Production 512: Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!

Prod512 Logo 2016By Dave Foxx

I suppose one of the things that first attracted me to this business, way back in the day, was that there seemed to be no rules. Deep down, I knew there really were rules, but being in radio felt like Spring Break…every day of the year. You got to go to some really cool parties, hang out with some very famous people and were sort of a local celebrity. Heady stuff, no?

I remember one summer afternoon, jumping into a car with a couple of radio buddies and heading up I-15 to Salt Lake City, Utah. Paul was a total radio geek who could cite all kinds of irrelevant facts about radio and the music business. Barry was a bit of a geek too but actually had a thing for TV. Not a big surprise because his dad was a local news anchor who’d been reading the news for quite a few years. He was well known and liked by most of the folks in Northern Utah.

The three of us wanted to check out the radio stations on ‘Broadcast Row’ in the heart of town and see what it was like working in a big station. We happened to arrive just before the KCPX evening jock got there. “Skinny” Johnny Mitchell was someone we all looked up to. He was pretty much THE big dog in SLC radio at the time and looking back today, I know that he really was a great jock. When we saw this long-haired 40-something guy roll up in fringe leathers on his chopper (a Fat Boy with long forks, if memory serves), parking and walking in, all of us were a little stunned. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but it wasn’t that. We were stunned to the point of not stepping up to say anything. He just walked in and the door locked behind him. It was after business hours at that point, so we couldn’t have gotten in anyway.

That scene haunted me for weeks. It wasn’t the scooter, or the leathers, or the long hair…it was that he was so OLD! How could someone that old be so cool? Of course we were all very young at 16, 18 and 19, but the thought of being an old man trying to appeal to all the girls out there gave me indigestion and made me wonder about my own future. A few weeks later, Paul (who by the way went on to become a player as a Programmer and Manager in Country Radio), figured it out and explained that radio is a business like any other. Jobs change as you move up in the business and we’re not always gonna be a jock. At some point later, I realized that some people are really made to be jocks and not much else. Johnny seemed to be a happy guy…and that’s the bottom line. But for the first time in my very short career, I actually considered wanting to stop being a jock at some point, and move into something else within radio. I just hadn’t found my passion yet.

Years later, when I was producing Adam Curry’s Top 30 Countdown for syndication, I completely understood when he resigned from MTV. He told me that early one morning as he was waiting for a car to pick him up to go into Manhattan, he looked in on his daughter, sleeping peacefully. Something clicked in his head and he decided right then to quit. He didn’t want Kristina to have to deal with grief from her peers over the fact that her dad introduces episodes of Beavis And Butthead on television. That afternoon, he resigned as he was announcing the number one video in the MTV Top 20. Oddly, that segment never aired…they just segued into the video with some graphics.

The “Skinny” Johnny Mitchell episode was my first inkling that a career in radio was NOT like a perpetual Spring Break. There ARE rules in radio. Some people treat those rules like suggestions rather than black-letter law, which is how it should be. I’ve said many times on these pages that a good producer knows all the rules…a great producer knows when to break them. Here are a few of the rules I’ve come to live by over the course of my career, especially once I moved into the production studio. I HAVE broken each of them, but never with positive results.

Narrow The Focus To Broaden The Appeal

Make a poster of this phrase and hang it in your studio. How many times have you gotten a shopping list of copy points from a client that all must be included? Great price, easy terms, fantastic selection, convenient locations, excellent service all make excellent selling points. But combining them into one spot means that none of them get heard. What you want is a single Unique Selling Proposition (USP).

The reason for this is incredibly simple: radio is a linear medium. If you graze through the ads on a website or in a newspaper, you’ll see all kinds of junked up layouts that feature price/item sales. Car dealers and grocery stores that want to advertise pricing specials should advertise online or in a newspaper because they are block media. The reader can go through all the minute details at their leisure, even writing down, pinning or circling the parts that appeal most to them. You can’t do that in radio. Radio comes out one word at a time and once the word is out, it’s gone. The listener could never go back and ‘circle’ the car model number with the great price. And if anyone thinks the listener is sitting there, poised and ready to jot down a phone number, they’re nuts. People just don’t listen to radio that way.

If you want to penetrate the mind of the listener, you’ll have much more success with a laser than you will with a flashlight. They both shine a light where you want it to go, but the laser’s light is coherent and focused, while the flashlight is well…not. Sharpen the focus to one, and only one USP and you will always have more success.

Roll With The Flow

Flow helps you sharpen the focus to a laser pinprick. I’m not just talking about musical flow. There is a rhythm to speech, one that helps convey meaning to every word and phrase. You could read the phrase, “What’s that in the road ahead?” and have it make perfect sense, but if you add a short pause in the wrong place, it comes out as, “What’s that in the road…a head?” They’re the same words, but with totally different meaning.

Music flow is just as important. The reason is sublimely simple; if the listener feels a hiccup in the rhythm, they stop listening to the important stuff because their brain is trying to figure out what happened. Never give their brain a chance to question anything. Once that happens, it is over before you even get to the good stuff.

The speech patterns, musical phrases and even sound effects all need to have a natural rhythm or they won’t ring true. Most importantly, you can never underestimate the power of the listener’s BS meter. Once that goes off, your message is toast because they’re simply not listening any more.

All That Counts Are RESULTS!

Miguel de Cervantes used the phrase, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating” in his classic story, Don Quixote. The origin of that phrase is somewhat in dispute, but everyone agrees that it basically means, “Results are what count.” The results of your production skills are, to borrow a phrase, IN THE MIX. The only time music should be in the background is when it’s supposed to be in the background, like a radio in a car or music in an elevator. Otherwise, music needs to almost compete with the voice and punch through from time to time to add emphasis to the script. If the music is too far back, it becomes more of an irritant than help and if it’s too far forward, you drown out what’s being said.

I’ve found that when it comes to mixing, bold is better. Rookies tend to push the music way back because they don’t want it to be distracting. I have news for anyone who thinks like that; if the music is distracting, it’s the wrong music. If the music is right, it works just like the music in a movie. You don’t really hear it because it’s an integral part of the message. It adds mood and substance that will support your USP. This is one area that’s really difficult to quantify in an online column, but suffice it to say that when it’s right, you will know it. It’s when you don’t know if it’s right that you become a danger.

“You Want To Use A Zayn Song In Your Gun Shop Spot?”

Aside from the very real licensing issues that go with using a popular song in a commercial, these choices are almost always automatically wrong. Popular songs have their own message and it’s not always in the lyrics. I had a PD tell me once that, “No matter how much you despise a song you’re playing, it is somebody’s favorite song. A jock should never openly disparage a song on the air.” Likewise, any popular song you might choose for your spot has meanings that are personal to each listener. Chances are really good that many, if not most of your listeners will not appreciate having their fave used in a commercial or promo. The only time you should ever dip into the station library for music is if you’re doing a promo about the music or artist your piece is promoting.

What Is Convenient About 3 Locations…exactly?

I’ve written a lot about how to write good radio copy. Just remember this simple rule: What you are producing is a dialogue with your listener. I was going to launch into a long list of “never do this” bits, but I’ve decided that telling you all one more time to take the words convenient locations or located at out of your vocabulary is not needed. I hope! I have never heard anyone use those words outside of a radio spot. Ever! Not putting unnatural phrases into a natural setting probably ought to be a rule all its own, but let’s just stick with the idea that you want the phrasing to sound natural, just like a conversation (a dialogue), AND to keep the rhythm and flow going in a positive direction.

Serio? That’s It?

It is a short list, to be sure, but like a good piece of production, it’s very focused. Find a single USP and build everything else around it. If you’re using humor, the punch line must support the USP. If you’re using two voices, it must sound genuine and still push the listener to get your USP. Sound effects and music should add emphasis to your message and never be a distraction. The entire piece should flow out of the speakers, like a finely crafted piece of music.

I have some audio for you this month that you might find helpful in the next few weeks. For several years running, Z100 had a Summer Songs Weekend on Memorial Day Weekend that was always a ton of fun. Every hour we would play a couple of majorly popular summer anthems from years gone by, just to get everyone in the mood for pool parties, backyard BBQs and beach weekends either on Long Island or “down the Jersey Shore.” In this 2012 version, the first couple of songs need replacing, but the rest are pure summertime joy. Hopefully, it’ll give you some inspiration in the weeks ahead.

Dave welcomes your correspondence at Dave@DaveFoxx.com.

Comments (1)

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Thanks, Dave,

Spot on...these and many more points were in the Guidelines for Radio: Copy Writing. I didn't write it, but I edited it and amended it.

I'm not writing much ad copy these days, but those rules are good rules. Especially powerful when you break them.

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