By Dave Foxx
The Internet has changed the world profoundly over the last few years. Billions of dollars changed hands when Facebook went public. Many pundits say President Obama owes his 2008 election success to Social Networking. The importance of network news and major newspapers has shifted in earthquake proportions to that of being a secondary or even tertiary source for news. Many newspapers have already gone out of business and others, even the venerable New York Times, are in dire financial straits. NBC is breathing a sigh of relief because they will likely break even on their coverage of the Olympics. Apparently, somebody forgot to tell them that most of the world already knows the results of any given race long before they get to show it in prime time.
Well, back up a minute… wasn’t it supposed to be radio that would be hardest hit by this technology? I seem to recall a lot of people at NAB conventions wringing their hands about the threat of annihilation from the World Wide Web in conference after conference. And yet here we are, the little engine that could, plugging along, entertaining our millions of listeners, day in and day out. To my knowledge, not one radio station has gone under or is even close to going under because of the Internet.
Why? Because radio is portable and instant… just like the Internet. By the time you get the news from television, it’s almost always hours old. By the time you read it in newspapers, it’s even older. When you get it from radio, it just happened, or is even happening as you listen. To be fair to our mass media brothers and sisters, they offer something different in that they can often give the reader or viewer a much more comprehensive report. So I don’t believe that they’re about to be thrown into the junkyard of history just yet, but their paradigm has certainly changed.
Having written all that, I have to say that the Internet has done one huge disservice to humanity. The one thing that has been relegated to the junkyard of history for many is grammar. As a voiceover actor, I’ve been directed to curse (so they can bleep it), use goofy accents and even sing, which is usually a really bad idea, but I do them all without any hesitation. What usually stops a recording session and often generates a phone call or email, is bad grammar. What is it about commas that people don’t get? Why are colons and semicolons only used as part of emoticons? Why don’t people know that its and it’s mean entirely different things? Why do people think it’s OK to switch from first person to third person and back again, all in the same sentence?
If you just read all of that and don’t understand what I’m talking about, you are the victim of what I call the Social Grammar Stupids. Texting and messaging on Social Networks like Twitter or Facebook has forced us to develop a kind of shorthand to save our thumbs or bring a message under 150 characters. I totally understand and even appreciate that. It makes sense in that context. But when I see copy that uses the words to, two and too interchangeably, I get a little crazy. When I see sentences that go on and on and on, I’m furious. Too many commas or too few commas can completely change the meaning of every word in that sentence. Imagine dialogue in a promo that should say, “What’s that in the road ahead?” Now add a comma and read it out loud: “What’s that in the road, ahead?” It sounds like, “What’s that in the road? A head?”
Now, I’ve been doing this for a few minutes, so I can usually figure it out after I’ve read it a few times to check the context, so I’m really not harping about this because it’s an inconvenience for me. I’m harping about this because the last thing you want is to appear stupid to anyone in your audience. You might think it makes you sound more “street,” but let me set the record straight. You have more than one audience. You have all the listeners out there, with one small, but extremely important subset: your advertisers. Do you really want to sound street with them? I’m not always going to catch every little grammatical error. I’ve been known to let a few “tomorrow morning at 7am” lines slip through. (If you’re scratching your head, look up the word redundant.)
Using good grammar has never turned anyone off, regardless of the level of his or her grammar skills. Bad grammar does turn off people who know and use good grammar. When you stop and think about it, those are usually the people your advertisers want to reach most. They usually have a little more education, which often translates into higher incomes, which ultimately means more revenue to your advertiser’s bottom line.
I remember thinking in high school, “I’ll never use half of the stuff they’re teaching us here! What a waste of time!” My life has taught me differently though. All the English, Social Studies and Math have proven most useful in my day-to-day life as a radio producer, although I still haven’t found a use for quadratic equations. If you read this column regularly, you know how much my music education has enriched my skill set. The Social Studies I went through have proven most helpful when dealing with the variety of cultures I work with every day. The Math has so much importance to me it’s hard to believe I ever complained about that. Just sit with me when I’m figuring out rotations sometime and you’ll know what I mean. Thank GOD for Algebra!
So, why am I ranting about grammar this month? This seems to be the time of year when I’m reading a lot of people’s resumes as producers start thinking about moving up the food chain or folks who graduated last Spring are getting more desperate about finding one of the really scarce jobs in the industry. The use of poor grammar is a red flag for me, and many employers. A growing number of companies in all kinds of businesses require all job applicants to take a grammar test. Passing or failing that test can make the difference in whether an applicant will even be considered. Poor grammar skills demonstrate a lack of attention to detail in your work. You might think OCD, but that potential employer is thinking “slacker.” As few jobs as there are right now, can you afford to let the occasional grammatical faux pas slip through?
Before you send off your updated resume, send it to someone you know who has excellent grammar skills and get them to comb through it with a fine-toothed comb. Catching the odd grammatical mistake could make a huge difference in whether you are even considered.
Before you send another piece of copy off to the VO guy or gal, ask someone else to read though it – out loud – to see if it flows and conveys the message you want it to convey. The “out loud” part is important because many errors don’t show up until you try to actually say it. Chances are, if it’s hard to say, there’s something wrong with the way it’s written. Just about everyone knows what good grammar sounds like, but not how it should look on paper to get that sound.
If you’re still in school, pay attention to the grammar stuff. Make certain you learn how to write dialogue. Almost ALL of what we write for radio is dialogue. You are having a dialogue with the listener. If you’re already working in the business and feel like your skills are a bit shaky, go to your local college or university and take a course in writing.
Look, if you’re a regular reader of this column, you already know how important I think this stuff is. The language we use, and how we use it, is the single most important part of what we do. It IS what we do. A lack of skills in this department is the ultimate FAIL for any radio producer.
For my sound this month, I have a really simple promo for the inaugural show at the new Barclay Center in Brooklyn featuring Jay-Z. A simple hit/drone, over which I explain why this will be an historic show, transitioning into Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind makes a pretty compelling promo. I hope you like it.