by Dave Hughes
I don’t know, maybe it’s me. It seems like, every time I write an article for a publication about radio production, I always come back to a “just the basics” message. I do it often enough that it’s starting to bother me. Well, after spending a good bit of time wondering about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that I always come back to that because most of the things that bother me about various spots I hear are fundamentals. And why are the fundamentals not learned by everyone? I blame technology.
No, wait. Stop screaming at the nice magazine. I’m not anti-technology. In fact, before the chants of “stone the heathen Mennonite!” spring up, let me go on record as saying that I wouldn’t go back to spending three hours in a small room with a grease pencil, a razor blade and a cranky Otari reel-to-reel for anything; it’s just that the basics of how to construct a good commercial sometimes seem to get lost in the forest of bells and whistles at our disposal.
The last few really, really bad spots that I’ve heard (both local and national) all seem to have one thing in common: every one of them featured two or three different voice effects, a sound effect or two, and occasionally a “tricked-up” music bed. What none of them DID have was a decently-written script.
Sometimes it’s easy to say, “Well, this script isn’t all that hot, but I’ll just jazz it up in ProTools and no one will notice.” That, I’m afraid, is not necessarily the way it works. Sure, Josie Fay at the 7-11 may not be able to tell you, “Your overuse of vocal processing techniques tends to detract from your overall message,” but I’ll bet she COULD tell you, “Y’know, that there commercial just don’t sound right.” She won’t know why it doesn’t sound right, but she’ll know it just the same.
Let’s face it; ninety percent of the spots that most of us crank out are only really appreciated by other radio people. Sure, I love nothing more than listening to a spot with eighteen different things, all perfectly placed with just the right “spin.” It’s like a good intro talk-up; if it’s good enough, I get that little tingly feeling. However, I’m a radio person; my opinion doesn’t matter (so to speak).
In the publishing industry, they sink a lot of money into cover art. Why do that, when they’re selling a story? That’s right... to get your attention. However, if the cover is so flashy that you grab the book and start reading, and it turns out that the story stinks, then you feel like you’ve wasted your time and money.
Digital effects are the cover art of the radio advertising industry.
Sure, a flashy vocal phase or a cool slap-back echo effect will get your listeners’ attention, but once you’ve got it, if you’ve got nothing interesting to say, you’ve done more harm than good. Take a second and think about that. If a flashy spot gets a listener’s attention, and then they don’t hear something interesting in the spot itself, or at least something that is well-presented, then they come out of that spot-set with the same feeling you have when you realize that your pretty little book isn’t all that hot of a read. That is not the feeling you want your listeners to take back into the music sweep, now is it?
Every, and I mean every spot that you cut should have at least most of its value (both entertainment and informative) left if you take every last vocal effect, sound effect and music away. I know that, as with anything, there are exceptions. But those exceptions are the spots that use effects correctly; if you take them away, the message of the spot changes. If you can take the effects out of your last spot without the commercial losing any information, then ask yourself why they’re there. And no, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be there; that just means that you should at least think about what you do to a spot, and why, when it comes to effects.
It’s easy to crank out another automobile dealership spot with a screaming voice with a heavy phase on it; I still fall into that trap myself sometimes. In fact, some clients insist on it. Nothing infuriates me more than for a salesperson to tell me, “Stan bought a schedule, and he wants a spot that sounds just like the one we’ve got for Night Motors, except with his name in it.” Arrrggghhhh.
The bottom line is this: if the computer died tomorrow, could you still turn out effective spots? If not, you’re concentrating on the wrong things. Get the best five books you’ve read recently in your mind. Okay, tell me who illustrated the covers. Can’t do it? Well, who wrote them? Now, tell me which is ultimately more important in getting the book’s message across: the flash, or the presentation of the content in plain, boring old black and white text.
A lousy book with a fantastic cover is still a lousy book. A lousy spot with lots of effects is still a lousy spot, and unless “lousy spots” are what pay the bills at your station, then you might want to get back to basics. The next set of copy points that comes across your desk, try this: write the spot with the intention of having no vocal effects, no sound effects, and no music. Just one (or two) voices, and that’s it.
Now you’re writing an effective spot.