R.A.P. Interview: The Real Bob James

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R.A.P.: For many people, writing and producing funny commercials is hard to do. You've made a career with comedy. Do you find it easy to write funny spots, or do you have your share of tough challenges in that department?
Bob: I just had that situation handed to me the other day. One of the sales guys came to me and said, "I need your help. I'm going to be talking to a person who likes to sell duck meat." He said, "What can you do with duck meat?" And I said, "Well, what I think of when I think of duck is what everybody else thinks of. You naturally think of Donald Duck and all the other characters, but you also think oily and gamey and everything people don't want to eat anymore." "Well," he said, "they sell duck, and they're trying to get people to replace their chicken and buy duck." I said, "Man, I don't know if it's possible to sell duck with humor. How do you do it when the consumers these days are so concerned about putting bad stuff in their bodies? Why in the world would you want them to eat duck?" So, I said, "Look, what I need before I do anything is copy points. I have to find out what it is that these people are selling. I mean, how do they sell the duck they are selling now, and to whom are they selling it? Get me that information, and we'll see if we can come up with something." Well, he hasn't come back to me yet, but I think that is going to be incredibly difficult to figure out how to sell.

Then a guy came up to me from the Beef Council. Again, you're in that situation -- how are you going to sell beef to people when more and more people are eating less and less beef? What do you do? You can't talk about slaughtering cows, and yet he wants something funny. Then the client said the product was holiday beef roasts. So I started thinking, and I came up with a radio talk show called What's Your Beef. People call in, and you get your copy points out with the person on the phone. The talk show host is an abrasive guy who says, "Hello, what's your beef?" And the person on the other end is the spokesman for the beef. Then I had another idea for doing a beef roast, like a roast on television, and people would stand up and do funny jokes about beef. That's just a concept right now. It's not written out yet, but I got this other one done, and they accepted that for the time being.

Then a couple of days ago I get this salesperson who says she has a group of attorneys, and they want a funny spot. Remember, attorneys deal with the lousiest stuff in the world -- people in serious accidents, malpractice suits. What's funny about this? But, sometimes when you're a hired pen, the client decides what direction he wants to go. If he wants to try something funny, you say, "Alright, I'll give it a whirl." I think you have to approach every job -- and this goes for comedy writing as well -- with just a complete open mind and have no notion as to which direction it's going to go until the copy points start coming at you. And I always go for obvious stuff first because I think that's what the consumer thinks of first. For example, the name of the law firm that I had to do the spec for was Rudolph, Rudolph and Rudolph. So, what do you think of? I think of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer just like everybody would. So we have one spot where Santa Claus is calling and he wants to talk to Donner, Blitzen, whatever -- well, you have to hear it to appreciate it. Then we have another spot where someone calls the firm. It starts with the receptionist saying, "The law firm of Rudolph, Rudolph and Rudolph, may I help you?" And the voice says, "Yes, is Mr. Rudolph there?" "No, he's in court." "Then is Mr. Rudolph there?" "No, he's with a client." "Well, is Mr. Rudolph there?" "Why didn't you say so?" You know, that kind of stuff which is actually like an old joke or something.

R.A.P.: Do you have any special techniques you use when writing?
Bob: It's just stream of consciousness. It used to scare me when I'd sit down with a blank piece of paper. I'd say, "Holy cow, they expect me to come up with something!" It's like that column in Radio And Production, "...And Make It Real Creative!" -- it better be good, and it better be creative! And I've got this rep now who tells clients I'm gonna be creative. That's a lot of pressure, and what I've found is: have no fear. Just open up, take a deep breath, and think about what it is you're trying to accomplish. Then start writing.

Sometimes I literally start writing the first thing that comes to my mind. I just start writing because that is the hardest part, getting started. It's the hardest part because you think it's going to suck, and it just might suck. But that's okay. You're writing now. Sometimes I'll be halfway through a spot and have no idea where I'm going. Then I'll start suddenly seeing a different way. Then I stop and start over. That's just a little trick that works for me. I don't know if it works for anybody else. For me, the way to write is to just sit and write, and that's sometimes the hardest thing to do.

R.A.P.: The majority of the writing you do is for the programming end of the station. That must make it a little easier than writing humorous commercials for a hard to please client.
Bob: Yes. And the stuff isn't fall down, ha ha ha, make you laugh funny. It's more attitude. It's more stream of consciousness. It really is. It's me being a disk jockey. I write a liner like I would do it if I was reading the liner on the air, but I write it for someone else to read. My wife made a funny comment. She said, "It's amazing. It's you talking on the radio, but it's somebody else's voice." I think that's exactly what it is.

R.A.P.: Do you have any boundaries you have to work within when writing for the programming department?
Bob: Well, they have a lot of rules at FM 106. It can't be dirty, but they want it spicy. They want it spicy enough for adults, yet the kids around the breakfast table can listen to it, too. I'm not beneath doing a boob joke or something, but I have to watch myself. I also try to be sensitive politically. But, when Wynona was here, I wanted to do, "She's coming. She's the most exciting superstar in America. She's this, she's that...SHE'S PREGNANT!" I wanted to do that because everybody knows she's pregnant. And when she came out on that stage, she was major pregnant. I think she's carrying a little high. Anyway, I wanted to do that stuff, and when I ran that by Cary, it was like, "No, no, we'd better not do that," which was a shame because we could have got a laugh out of that.

R.A.P.: When you have to write a promo, do you always strive to make it funny or put something in it that's going to bring a smile or a chuckle to someone? Is this something you think about going into the project?
Bob: Yes, I do. I always try to figure out something to do, even if it's just one line. But it's not always easy. There's another rule they have. They want the promos clean, and they want them short. And sometimes they load you down with so many copy points, stuff you have to say. They've got a record company involved. They've got a local promoter involved. They've got FM 106 involved. They've got Dial Soap involved. They've got all these people involved, and all these people have very specific words that have to be in the copy. So what do you do? How are you going to make this funny in thirty seconds? But I try. And sometimes the best place to make it funny, make it interesting or whimsical or whatever, is at the top. You can say something at the top, use some attention-getting sound or words, or maybe just use an attitude thing down at the bottom. But, I always try to stick something in there, even if it's just at the end where the announcer says, "...all a part of the 106 Days of Summer from - sing it with me now...." Then we put the jingle in. It's not making you fall down and roll on the floor laughing, but it's a different way to do it rather than just saying, "...from FM 106." It's just a little off center. It's something that's kind of fun.

R.A.P.: Certainly, the country format lends itself well to this "fun" approach to radio. Do you think other formats can support this approach as well?
Bob: CHR does. Certainly AOR does. You can get away with a lot of stuff on AOR. But then you start thinking about the hot ACs or the straight ACs or the "light" stations. Can you do that at the New Age stations? I don't know. I think you can write clever copy everywhere. But we as an industry are certainly over-consulted. There's so much money on the line, and everybody's covering their butts: If everybody is saying, "The Best Variety of Music," then that's what we're going to say. We're not going to do anything differently than that. And it's working in Hartford, so it's gotta work in East Wherever. Will this fun approach to radio work everywhere? I don't know. Personally, I think it would because I think it would cause a listener to pay attention to the radio again.

R.A.P.: It's back to that basic concept that radio is entertainment.
Bob: You know what radio is in my opinion? It truly is a business, a very, very tough bottom-line business. And God bless radio. It has been around and will continue to be around, even with this information superhighway coming in. There's always going to be a need for radio, I think. And it is constantly changing. That's one of its greatest strengths.

Radio should be an environment. You create an environment in which to sell products. You're trying to make an entire world a little environment, and in there you're going to push cars and what have you. You're trying to deliver audience to make the world go round, to make people walk into a showroom and buy a car. When I started in radio, I thought, "Hey, I got into it because I want to tell jokes, and I want people to love me." Radio has nothing to do with that, actually, but I didn't know that at the time .

R.A.P.: What common mistakes would you say people are making with humor on radio?
Bob: You're really working with fire when you're working with comedy. If you don't know what you're doing, you can really make your client look pretty dumb. A lot of humor is just execution. Sometimes the words on the page aren't very funny at all, but it's how those lines are delivered and in what character voice. I always say, if you don't have a real strong talent who is able to bring off these concepts that you write, then don't use humor. A lot of it is just timing and inflection and phrasing. Sometimes just a funny voice can bring off a funny thing. For example, take that guy on the Budweiser commercial going, "Yes, I am!" That makes everybody fall down laughing. That's a very good concept, and they got the right guy to do it. You have to have the right idea first, obviously, and then know how to bring off that idea, know how to make it jump off the page and come alive. That's the hardest part.

R.A.P.: What do you think about production people as air talent?
Bob: I think a radio station should have nothing but talented production people on the air, people who have creative ideas and also have the skills, the technical knowledge to sit in a production studio and make these ideas come to life.

Now we're creating these duopolies and four-opolies and six-opolies, and we've got all these radio stations, monsters, that eat material daily. They just need to be fed all the time with more creative ideas. And if you have a two-man production team serving four radio stations, you're gonna kill them. That's just not enough people. You just can't hire an announcer with a great voice. If I was running the station, I would hire guys with good voices, but excellent production skills who can do everything. Then you could say, "Okay, you've got this four-hour show, but you also have three or four hours in the production studio, making sure the weekend sweepers and promos sound good."

R.A.P.: What would you say to station programmers and managers to help them get the most out of their creative production people?
Bob: I think you have to have a lot of compassion for your creative people because on one hand you want that left brain, that soft, childlike, fun, bubbly quality where all the really good ideas lie, and yet you have this business grid which is superimposed over the top of them. There's a deadline, and there are copy points, and there are all those things that stop creativity.

Maybe I can answer the question better by asking, "How do you get the best out of me?" You just have to have enough faith in me to give me the pen. Let me do it, and give me the leeway to produce, and don't constantly look over my shoulder. I think that stops creativity, at least it does with me. It's a very subjective thing because some people work really great under pressure. I don't. Some people work better where there's a heavy duty structure. Some people hate any structure, and yet, out of all those little configurations, out comes very good creative stuff.

So, it's an art. There is no right way or wrong way. There are more effective ways and less effective ways, and it's all so subjective. What might be really great for me, what I think is the best work I've done, the client thinks sucks, or it's mediocre at best and it gets on the air and pulls in business. You know what I mean? How do you figure this? I don't know. It's just very strange. It reminds me of an article I read in Radio And Production where the guy talks about something he called the X factor. How come you don't get the job? Maybe it's the X factor. I like that. If you're a religious or spiritual person, you might say you didn't get the job because God didn't want it or because it's not in the plan. Or it could be the X factor that explains why some people don't like spots and others do, or why irritation advertising works sometimes and why sometimes it doesn't. It's very strange.

R.A.P.: A kid in high school or college looks at your resume and says, "Gosh, I would like to have a career as filled with as much success and fun as Bob James." How would you direct them towards that goal?
Bob: I truly believe that all the magic of radio is made in the production room. It's executed in the on-air room, but it's made in the production room. And I think that's where all the great ideas pop up and happen and all the wonderful sounds that you hear are crafted. What you have to do if you're a young person wanting to get involved in broadcasting, especially in the production end, is listen to those promos, spots, and commercials. Hey, get a copy of Radio And Production, and get the tapes that come with RAP. Listen to those tapes and do more than listen to them. Study them. Listen to everything because everything's there for a reason -- well, sometimes it isn't, but most of the things that are on those RAP cassettes exhibit ideas that have been thought out and have come to life. Sometimes they use an EQ. Sometimes they use a sound effect. Sometimes they use a certain read. Why do they do that? And at the end of the thirty or sixty seconds, what do you feel? What do you come away with? All those things you should think about because that's what you are going to do, and that's what you're going to have a chance to do. Basically, I'm saying, emulate the great producers. Listen to the J. R. Nelson tape. He is a great producer. Listen to the Denny Steele stuff. He's a great producer. If you want to be a movie director, study the great movie directors. Take a look at how Spielberg does this or that. Then go in the studio and start playing around. That's how you learn.

What we do is like woodworking, and a really great producer is like a really good cabinetmaker. A great cabinetmaker might run his hand over the top of a finished product and go, "No, it's not right." He knows. He knows just by the feel of it. Whereas everybody else will be standing back saying, "Boy, that's a nice cabinet." The same goes for the producer. You listen to it. You hear it. There's something wrong with the EQ.

And I think the best producers look at the copy and start hearing it in their minds. They can actually hear the finished product before it gets on the tape.

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