president now, but I have to give up little Timmy’s birthday party to do that. I will have to be away for Janey’s recital. Am I trading my family for this car?” That is the deep question they ask. “Am I trading my family for this car?” So when Audi comes along and speaks to that, the guy watching the commercial subliminally goes, “Holy cow, how did Audi know that about me? Boy, all these cars are about the same, the Audi, the Honda, the Volvo. They all have leather seats. They have anti-lock brakes. They’re all about the same price. But Audi’s the car that understands my problem.”

If you want to win in the over-communicated world, do not try to explain your product to the audience; rather, be the product that understands your audience.

JV: That’s quite a challenge there. But it sounds like fun.
Nick: It is fun. It’s fun when you see the light in their eyes. It’s fun when my friend calls me up and says listeners are requesting the promos. I have a new feature up in Canada called the Artist Ownership—it’s also on here in Chicago on The Drive, and we’re just starting to sell syndicated in the United States. My Program Director buddy called me up from Montreal and said, “They are requesting it Nick! Like a record, like a song!” Everything we write should be the most compelling part of the station, much more compelling than the programming.

JV: How do you speak to the lack of time at most stations to do the creative like you say it should be done?
Nick: I think they need to take the time. It has to be provided for them. And radio stations need to re-think their business model in order to allow their creative people to do the job right. This is an important part of their product. I mean, let’s face it, writing is the essence of everything, whether it’s a movie, a Broadway show, a newspaper article, a song—all the power is in the writing. And in radio, we think so little of that we let the salesman do it. “Hey, you sold the guy. You write it up. You know Jim’s Garage, write something up.”

It’s like trying to do brain surgery on yourself to have your salesmen write the spot and not a professional writer. Would you have a non-professional dentist work on you? Some guy thought he could cut a corner there. Instead of paying some morning guy $300,000 bucks a year to go yuk, yuk, you should have a Creative Director you pay that money to, whose job is to make sure that everything that comes out of that speaker shines.

JV: Leave us with one more example of a promo you did for radio utilizing your techniques.
Nick: A few years ago we were doing a radio station in Houston. I think it was Mix 96. McCartney was on tour. We were there for creative meetings and this station had the promotion. They brought the band in and it was at the Astrodome. They said, “How do we do something for this?” I said, “Who’s you’re audience?” Well, their audience was at the time for this AC station was, let’s say, a 37-year-old female. So we did the math and I figured out that this listener would have been seven years old when the Beetles first came to the states in 1964. So here’s the spot:

[soft, believable delivery] “It’s the summer of 1964. A little seven year old girl sits in her room crying her eyes out because her parents won’t let her go to a concert with her older brother, a concert that would change the world.” Then you hear I Wanna Hold Your Hand. “This Saturday, Mix 96 presents Paul McCartney at the Astrodome…the music, the memories and the second chance.”

That’s about a McCartney concert. I could do a similar thing for giving away a Nelly CD. It’s not about the Nelly CD. It’s about this little girl’s second chance.