R.A.P. Interview: Joe Knight

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RAP: Writing spots for local clients, you must have clients that want those addresses and numbers in there. How do you deal with this?
Joe: I try to think of a clever way to work those things in. You can't do it all the time, obviously. I might have a guy carrying a big sign with an address on it, and a guy says, "Wait a minute, isn't that the address of...?" Then I work the client into the thing. I did one where I used a lady, Miss Lip Gloss was her name. She was this guy's secretary, and it was a stationery shop. They had a special on Post It notepads, and she was wearing two in front and one on the back. And the one on the left has the phone number. The one on the right is the address, and that kind of thing. It was fun, yet all of a sudden you're hearing their name, address and phone number, and it's not just a laundry list of stuff.

RAP: It's visual.
Joe: Exactly, it's visual. Television, of course, is so great. They can do so many incredibly wonderful things, but so can radio. When I was a kid, I knew what the Lone Ranger's horse looked like. I knew the villains. I knew the topography, the little towns they would go into because they made it come alive. There's a hell of an art to radio acting, and it really, in some ways, is a lost art. But I'm sure there are a lot of good practitioners around. I think I do it well, and I've certainly fooled a lot of people for a long time. (laughs)

RAP: How do you think this art faded away? It doesn't seem as prevalent as it was in radio's early days.
Joe: It sure isn't. I know a lot of guys who got out of radio a long time ago. They weren't making much dough in it. They didn't have the love for it and the desire for it that I did. They're running 7-11s, or they're long retired by now, and I think they didn't pass that along. That's part of it. I also think that in the fifties, radio changed a lot with the advent of the real high energy stations. Instead of playing a song and then a couple of spots and then schmoozing a little bit, they played maybe a block of songs, three or four in a row, and then they had a window where they just dumped a bunch of commercials in.

More commercials used to be live years ago, so you had to be a little better. Everything you did, for the most part, unless it was a national account, something that was on disk, was live. So just reading it again and again, you'd get tired of it, and I think that's why you would twist a little phrase around here or there.

RAP: Well it's not a lost art as long as people like you are out there.
Joe: And of course there are guys like Dick Orkin. He's a wonderful guy, a great guy. Flo Ayers, Walt Teas and I syndicated about seven or eight different shows. Some of them were humor, and some of them were sports oriented. We had Johnny Unitas with the Colts because we were in Baltimore; he did a show for us. We had Brooks Robinson. He was with the Orioles. They're both Hall of Famers, and they were both neighbors of mine. Well, Orkin was about to take his Chicken Man on the road about that time. I think there was a big conference in Dallas for radio syndication. This was quite a number of years ago. He found out about us some way, came down to Baltimore to meet us, and was delightful. We thought he was not only a great talent, but a great guy, and he took a couple of our shows along with his Chicken Man and sold them around the country for us. I haven't talked to Dick in a long time, but I hear his work occasionally. He's sensational.

RAP: You've spent a lot of time behind the mike. Do you have any special techniques you use when you're doing voice-over work?
Joe: When I'm announcing some straight copy, I like to make it sound like it's live. I don't announce. I have that sort of off-the-cuff pause here or there that you wouldn't ordinarily hear. I do that for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think it catches the listener's ear. They don't get in sync with you. And it gives a longer shelf life to the spot itself.

RAP: We were talking ad agencies a moment ago. From your point of view, how have they changed over the years?
Joe: As far as radio goes, in some ways they're better. I think they rely on really high tech production more than they used to. It used to be maybe you'd slap on a piece of music, a couple of sound effects or something, and that's it. I think they do more in-house work now. A lot of them even have small in-house studios. I know in Baltimore a couple of them did a lot of their own spec work. Obviously, it depends largely on the agency. If they're big enough and have a big budget, they can get into it a little bit more.

Some guys who were in radio went with agencies as account executives, and some of the expertise they might have had while on the air rubbed off maybe in the writing. It's hard to say. It's like anything else, you know...there are changes. I always liked the boxy, continental look in automobiles, but they started homogenizing everything. I wouldn't buy a Thunderbird today. You could get a Taurus. It was all homogenized and began to sound an awful lot alike. It changed.

I don't think it really passed me by because I'm still active, and I've tried to bring them into my camp. I could do whatever they wanted. I'm a journeyman as far as that goes, but I tried to bring to a production session, whether I was writing it or helping to produce it or actually acting in it, a lot of the values and the verities I had discovered over the years. And pretty soon they were saying, "Hey, you know, that's the way to do that." I think it's almost a one-on-one thing. I never taught any classes or anything, but that's what I tried to bring to any agency work that I did. And they knew me real well up in Baltimore and Washington, so maybe they would defer not only to me but to other guys who had been in radio a long time. They might write something for us almost, because that was the type of thing they were trying to engender, a little situation comedy bit. They'd say, "We'll get Joe Knight and Walt Teas and Flo, and that will be our little company. We'll do some spots that way." They wrote to our strengths.

RAP: You've written a ton of spec spots. What kind of spec spots work best? What are some tricks that you've learned along the way that help you get that client signing the dotted line a little faster?
Joe: Say the AEs are going on a cold call. I have a fact sheet that they bring back to me. Everybody, I guess, has a variety of that. I ask them to put down everything they can, maybe how old the guy is, how he's dressed. Is he conservative? Is he kind of tough to deal with? Is he easy? They don't have to put that down, but it's helpful. Look around his office. Does he have a couple of golf trophies? Is he a bowler? I might put his company, his little spot, into a bowling venue, and he might get a smile out of that. Also, I try as much as I can to feed back any little phrases, little things that he might have about his company. Obviously, you want to put his name, address, what he does and things like that, but these little things are special. I put them in, and all of a sudden it seems as if this guy wrote this spot himself. All of those little tidbits of information will be in there. It's like a vanity press. Not every time--this is a broad thing--but sometimes I try to make my spots so that when these guys hear them, when Ned's Hardware hears it, and it's got so much in it about him and his company and his little hardware store, what they've done and how neat it is, then Ned just has to play that thing. He's got to play it for his wife, his employees. They say, "Jeez, that's really good." Pretty soon, they've got to put it on the air. It's a vanity thing with them. And they can't believe that from a business card or a little thing out of the yellow pages that I have come up with a full-blown spot, maybe even a jingle, some goofy little ten-line thing that I've done. Here they've got all this. What are they going to do with it? They can't just play it on their cassette every day. They've got to have it on the air. And with that, and, of course, the expertise of the salespeople, we have pretty darn good luck.

That's what I try to do. It's almost as if you were walking along the street and found an old, rusty belt buckle, but it had your initials on it. You found you could shine that sucker up, and you start to wear it. Now you're proud of it, and people comment on it. So that's what I try to do. I try to shine their business up, no matter how small or how large it is.

RAP: Most anyone who has written spec spots will tell you stories of the many changes their original spot undergoes before the client is happy. You must run into this also.
Joe: That's one of the problems with spec spots. If somebody gives you or gives me five thousand dollars to create a campaign for them, you almost have less trouble than if you do something on a spec for a guy, because if there's no value to him attached or no cost, then he wants to get into the act and change this and do that. But if he's spent a lot of money with you, then he says you're the expert. And a lot of times it's easier to work with a bigger advertiser in some ways. There's some down sides to that, too. But if they've got five grand out there, they figure you've got to be good. Usually, I'm just working with the small people, and it's more fun. I'd rather get more quantity of business than maybe one large thing. I really would. It's a challenge to me.

RAP: When you use this "vanity press" approach on a spot, you must draw a thin line between that vanity aspect of the commercial and actually trying to draw customers?
Joe: Oh, yes. You certainly do. It's not something I could really explain to you, but you're absolutely right. You've got to mix them together well. And I don't use that approach every time, but it's something I let the salespeople keep in the back of their minds. It's just another angle to get them to see how I think. It has worked for me over the years, and I tend to go with things that have worked for me. I guess everybody tends to do that.

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