By Trent Rentsch
“Life barrels on like
A runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off
Someone else can get on.”
Fred Jones Part 2, Ben Folds
I’m not sure why it’s taken me 3 months to mention that I’ve slipped out of radio again. It’s not that I was worried about losing my credibility; Lord knows I blew that before the end of my first words here, more years ago than I can believe. I could say that it wasn’t all that important to me, but that would be a lie. I’ve missed the business of hot air when I bolted before; this time has been no different. So why, in a period where I’ve found coming up with words for you harder than my son’s Freshman Algebra homework, have I avoided the obvious topic?
Maybe I didn’t expect it to last. I’ve been writing copy almost as long as I’ve been in radio, but it’s only been part of the equation. Now I officially have the title Copywriter, it’s what I do, all day, every day for a production company. No more excuses, the words have to be right, it’s my job. And deep down, after 7 or 8 gazillion pieces of copy, I’m still wondering if I have the stuff to do justice to the job.
My spelling is horrible, the whole “I before E” thing is a mystery, spell check often can’t find the word I’m trying to use. My sentence structure is unstructured; I write the way I talk. I’ve tried to learn the rules, picked up a copy of “The Elements of Style.” After 3 pages my eyes crossed and I developed hives... months later there is still some numbness in the Creative side of my brain. And, I write fat, too many words, 100 to a :30, with gusts to 120. And unlike a good carpenter, I don’t measure twice and cut once; I tend to edit copy on the fly, while producing. But now that I no longer produce what I write, it must leave my desk ready to voice and produce as is. I never realized how spoiled I was.
I suppose I’ve worked enough with words now to understand their weight, their power. It’s easy to be intimidated by them. The right words can change the world; the wrong ones can destroy it. And while my parables extolling the virtues of one car dealer over another are not going to start a revolution, they might mean a few more cars will be sold, taking the dealership over their goal for the month. This makes them happy, they come back for more production, our company makes more money and grows. So it seems that even my little words carry a certain amount of weight, of responsibility.
It was no different in radio, but I never noticed. I’d give it the nod, blow on about it “All starting with the written word,” but there were deadlines and the right music to hunt for, and wondering if the midday guy could really pull off a Keanu Reeves impersonation, and meetings with the PD about the new morning show promo, and… it usually all started with words hastily scratched on a legal pad, moments before it was produced. Out of desperation, words often became the first afterthought. Did I ever really express how delicious those Cherry Slushies were, or what an incredible offer on ladies undergarments the local department store had? Probably not, I was too busy listening to demos of sweeper libraries. How embarrassing, considering that I’ve now been hired to give words the attention they deserve.
Ironic, huh? We talk, supposedly communicate on the radio, but what falls out of mouths often has little thought behind it. Even more disturbing, it seems the trend is to focus on the imaging Creative for the station, and give little attention to the work done for paying clients. There are notable exceptions, but on many stations the commercial breaks are painful to sit through… and I’m the kind of geek that normally turns up the spots. A Program Director once told me, “Commercial breaks are always a tune-out… ALWAYS.” You know what? As long as that kind of thinking within the industry continues, he’s right.
Commercials can be a good thing, I’ve heard it. Stan Freberg, Chuck Blore, Dick Orkin… the Masters have told us some funny, sentimental, amazing stories that we wanted to experience again and again, and they’ve done it while selling us something. It can be done, but the genius always starts with great, compelling writing. In fact, most of their work is the result of great words performed by the right voices. Some would argue that we’ve moved on, that the competition is big and fast and flashy, and radio has to be bigger and louder to keep up. I think radio keeps forgetting its strong suits, the things it can offer that no other medium can, and the most important of those is communicating with the audience, one on one. Not shouting at the listener, talking to them… and having something to say that’s worth listening to.
I may be on the outside, but writing radio copy is still a major part of my professional life. I hear my words on the air, and I hope they’re the right ones, that they’re doing their job. I wish that I had worried more about words when I was on the inside. Perhaps I could’ve helped revolutionize the industry. Or at least helped our clients sell a few more Slushies and/or panty hose.