The Packaged Radio Performer: Dick Orkin Comes To Bury, Not Praise!

Excerpted From Dick Orkin's Workshop: "The New Art of Radio Advertising Performance"

"The fact of the matter is nobody reads print ads. People read what interests them and, sometimes, it's a print ad."

The late Howard Luck Gossage, the irascible San Francisco ad man, stunned (and also infuriated, I think) the ad industry when he uttered those words in a speech he made twenty-five years ago. I know the words and the idea behind them impressed me because when I substituted "radio spots" for "print ads," I found a most useful phrase for promoting my fledgling production company in Chicago in the '70s.

A commentary on how much advertising has grown (or not) arises out of the fact that I still use that phrase in promotional pieces. General advertiser resistance to something other than cliche radio advertising remains a serious problem.

"Nobody listens to radio spots. People listen to what interests them and sometimes it's a radio spot."

It's a real catch-22 of a situation we've got here. Advertisers won't invest in radio creative (writing and production) because they think the medium delivers lousy advertising listeners. Yet as long as they insist on routine copy approaches to radio, results are bleak.

How do advertisers come to this paradoxical position? I suspect that one answer is when they listen to radio--I mean as listeners rather than as future prospective buyers--they find what they hear similar, boring, tedious. In other words, based on their own experience, they are convinced radio delivers lousy listener numbers. Except for a few originals whose style and fire leap out of the dial and passionately titillate your political ideas or sexual sensibilities, the rest is silence. Or, perhaps, it only seems like silence because the monotonous sameness blandly blends into a condition of tune-out.

Just based on what I hear as I travel the U.S. (and now even in radio-free Europe) or what I hear from the radio in hotel rooms, the state of radio ad-talking is mediocre to lousy. Sorry, but the idea pains me too, especially as my company watches daily the major diversion of ad dollars to TV and print, dollars that should or could go to radio.

"Radio sounds alike today all the time."

That's the gutsy headline B. Eric Rhoads bannered across his Radio Ink, Publisher's Notes column back in July of 1995. Eric reprinted a piece by Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, who said he thinks "radio sounds alike today all the time." In Albom's opinion the "sameness" ailment can be traced to a limited number of radio formats, rigidly and mechanically executed by American radio stations from one end of the country to another.

THE HOMOGENIZATION OF AMERICA

He calls it the "homogenization of America by radio formats." But I disagree. I say that's a missed diagnosis. I suggest Mitch press the stethoscope to those radio's one more time. The fact is I worked under rigid radio formats for many years and, despite the slavish devotion to format (sometimes devised and driven by consultants) at our stations, we somehow--despite the "do's and don'ts" edicts--managed to grow wonderfully diverse programs and unique one-of-a-kind performers.

Here's what I think. I think that what Mitch is blaming on format is really the result of a basic cloning of radio vocal styles and melodies by America's radio performers. People don't have their own voices. They have the voices of "others" who, in turn, have borrowed the voices of others who got their voices from even others. Forget that they all sound alike. To the extent that radio management is convinced that this imitative style confirms an identifiable format sound, the cloning of the voices of "others" has management blessing and encouragement. But more about this later.

I'm going to bet that some of you are genuinely scratching your head at all of my irritating cloning complaints. Either you wonder if it exists, or, if you agree it does exist, you're not sure how it makes any major iota of difference.

First, let's consider what sameness I am hearing? What is Mitch Albom hearing? I honestly believe it's the same darn thing you'd hear if you removed your station booster cap for a few minutes and really listen. I mean really listen as a listener might listen and not as management thinks it should listen.

We'll pause here while you go and listen.

Did you hear it? You didn't? How about a few audio clues:

AUDIO CLONING CLUES

Clue: An undeviating imitation of the vocal tone and pitch of other radio performers on other stations, or even your own station--in other words, a monotonous sameness of melody.

Clue: An interminable series of cliche expressions. I call it "pseudo-radio affability." It's posturing and pretense. One-to-one communication is acutely and virtually absent. TV Game Show hosts are the ad-nauseam masters of this style. People are being talked "at" and not "to." "At" kind of talk assumes a mass communication, a "to" sound assumes a one-to-one delivery.

Clue: A maddening sameness of vocal tone and style. Males and females have their own versions of this sameness: With males it's a puffed-up, resonant "macho" quality; with females it's often a throaty laugh and seductive "I am woman" sound.

Clue: Performers treat words on a page as words and not ideas; therefore, not speaking them as in speech and natural conversation, but reading, reading, reading one-word-at-a-time, pulling the vowels on some words, caressing others, some softly, some loudly, but (and it's enough to drive you crazy or away from radio) always one-word-at-a-time.

There are many more. But I think these few common clues will adequately hint at the sounds and styles of radio spot-speech cloning, live or produced, in America today. I'm sure it feels like effective communication for the someone doing it, but rarely feels that way to the audience listening.

In effective public speaking and private speech, words fuse and interrelate. They get strung together to form molecules of ideas that lead to images--all of which is part of natural speech process. It's the interactive dynamic that happens when people are in the moment, listening and answering--in other words when they are connecting, person to person. "We can only really talk to one person at a time, not an audience," said Bill Bernbach, "and then we can motivate and sell."

On the eve of the 21st century, advertising is undergoing a rapid and dramatic change. That's because the way people think about advertising has changed. The "modern" persuasion model, based on the notion of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) is being shoved aside for a singular "postmodern" point of view.

To quote a recent major agency white paper, "Given the wary and sophisticated state-of-mind of today's consumer, advertising today has more to do with tone and style than brand imagery, more to do with storytelling than features and facts; it is playful, often ironic, self-referential, and keenly concerned about establishing an emotional relationship with the consumer; it relies on the consumer's capacity in these fragmented isolationist times to think in pictures."

Radio people, take special note of that last description; it is one that represents a powerful confluence of time (the edge of a century) and special capacity (radio's unique capacity for creating personal, up-close, one-to-one listener relationships). Radio's day is here. The ad revolution has started. Has it started without you?

STOP THE CLONING, PLEASE!

So how do radio stations help performers find effective ways to talk to one person at a time? By fighting this insidious and harmful cloning of American radio voices that can neither grow effective radio performers or grow radio's potential as a viable and competitive ad medium.

To begin with, if you're a member of radio management, please fight the fight by not acquiescing to the performer practice of imitating the successful originals out there. You know who the originals are. They're the ones you'd like to have but can't afford, either dollar wise or otherwise.

Here's the problem: When a performer imitates, he or she gets so busy listening to the sound of their own voice, they simply can't do what's basic and essential for the performance of any piece of copy: They can't listen; they can't answer and be in the moment. They can't talk "to" people, only "at" them or, worse, to themselves or to a management whose ear is tuned to the sound of their voice and not the sense of the copy they read.

This "mimeo performance" mode is death to any script. Any piece of ad copy--if it is written as it should be written--is, at bottom, simply a story. And the story can only come alive and grab our attention when the performer is able to engage the content through their own experiences. The aim is to be involved, not just in how it's said, but what is said.

WE CAN GROW BETTER RADIO VOICES

Radio Management (even ad agency producers; yes, even the likes of a Dick Orkin) can help grow better radio performers by supporting performers in finding their own voices. By discouraging their insistence on trying to capture the voices of others. It won't work. The voices belong to the lives of others. Performers can only bring who they are (their feelings, memories, passions) to the creation of the magic nexus between copy and listener.

Patsy Rodenberg, a great acting and public speaking teacher in England, says: "The mark of a successful performer is one who has the ability to make the text their own!"

Performers will make the text their own to the extent that radio management says it's okay to be who they are; they'll turn to their own experiences and memories and imagination in order to find and develop their own authentic voices.

Radio legend, Dan Ingram, who recently wrote a piece in a recent issue of the national AFTRA Magazine, tells the fascinating story about another legend, Arthur Godfrey. Ingram says Godfrey got the idea for his personal communications style while mending from an auto accident and having to listen to the radio day after day for over a year.

"While listening, he discerned that the announcers were doing just that, announcing to the ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience, whatever that might be," said Ingram. So when Godfrey went back to radio, "he addressed his listener (note: not plural) in the second person singular. The effect was some sort of epiphany for many of his listeners. 'This guy is talking to me!'"

But hold! Does this sound to you like an aesthetic issue I am raising here? "Why does Orkin have this thing up his behind about announcers sounding like announcers; isn't that the familiar and comforting sound listeners have come to expect and feel good about?"

Okay, let me go for a more practical, rational and economic approach here. And let me do it by referring to one of the often more "irrational" communications gurus of all time: Marshall McLuhan of "The Medium is the Message" fame.

When McLuhan said radio is hot, he didn't mean trendy to listen to or buy. He meant that since it gives you sound only and no visuals, you have to compensate for lack of the visual with other internal devices: Imagination and emotion, etc.. It requires more personal involvement...and that's good, he said, because TV does it all for you. It's cool. You just sit there and look and don't get involved.

Although Mr. McLuhan often came up with some Planet Zarf ideas, I find this one a most grounded one. In my experience, effective radio advertising (or even programming) that bursts forth out of the personal (Howard Stern, et al) proves that this "personal" does involve, does engage and does get results.

One other McLuhan idea that says it's not a good idea for radio announcers to sound like announcers. This is one that forms the spine of my Adcrafting and Voice Over Seminars. McLuhan said that "As soon as the consumer knows they're hearing (or seeing an advertisement) there comes about an automatic tune-out and turnoff. Want to make sure advertising does it's job Make it invisible, not at all like an ad," said McLuhan. In the Sixties Bill Bernback paid attention to this advice with great success.

I started this with Howard Gossage, so let me wrap this up with him. Gossage also said that when communications become boring in any ad medium, but especially on radio, it means the communicator has lost the ability to say "hello, out there, are you listening?" They don't have a strong organic sense of "audience presence."

In other words, in all forms of communication (and radio cannot be an exception) we need to experience the "other" in a genuinely physical and emotional way if we expect authentic and meaningful communication to take place.

"The idea is to make contact with a 'you' out there, not some figment of a performer's ego-magination," says Dan Ingram.

In our Radio Ranch Idea-Generating Workshops ("Radio, Adcrafting with Soul") we believe these foundational communications principles make radio the perfect story-telling medium, and that's why, in the workshop, we demonstrate how "at bottom, effective advertising is effective storytelling."

It's my opinion that only when performers finally feel safe to be themselves and drop the awful ego-magination cloning habit, that we'll finally begin to experience the creative sparks flying in radio everywhere in the land! Mitch Albom will hear it. I'll hear it. Advertisers will hear it. And when that happens, what a difference we'll all experience, today and into the next century.

Then watch the productivity soar for everyone: Management, the performer, talent and casting agents, ad agencies and, most of all, for American radio advertising.

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