R.A.P. Interview: Don Elliot

R.A.P.: Give us a little of your radio philosophy.
Don: It sounds more like a Program Director's philosophy than a production guy's philosophy, but I don't think you can separate them. Radio has to be an escape. It has to be fun. I don't like, except in a newscast, these hairy important issues that divide the sexes and only add fuel to the fire. If I hear another thing in a disk jockey's show about feminism, abortion, gay rights, or civil rights when I want to turn on a radio for escape, I'm going to scream. I can get that out of a newscast on another station! I want to be entertained. I want to have fun. I want it to be plastic, and I want it to be bigger than life. I don't want to alienate at least half of the audience with every opinion, and it's going to happen one way or the other. The talk shows are doing it enough. A lot of the music will stand up for a cause, but not quite as blatantly as editorializing and soap-boxing to the point of leaving somebody hostile. Radio should instead entertain and leave the listener feeling like they were able to go to an old friend, a friend they can rely on to be there, always knowing that when they push that button it's going to be fun. I'm really adamant about that.

Broadcast properties everywhere are beginning to get so expensive that only larger corporations are able to be involved in ownership. With that comes the attendant legal staffs that are very, very conservative, and being creative in a promotion is a lot harder to do under those kinds of guidelines because an attorney that is doing his job is always going to say, conservatively speaking, "No," or "It wouldn't be prudent to do this." Pretty soon you are programming to negatives instead of positives.

When I've changed formats at stations before, I take the opposite approach for that same reason. Initially, I give the jocks zero freedom; but instead of giving them a list of all the things they can't do, we'll start out with a list of things they can do. It's stronger to program to positives than give somebody a list of negatives. Then, invite them to challenge the format within its own boundaries. Nudge it a little bit. One of the reasons that "boss" radio worked in its initial stages is because the jocks were always invited to challenge the format and expand it. Morgan and Steele are prime examples of that. They were able to do the bits in such a concise way. The Real Don Steele, with his one word one liners, could do more with one word than a lot of us could do in a 2 or 3 minute bit. The saying, "brevity is the soul of wit" is really true.

The same thing applies to production. The hardest promo I ever wrote was one that was short. The hardest thing I ever did with a new piece of equipment was not use the device or the effect all the way through the promo. Use it a little bit somewhere in the beginning, make them hungry for it again, and reprise it on the back end. If you use it all the way through, you sure don't want to hear it again for another 3 or 4 months. It's sort of like that great oldie, "September Morn" -- I sure love it, but I don't want to hear it again for at least a couple of months. If I hear it again tomorrow, I'll remember not to listen to that station again.

One of the things that I instilled at KIIS was the competitiveness of production, and this holds true for programming as well: To foresee what you would do across town if you were to get fired at the station you were at. What would you do if you were across town right now, to saw the legs off of the place that you're at. Because you know what the weaknesses of the station are, the philosophy is, "do it where you are now first because you know your own weaknesses." It's programming to your weaknesses. Just that fifteen seconds worth of philosophy carried around in your hip pocket is probably one of the most valuable things you'll ever have in the business.

My strongest philosophy about production is to start with the right delivery from the voice actor. I use that term because the jock really should be a voice actor when it comes to a commercial. You're acting instead of announcing, especially now in the 90's. Look at what's happening with advertising such as what we have with the Infinity: lots of water and whispered voice-over. It stops you in your tracks because it's different. Do something to get their attention without screaming. Gosh, if you've got a knock-em-dead concert spot, go ahead and scream it; but to make everything on the air sound like a concert spot loses the effectiveness. Just the same if every spot on the air was like the Infinity spot; nothing would stand out anymore.

Look at what's happening on television with the re-use of some of the old video clips that are black and white. It stands out. However, once a couple of dozen agencies have begun to do it, it's not going to be as effective.

On radio, a "natural" delivery on a commercial doesn't mean you should go the extreme of turning a mike on in a room and let people rap naturally while a tape is rolling. Natural, in my mind, is still a performance. A radio commercial has to be Kodachrome, not Ektachrome. Ektachrome would be real life; Kodachrome is going to be a little bit brighter, a little bit bigger than life. A television voice-over might be pulled back a little from that because you've got the picture. In fact, it's one of the directions you will go when you start doing TV commercials. They'll say, "Don't be so radio. Come back a little bit. Let the picture work. You're working too hard." The Kodachrome comparison is a good one because it's just a little brighter than life and it's acceptable, not to the point of being unbelievable, unreal, or plastic, but just a little bit bigger. You've got images you've got to conjure up in heads.

R.A.P.: Why, in many major markets, are there not many jocks doing national commercial voice-over work?
Don: On three separate occasions, I was supposed to go to LA to work for a guy named Bill Bell who had a company called Bell Sound. I was supposed to work on producing national commercials for him. He had 75% of all the national commercials in town sewn up at his studio. Every time he'd pitch me to go to work over there, I'd get involved with more money where I was or step up the ladder a little more in radio, and I never made the jump. In conjunction with that, he had a voice-over workshop, too. I always wanted to get into that but never did, and I could never get into commercials. I never figured out that in the LA community at least, and I think Chicago and New York too, if it's known to the ad agency people that you're involved in radio, suddenly a big curtain or wall seems to drop. I always wondered why I didn't hear disc jockeys on national commercials. It's kind of an unwritten law that if you're involved in radio, you don't let the agency people know about it because of the stigma that still exists today of the puker jock. It's hard to overcome. I think I was always a natural sounding jock because to make the jump wasn't too difficult for me.

R.A.P.: What's your basic approach to producing a promo?
Don: I built my early thoughts on doing promos from high school days. A promo has to be memorable. Well, how can you do that? The only thing I knew at the time was to build the promo like a hit record: with a hook in it so it gets your attention. It's informative, entertaining, and you don't mind hearing it another hundred times. In fact, every time you hear it, you're going to hear something else in it.

R.A.P.: What do you think of the advertising approach that embraces the goal of tugging at the listeners' emotions?
Don: They're going a depth further now. Look at the Oriental philosophy with the newer cars. They're programming to lifestyles. In other words, it's a little more than creature comforts; it's the esthetics and the pleasure of it. Years ago, the Japanese would do things that would not only be functional, but would entertain as well. Now that they have enough of the market by just being competitive, they're focusing on something that goes deeper with the American public; that is the gratification angle, the pleasure part, the feelings. I think it was a smart agency that got involved with the Nissan people to reflect this approach with the Infinity campaign, or with the Mazda "It Just Feels Right" campaign. Toyota's "I Love What You Do For Me" doesn't say anything about the car, but selling that slogan and that concept is very strong.

R.A.P.: What makes a promo, with an emotionally charged winner, so effective -- like the girl almost in tears of joy because she just won $20,000?
Don: When we do this kind of promo, we overcome an objection. The feeling of the general public is, "Nobody really wins these radio contests; they're all rigged." By having the listener on the air, you have a testimonial that overcomes that perception. The idea of winning is much more believable.

We're talking about perceptions and fighting perceptions. There's a lot of talk about perceptions right now. You're hearing a lot about perceptions being reality -- inside-out marketing, outside-in marketing, and so on. I see it in promos now. There are a couple of people in town using this technique. They may be smart enough to be planning and doing it on the level of this philosophy, or they may just have enough street sense to do it by instinct. I'm talking about finding out what the perceived weaknesses of the competition are, and then simply reinforcing them. When I first heard this happening in the market, I thought, "Jeez, they're really being negative on the air. I don't like that." But then I realized that they were dealing with perceptions and reinforcing them. I said, "It's going to work," and sure enough, it did. I'm describing some of Shannon's playing.

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