R.A.P. Interview: Stephen R. Smith

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R.A.P.: What training in production did they give you at this broadcast school you attended?
Stephen: At the start of the class they showed us a mixing board, and they showed us a Tascam reel-to-reel. It was a 4-track, so I was very fortunate to learn multi-track right off the bat. Then they had us do a music edit with our blades and china markers. Then they had us produce three commercials for the semester. After you did these things, you would pass the production course. Well, I did the music edit with no problem. I had been editing music on cassettes for many years. Then I ended up writing some fifteen plus commercials for the semester, and the teacher was giving me A-plus-pluses on them. I think he started grading my work a little bit high at the beginning. Then I seemed to get better as the class went on, and he had no place to go with the grades but to add another plus. But basically, they taught us how to edit, and they taught us how to write copy using the old AIDA principle and other copywriting basics. After that, they pretty much left it up to us to find what we wanted our commercials to be about and how we wanted to produce them, including what music we wanted to use.

I had this little Casio keyboard at home, and I would go home at night with these ideas in my head. I would record a little music bed. Then I'd come in and do the song and dance number in the studio and come out with these jingles. I'd make donuts and everything else, and, apparently, they don't see a lot of that at Brown from the students just starting out. It took them by surprise a little bit, but all this flowed kind of naturally for me.

R.A.P.: What is this "AIDA" principle of copywriting you mentioned?
Stephen: The "A" stands for Action in the first three seconds. Next is the Interest. Then you want to create Desire. Then you call to Action again -- tell them to go out and buy it. I've seen this principle written up in many different ways. As far as formulas for writing commercials go, everything I've read all follows the same pattern.

When I'm writing copy, there will be times when I'm really trying to follow that formula. Then there will be other times when I somewhat just hash out a piece of copy. And I'll tell you, the ones that I follow the formula with seem to have a much better flow throughout the whole message.

I've got sort of a strange mind, so different, wacky things sometimes get mixed up with this formula. Also, I've got a really good assistant at the station, Mr. Cal Bierman. Cal is very talented. He's got a wacky mind as well. He thinks in terms of cartoons, and he can really come up with these off the wall situations. He's written and produced some delightful spots. I feel lucky to be able to work with somebody as talented as Cal.

R.A.P.: One of your winning entries in the recent RAP Awards, "Farley's Family Fun," sounds a bit like a cartoon kind of song.
Stephen: Yea. The salesperson wanted something really zany, and the first thing that popped into my head was Bullwinkle doing a rap. So I started there, and it evolved into the final spot. I've done probably seven or eight Farley's spots in the past year. It's a large, family entertainment complex, and the client really likes the spots.

R.A.P.: Do you and Cal write all of the spots for the station?
Stephen: Yes. I write about seventy-five to eighty percent of the commercials, and Cal writes the others. He's just a part-time assistant.

R.A.P.: How many spots are you two writing and producing every week?
Stephen: We're doing about ten to twenty spec ads a week, and we're doing about twenty to thirty spots a week for schedules that are already placed. It keeps us running around.

R.A.P.: Do you ever get tired of writing so many commercials?
Stephen: I wouldn't say tired. I'd say I get brain dead. You get a client, you're looking at the fact sheet, and you're thinking, "Boy, this guy's got a clever name for his business. I know there's something here," but it just doesn't come. All commercials are like combination locks; if you can figure out the combination, boom! Everything opens up, and you get a really good ad for the client. Other times, you just look and look and look, and the ideas don't come anymore. When it gets like that, it's nice to just set the thing down and move on to something else. Then, hopefully, when you pick it back up later, that little spark will be there, and you'll see the way to go. But for me, it's more a matter of getting brain dead rather than getting tired of writing copy.

Studio work is almost therapeutic for me. If I've had a rough day and I have a small bit to produce for the morning show, what I'll normally do is save that and make it the very last thing I do for the day. I'll get all my chores done. Then I'll go into the studio and have a lot of fun with this little morning thing. I'm not trying to sell anything, and I can be as wild and zany as I want because the only people I have to please, really, are the morning crew, and God knows they're wacky anyway. That's my therapy, and after doing some work for the morning show, I can leave work in a real good mood.

R.A.P.: Are some of the jocks helping with the production, or are you just getting voice tracks from them?
Stephen: Some of the jocks I will give the commercial to, and they'll produce it. There are a couple of others that I will engineer the board for.

Kelly Fox, from our morning show, does great character voices. Our midday jock, Patty Simpson, does character voices, great dialogues, and great straight reads. Our afternoon jock, John Drake, does a bunch of characters and has an incredibly nice, deep, powerful voice. He also does great production and has been a Production Director at other stations, so he knows production. Phil Crowley, our nighttime guy, does a great job. Our overnight guy, Jimmy Wright, also does spots for me.

I mostly give the jocks dubs, tags, agency donut spots, or some basic straight read ads. I don't like to give them commercials that are too complex, and I think that's mostly because of my own fear that it's not going to turn out the way I have it in my head. I prefer to do those myself.

So I have a lot of people helping out, both with voices and production. Also, our FM traffic person, Tammy Miller, has a great singing voice. Whenever I'm producing a jingle that needs a female voice, I'll run back to Tammy and ask if she can spare ten or fifteen minutes. Then we'll get back there and sing away. We've done a number of jingles together. There seems to be a lot of talent in the building, and that's nice.

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