U.S. Radio -- A View From the Other Side of the Pond

By Sean Bell

Here in the UK, we have a name for people who have a passion about a subject, a passion that exceeds the boundaries of accepted normality. Some people spend all of their spare time hanging around train stations collecting the numbers from passing rolling stock. Others go that little bit further when it comes to plane spotting and so on. This name is Anorak, and I’m quite at ease with saying that I’m a radio and production Anorak.

Whereas most people drive along in their cars listening to music on their radios, at the end of a commercial break I might re-tune, looking for another two or three minutes of ads, promos or sweepers (much to the frustration of my wife). In fact, I recently had to replace the receiver in my car ‘cause the buttons had become so worn, and the set would retune itself with every bump. So now I have a set with a CD player too, and guess what? I also have a selection of CDs (in addition to the RAP CDs) featuring ads, sweepers, promos and production. Last September, not for the first time, my family took a two week holiday to the theme parks in Florida, and I came home with 31 hours of radio on cassette (now transferred onto CD)!

As a major supplier of “sound design” to theme parks here in the UK, again I was blown away with the standard of production I heard in Disney and Universal, and on my return to the NYPD (New Yorkshire Production Department) studios, I immediately re-evaluated the quality of our work.

It was this passion for production that led me to subscribing to RAP. A few carefully chosen words entered into a search engine, and up popped www.rapmag.com. I requested a back dated sample copy which arrived a couple of days later, then keyed in my credit card details before the CD got to the end of track 2!

You see, listening to other people’s work gives me inspiration and a fresh way of looking at things. It’s been said before that there is no such thing as a new idea; though through broadening my horizons, and listening to how other people do things, it helps me to reinvent some old ideas.

In one of the first editions of RAP magazine that I received (March 2002), Steve McKenzie stated, “invest in yourself,” which is exactly what I had done. But the investment doesn’t necessarily have to be financial. Around 8 years ago, I was freelancing as a writer at a UK station, Leicester Sound, and I managed to salvage a box of production cassettes that were being thrown away. These proved invaluable to me, as then I was still quite new to writing for radio, and by dissecting other peoples work, studying it, and taking it in, I gained some very useful techniques.

To feed my passion, Ilisten to a lot of radio from around the world on the Internet, and in particular I used to listen to a lot of US stations. And it was whilst listening to US stations that I was particularly struck by the major differences between US and UK radio.

For a start, there’s the actual number of stations, each with a dedicated format. Here in the UK, in any one single market place you might have up to 5 commercial stations, who all claim to offer “the best mix” of their type of music – CHR, AC, or whatever. But in reality they tend to work from very similar play lists. The scope of these play lists is also very diverse. A “dance station” would play everything from hip-hop and R&B, through the commercial pop tunes and onto garage, trance and so on. I’d love to hear a station that played my favourite hip-hop and R&B with maybe a flavour of soul and funk, but not the faster “house” style music which just isn’t my cup of tea (now there’s an English phrase for you). The point I’m making is that in the US, it seems that stations pinpoint their target audience more precisely, rather than “playing safe” by trying to be all things to everyone.

In a recent Radio Academy lecture here in the UK, Clear Channel’s Chief Executive, Lowry Mays said, “I read that (BBC Director General) Greg Dyke thinks that apart from Classic FM, all the UK’s commercial radio stations produce the same thing. He’s nearly right. As programmer of one of many competing UK radio groups, I would do the same thing, i.e. fish where the 25 year-old male fish are.”

The nearest we’d get to a dedicated “Rock” station in the UK would be a watered down mix of Guns ‘n’ Roses, U2, Bon Jovi, Brian Adams, The Eagles and so on, mixed with the likes of Robbie Williams, The Stereophonics, and the New Radicals. From time to time there might be a token Aerosmith track thrown in, but no chance of anything like AC/DC whatsoever!

I said that I “used” to listen to a lot of US radio via the net. That was of course until stations stopped streaming audio, or did so, but blanked out the commercial breaks. I find this very strange, and thankfully this hasn’t happened here yet. To be honest, I can’t see it happening either. Is it that the voice talent requires further payment to be broadcast across a larger market? It’s not as if I’m likely to hear an offer that is so incredible and un-passable that I’m going to make a purchase from a store somewhere in the US is it?

And occasionally, you might hear an commercial spot in the UK that is voiced by the actual client, but that tends to be rather rare. However, I’ve noticed that it is quite common with US stations.

From a production point of view, another major difference is the spot lengths of the commercials. Perhaps the copywriters at US radio stations and advertising agencies are used to being able to have 60 seconds or more to get a message across. Here that would be a real luxury.

It used to be that the writer would work on a brief, and then the sales exec would sell the appropriate air-time package. So, if the idea took 40 seconds and three voices, then that would happen – the term used being “the creative led sell.” What tends to happen now is that the brief will come with instructions to write a 10, 20 or 30 second spot – very rarely a 40 spot, and hardly ever anything beyond that — and the client can only afford the one voice. Yes, an effective script can still be written, but it’s far better to have the option with both time and the number of voices.

There are some good sales execs who follow the old method, though these tend to be few and far between. There are many more who cause the writers and producers real headaches, but we’ll save those horror stories for another time!

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