By Dave Foxx
Less Really IS More
A few years ago, the powers-that-be in my company decided that “Less Is More” would become the mantra for all production and promotion people. Instead of 45 or 60-second promos, all promos could no longer exceed 30-seconds. I worried to my PD that I didn’t think I could get the job done in 30-seconds and that it would constantly be a question of stuffing 10 pounds of poo in a 5 pound bag. He laughed and told me I needed to live up to the word “Creative” in my job title. I honestly struggled with it for a few weeks, cursing the whole time that the people who made these requirements never produced a promo in their lives.
One of my VO client stations at the time was Kiss108/Boston. Jeff Berlin was doing the heavy lifting up in bean-town, and I noticed his copy was getting leaner and leaner with every passing week. Right away, I deduced he was trying to comply with the new mandate, so I called him and asked how he was coping.
He started by saying, “You know all that ‘be the 99th caller at 999-888-1111 and you’ll win tickets to see blah, blah, blah?’ It’s pointless and stupid information because they already know that.” Yu-huh… that’s when the classic light bulb popped up over my head!
There are two kinds of promos: promos that smack people in the heart and promos that smack people in the head. The heartwarming, melty-gooey kind of promos, are the ones that work best, every time. So, I stopped trying to smack people in the head and started catering to their heart instead. I got rid of all the mechanics (unless it was something new, like the recent switch to texting over calling) and plugged away at pulling the heartstrings. Now, if I get past the 30-second mark, I feel like I’m really gilding the lily and start looking for stuff to cut.
Be Web Savvy
So, if we cut out all the mechanics, the “how to win” or “when to win” information, and strictly concentrate on capturing the heart of the listener, how do we get that intellectual part across? One simple phrase at the end of the promo, “Complete details at WXYZ.com.” Study after study after study shows that less than 5% of your audience will ever participate in a contest. Talk to the other 95% emotionally and the 5% will find out how and when to win. The vast majority of your audience, without ever taking part in the promotion will be entertained and THAT is the true goal here. If your audience loves you on a base emotional level, they will be loyal to you. They are much more likely to listen again. They will influence others to listen. Your ratings will grow. Your boss will be ecstatic. Your web design people will be thrilled to get the page views and clicks. Your station will throw a big party in your honor, complete with a roasted pig… or not.
To Compress Or Not Compress
I’ve devoted a lot of space in this column over the years to the upside and downside of compression. Let me sum it up in two quick sentences: Compress the voice. Do NOT compress the music. I don’t want to get into the age-old arguments over listener fatigue and the value of dynamic range here, but I would like to point out one very practical reason to leave the music alone.
I have a really good friend doing imaging at a station in Southern California who wrote to me several months ago complaining that his promos weren’t punching through at all, that they were sounding quieter than the surrounding programming. After listening to his promos, I knew the problem immediately. He was compressing the music… a lot. I have no idea what an audiologist would call it, but there is a point at which compression ceases to aid in making product sound louder. You have to add a phenomenal amount of compression to the human voice to reach that tipping point, but music will hit it very quickly. Performers and their engineers often spend months with a track, combing through everything, adding a touch of EQ, adjusting levels and compression. With few exceptions (jazz, classical), most genres of music are compressed as much as possible to make it stand out. By the time you get it into your studio, it’s been fine-tuned a thousand times. If you add compression at this point, all of that attention to detail gets crushed into a mass of gelatinous, gooey mess of sound.
Loudness is perceived by the listener and is not exclusively a function of the number of decibels. Loudness is really more a function of dynamic range. The softer the quiet passages are, the louder the rest sounds. Music producers go to great lengths to make the balance “just so” for every bit of music they make. When you add compression, the dynamic range is reduced, making the loud parts not seem so loud, even though they are pegging the meters.
I told my friend to remove ALL compression from the music and his problem was solved immediately. His promos started to jump out of the speakers again. Does this mean you should never add compression? No. Just be aware of the potential danger you pose to the overall impact of your work. As I am fond of telling young producers, “The great producers know all the rules. The truly inspired producers know when to break them.”
Theater Of The Mind
When I was in college, a great deal of time was spent on this topic. We studied The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, as presented by Mercury Theater and Orson Welles on CBS. It was 1938 and radio was still in its infancy. The broadcast caused some panic across the nation, mostly in the press, and brought about some stringent FCC guidelines about the use of a “news report” setting for all future broadcasts. The entire reason we even discussed this broadcast was to point out the power of the spoken word, along with select sound effects and music.
I mention it here because I am hearing more and more people try to use this method to set up skits or dramas to illustrate their USP and involve the audience emotionally. I don’t want discourage anyone from using TOM. Used properly and with skill, it’s a powerful way to wedge your message into the listener’s mind. However, I do want to advise caution. Just running down the hall and grabbing an intern or office worker and having them say a few lines is only going to work one in ten times, perhaps less. Having a deejay be a character in your little drama is even more dangerous. The key to Theater Of the Mind is believability. If the character doesn’t really sound like the mom she’s supposed to be, or worse, if the voice is obviously someone everyone hears all the time as a deejay, the resulting reaction will be, in a word, LAME. Lame is the only thing your listener will remember about your station or client. Not good, OK?
Speak Your Script Out Loud
English is a crazy language. We look at other languages with their multiple words for gender and person, which all depend on usage and think, “Wow, what a lot of complicated rules,” especially if you grew up speaking English. Ask anyone who learned English as an adult and they will complain about English not having any rules most of the time, and when there are rules, they are very often broken. The lack of rules, or rules that are so easily broken is why English is probably the most difficult language there is to communicate effectively.
As a voice talent, I can always tell when someone has written a script using skills they developed in High School or College English courses. We are taught to write our language a certain way, which seldom bears any resemblance to the way we speak it. When you read the written word silently, you actually translate what you’re reading into something more akin to the spoken word in your head. If you are an avid reader, like me, you’ve no doubt had to go back and re-read a passage, just to make sure you understand what was being said. But, when you read a passage aloud that’s written like that, the listener has no translator running and your words end up sounding like a lot of gibberish. Your listener never has a chance to say, “Wait, what?” and they lose interest.
Until you’ve written hundreds of successful scripts, you must take the time to read it out loud to someone else. When they say, “Wait, what?” you might have written something your English instructor will be proud of, but is completely out of whack with the way we speak. And there is a second advantage as well. You will discover all kinds of tongue twisters. The funny thing about tongue twisters is, they are also mind twisters.
For my sound this month, a perfect example of how to get rid of the mechanics and grab some extra clicks on the website. Back in March, we had a few pairs of tickets to several shows, but not enough for any one show to make an artist exclusive weekend. So, we threw them all into one weekend, celebrating ALL the tours coming to New York. As you’ll hear, I never said, “Listen for the touch tones,” or “be the 100th caller.” I simply said, “If you want to win, go to our website and we’ll tell you how.”