By Steve Pigott

Keeping the imaging topical is a vital aspect to any radio station. Your audience is dynamic, and forever changing therefore it is important to reflect their emotions and lifestyle. Popular culture is specific to place and time, so what may be the big thing in your market may not necessarily be the one somewhere else.

You need to get inside the head of your listener. What do they do with their time, what TV do they watch, what kind of music do they listen to and what is the topic of conversation in the bar on a Friday night?

Incorporating current, topical events into the branding will generate a subliminal connection with your audience. It brings you closer to their lives. The radio station needs to be living and experiencing the same things they do.

Let’s face it; something happens pretty much every day that affects your listeners in some way. It may be a new movie, a news story, an event, celebration or even tragedy. Basically, if your listeners are talking about it, then you need to be reflecting it.

Listening around, there is a distinct shortage of character in production. You tend to hear the same old standard IDs, sweepers and jingles on pretty much every station. The majority of CHR formats play the same songs and to a certain extent have similar presenters. So how do you make your station stand out from the competition? Well you can start by bringing your production to life! Have you ever tried explaining what you do to a “non-radio” person? It’s pretty hard, isn’t it? The reason for this is that they’re so used to hearing those three-second idents between songs that they just take them for granted. You need to give them a little more, something they can connect with and relate to.

Topicality in production is often overlooked and forgotten due to formality, and workload. If you’re imaging for two or three stations, it’s going to get a little tough on time. However, it doesn’t always have to be in depth, it can be something simple like a recognizable sound effect, or a “twist” on an advertising slogan or strap line. If it’s something that your audience can relate to, then you’re on to a winner. If there’s a big movie out that everyone’s in to, why not make a series of IDs with clips from the film? You don’t have to make it obvious either, there’s no need having your voice guy saying “Your official Spiderman station” (– trust me, it happens!) If you’ve got a sample or clip in there that’s recognizable, then job done.

There is no middle ground when creating topical production. It’s either done well, or really badly. There’s no point throwing together a meaningless promo just because it has some slight reference to the event or story. You have to relate it in some way to the radio station. There is always a twist you can make on a story that will re-enforce what you do. A prime example of this is the Paris Hilton Promo on this month’s RAP CD. Okay, the story’s there, but how can you make it benefit the station? This is where your creative script writing needs to take the driving seat. If you really think hard enough, there is a way to associate pretty much anything into your radio station. “Kissing more celebrities than Paris Hilton” is a simple example.

Topicality can also help in communicating how good your station is. By creating a promo that has a theme or a topical angle, you’re delivering the statement without blatantly kissing your own ass. On the CD, you will hear how we announced our rating success in a relevant and topical way, without losing the key message that Kiss is number 1 for a “Fun Young London.” Okay, so we were lucky that 20 seconds of the Spiderman trailer was a conversation on “kissing,” but if you listen hard enough, there are plenty of relevant quotes you can dig out and use in your production.

In the summer of 2004, a huge soccer tournament took place in Europe. In general, Kiss isn’t a station that touches sport, as it’s not what we’re about. Music is our focus, and everything else pretty much takes a back seat. However, when an international soccer event takes place, the whole of the UK gets patriotic and sometimes a little obsessive about 11 men kicking a ball on a field! As a station in the “nations capital,” we needed to reflect the passion on the radio, without losing our focus. We imaged the event in non-conventional ways, like the movie trailer example on the RAP CD. Strap lines such as “Kiss 100% England Biased” and “The Station with the Biggest Balls in Europe” gave the impression that we were behind the team, yet still keeping the edginess and quirkiness that the station is famous for.

The advantage of working with audio is that it can be manipulated seamlessly. Check out the “Brit Awards” intro on the CD, and hear the artist actually thank Kiss in his acceptance speech! Hearing it for the first time, you would have no idea that the audio was taken from two different events.

Having easy access to your station voiceover is essential to topical production. It’s no good if you only get 15 minutes with your voice guy every month. If this is the case, I urge you to rethink your voice options. With MP3 capabilities, there is no reason why you shouldn’t have the copy you want within a day or two. We pretty much get our V/O whenever we want her, with three times per week being the average, and to be honest I wouldn’t settle with anything less frequent. There may be the argument that you should be organized enough to cope with just one session per week or month, but to keep topical, you need your idea on air yesterday, or it will be irrelevant to the audience. These things need to be turned around almost instantly before you miss the boat. There’s nothing worse than getting something on-air when the hype has died down. Even if it means working extra hours, it is worth it. The Britney Spears Wedding Promo on the CD was literally turned around within a couple of hours of the story surfacing. As well as it being covered in the news, we had a promo running on the breakfast show that morning, with a “Kiss angle” to it.

A lot of producers don’t see the point in making something that only has a shelf life of one maybe two days. Granted, it may be a lot of effort on your part, but if you’re connecting with your audience on a personal level, it is definitely worth it. The relevance and topicality of the piece will take the focus away from the actual production values anyway; so if time is an issue… don’t worry about it too much. If your job is imaging radio stations, then you should easily be able to knock something up in an hour that sounds awesome.

The lifespan of topical branding however is a big issue to be aware of. Once you’ve put something together, how long should you air it for? There is no real answer for this unfortunately. I personally go by my own instincts. If it still feels right, then carry on airing it. The first time I question whether something on-air is still relevant, I rip it straight off before the listener gets bored of it.

A worthwhile exercise is to take a step back and actually listen to your station for a day. Trust me, it may be a day of actual physical work lost, but you will learn so much about your own product. I guarantee, the average producer will listen, and although the music is spot on, and the imaging is to a high standard, it will be hard to hear anything that actually stands out. Are you really giving your audience anything different from station “B” down the street?

It’s about reassessing your focus. Are you too obsessed with making clinical production that simply says your station name? Or are you constantly fishing around for a new angle to take, or thinking creatively for the next promo script you’re going to write? It’s not reinventing the production wheel; it’s simply moving things on and being more creative. I’ve got to the point now, that when I hear about something, whether it be a celebrity getting married, a big music event, movie or just general gossip, the first thing I think of is, how do I transform it onto the radio.

Every radio station shouts how good they are, and how they’re “number 1” for this, that and the other, but it’s the topicality aspect that makes the difference. It goes back to that reoccurring discussion of doing things for the sake of it. You’ll always have a key message to get across, but it’s the way you do it that counts!

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