Last month, in one of my tips for better production, I told you to keep it simple. Afterwards, I got a few emails from people inquiring about the cannabis I was smoking and wanting to know where they could purchase some of their own. I have to admit that the whole “keep it simple” thing seems counter-intuitive. When a PD is looking for a new producer, most applicants try to dazzle with every trick they can come up with, just to impress the prospective new boss. Most bosses, tend to LOOK for the dazzle, just to make sure the applicant can do the heavy lifting. Sadly, most of the time, they are both missing the point, which is effective communication skills. Dazzle is not always a good indicator.
Sometimes in day-to-day work, the producer IS “overachieving” with the effects, beatmixing and fast intercut drops, which don’t really drive the message. A lot of that might sound very cool, but it truly does NOT help deliver. But throw on the brakes…don’t take it personally. Before I chastise anyone for not keeping things simple, I have to spread the blame. It’s NOT all on you. In fact, it usually is not.
Many PDs have wondered why the imaging on their station isn’t connecting with the market. The company will spend a ton of money on research that comes back clearly saying that the strap-line they’ve been using for over a year doesn’t even cause a blip on the audience radar. This in spite of the fact that it’s in every promo and a majority of the sweepers. They listen to the production again and again and say to themselves, “It sounds really cool. Why isn’t it working?” In a case like this (and it happens a lot), the problem is seldom the producer. It’s the strap-line itself because it is WAY too long or tries to sell too many ideas, or even worse is almost impossible to say without stumbling. (It’s not simple.)
On the commercial side, clients tend to blame the production for ad campaigns that don’t work, but mostly, it’s the client’s fault for coming up with really stupid ideas for commercials. Compounding the problem, the AE is equally to blame because he or she goes along with the client’s bad ideas just to make the sale. When there’s no foot traffic at the client’s business on the big sale weekend, it becomes your fault. (This is especially maddening when you know that you warned the AE that it wasn’t going to work but were overruled.) The ultimate sad part is, the client is now soured on the idea of radio advertising, believes it doesn’t work and there is nearly zero chance they will be back on the air any time soon.
When commercials fail it’s usually because the client (or AE) tries to fit 10 pounds of words in a 5-pound bag. That’s compounded when the client insists on 5 or 9 selling points like price, several convenient locations, quality, sex appeal, neighborhood envy and selection. Add a full phone number 6 or 7 times and you’ve thrown a huge word salad at the listener who tuned you out long before you even said the client’s name.
In both imaging and commercial production, the biggest problems come with the biggest scripts.
I know that TV is different from radio, but this illustrates the opposite perfectly. One of the BEST TV promos I ever read was for VH-1 back in 1999. They were giving away one of each year’s models of Corvettes (1963-1999) to one viewer. The script I read that summer was, “36 Corvettes…One Winner…VH-1.” It was kind of a silly prize, I mean what does one DO with 36 cars? Believe it or not, it really captured the imagination of America. The promotion was considered extremely successful because the level of buzz was astonishing. VH-1 had ratings like never before. The contest concept certainly drove it, but promos like the one I voiced shoved it into high gear.
You, as the person standing at the bottom of the hill with a big baseball mitt, catching all the crap that comes rolling down, don’t usually have a say about scripts, large OR small. You get what you get and you have to make the best of it. Here is a solution that can really help, given your co-worker/boss/client can understand reason. Just don’t expect it to work overnight.
Hopefully, your relationship with the AE is strong enough to gently suggest something like this: “I would never try to tell you how to close a deal. I just don’t know enough about the techniques and psychology involved to make it happen. But, I’d suggest you allow me to guide you in the making of a truly successful spot. This is what I do.” The AE might not listen at all the first few times you do this, the sales mentality has a large ego component, but don’t give up. When that weekend sale happens and nobody walks through the client’s doors and the client cancels all future advertising business, the AE will remember what you said. After one or two experiences like that, the AE could very well come back and ask for your help. Please, I beg of you, just be reasonable…not arrogant.
The PD who crafts the 13 word strap-line that nobody can remember because it has several USPs is just like the client/AE we’ve been talking about. Same suggestion! He or she might be even a little slower to accept your help than the AE. We ARE talking about your boss, and the station can’t afford research as often as they’d like. But if you have a good relationship with him or her, you can subtly offer your help in the creation of promo, sweeper and even strap-line ideas. Eventually, the PD will need your help. Be ready with the simple, direct messaging that the station needs, then keep everything simple when you deliver.
Hopefully, this kind of approach will eventually make your life much better. The more clear the script is that you get from your AE or PD, the easier it will be to really drive that message home. But…what do you do in the meantime? Treat the verbiage as though it is perfectly clear and concise, even when it’s a train wreck. The single most important element of what you produce is the verbiage. All of the things you add to a spot or promo should enhance the verbiage. Keeping the production simple and clean will most often insure that the words are heard by the listener…and that’s the MOST important thing you bring to the table…even with monumentally bad copy.
That does NOT mean you should never beatmix or use drops, fast-cut or otherwise. They can be incredibly effective at supporting your message. Just make sure that they do help the message and are not a distraction. Never let them be more important than the message or all your hard work will fail. Likewise, special filters and compression should enhance the delivery, first, last and always.
Think of your production, commercial or imaging, like a really good piece of music. A truly great piece of music is simple and at the same time, elegant. The melody comes through loud and clear. The harmony empowers the melody, supports it and amplifies it beyond a simple progression of notes. The rhythm keeps the pace and adds flavor that underscores the melody with an emotion that again makes the melody even stronger. Through all this empowering, amplification and strengthening, the melody remains clear and concise, simple yet compelling. This is the EXACT definition of what you want in radio production.
The words come through loud and clear. The music empowers the words, supports and amplifies them beyond a mere progression of syllables. The rhythm, both music and spoken, keeps the pace with an emotion that makes the message even stronger. Through all this empowering, amplification and strengthening, the message cuts through, clear and concise, simple yet compelling.
So, stop and think for a minute. We all have our musical heroes. I have several, from Eric Clapton to Annie Lennox, Stevie Ray Vaughan to The Beatles (collectively, not individually). Today I particularly like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Adele because they’re all incredibly inventive and unafraid to experiment. Niall Horan and Camila Cabello both impress too, but it’s early in their solo careers, so I’m watching them develop with some anticipation. Who are your music heroes? When you need inspiration, just listen. It’s there.
Once you figure out what the emotion should be for a piece of production, pick a piece of music from one of your heroes that has a similar emotion and apply the blueprint of what you hear to your work. The absolute BEST production is extremely musical in nature. It all works in harmony to create an emotion that makes the message jump out and imprint itself on the listener’s mind.
Right about now, some of you have rolled your eyes so far back you’re staring at the back of your skull. This might sound kind of dumb, but it works. Those of you familiar with my rants over the years might recall that I used to constantly harp on getting some musical training. This is where all of that pays off.
My audio offering this month is a perfect example of a truly “musical” promo. I wish I could say I produced it. I did not. Although my voice appears on it (along with Kelly Kelly Kelly), the real magician behind this promo is Staxx! Yup, Brent Williams, the guy who now steers the creative efforts at Z100/New York. It’s the “lineup announcement” promo for this year’s Z100 Jingle Ball. While it’s much longer than the standard Z100 promo, the approach is as simple as simple can be. It is pure emotion, set to rhythm, that grows throughout, hypnotizing the listener as it soars upward like a rocket launch. I hope you like it as much as I do.
Dave welcomes your correspondence at