Production 512: The Complete Creative Process

This column appears every month on a website designed for radio people. That certainly spills over into TV and Ad Agency people as well, but the main impetus of this site is making great radio. I have to include satellite, online radio, and podcasting because as much as they style themselves as being different from terrestrial radio, they’re doing exactly the same thing. The only real difference is their means of transmission.

When satellite first got going, I had some producer friends on the inside tell me that they were constantly lectured to about satellite needing to break away from the restrictions of radio, to be different and ‘better.’ When the dust finally settled, everyone realized that the rules of radio were born from experience. Radio people knew what worked. Sure as pop, the satellite folks figured it out. Most of the production beaming down to us now is pretty good and in spite of what XM and Sirius management were saying back then, those rules work.

Podcasting has been a little slow on the uptake, mainly (I’m guessing) because there IS no management. Every podcast is its own little fiefdom and they choose to make their own rules. Sadly, most of the production I’ve heard on podcasts is not terribly good. There are a few bright exceptions, but I’m guessing those podcasts were started by radio people. What is almost certainly missing is decent writing. There are three main parts to successful production; 1. Creativity, 2. Writing and 3. Production skills. For some stupid reason, writing is almost always overlooked.

To Question Or NOT To Question

I have an Irish friend named Carl Kinsman who I have occasionally worked with, shared insights to radio with and even had some semi-political discussions with over the years. I call him a friend not because we agree on everything, but because we can disagree without being disagreeable. Truth is, we tend to agree on most things, especially when it pertains to radio. Carl is truly one of the really good people I’ve gotten to know in this business. (In my experience there are a lot more good ones than bad, BTW.)

A few days ago, he sent an email explaining that he was trying to teach a couple of his friends how to write more effective promos. He sent me a sample of copy that had been written by someone on the local sales staff with this observation: 

The first thing that looks wrong to me is the question at the start! I have a good idea myself about script writing for promos. Quite a lot of promos are written by someone else and I tweak the reads to suit what I produce.

Sure enough, when I opened the script, it started right up with,

“Would you like to win a pair of tickets to see the incredible dance troupe Diversity LIVE?”

The LAST thing I want to do is alienate the copywriter, even if he or she is a sales weasel. If we are working in the same radio station, I can’t afford to make someone mad at me. I’ve traveled that road and it never takes me someplace I want to go. Instead, I would try to make it a teaching moment.

So, with zero rancor or disdain, I would ask three simple questions:

1. As a radio business, what is our primary mission? – The correct answer, of course is to earn a living, for ourselves, our bosses, company and ultimately our shareholders. If he or she actually gets the answer correct, go on to question 2. Chances are good though that they’ll say something like, “getting and keeping an audience, which drives ratings.” Point out that what they said is the means by which we drive ratings and ultimately, revenue. In this case, jump to question 3.

2. How do we most effectively do that? – The answer is, “by building and HOLDING our audience with entertainment and information.”

3. When should we willingly give up the majority of our audience? – The answer, naturally, is never.

Now comes the teachable moment and my main point here: You have to think of every promo or commercial as its OWN little radio station. The mission is to get the listener to at least consider using/purchasing the client’s product or service. You can only do that if you can entertain and inform the listener. If you begin by asking a question with a yes or no answer you are, in effect, giving up a large part of your audience. If the listener answers “NO,” they are out of the pool of potential customers. Once they are a negative, they’ll start thinking about something, ANYTHING other than what you’re yapping about.

Like most of my “RULES” there are times when they shouldn’t apply. If you’re promoting a car dealership, it’s probably a good idea to eliminate members of the audience who can’t or won’t drive. Selling feminine hygiene products? Aside from a vanishingly small number of men who identify as women, it generally is not gonna make sense to get men interested. Guys just won’t ever be “in the market” for a tampon.

In the case of a dance performance like this, you need to slow your roll. It might not be everyone’s idea of a rockin’ night out, but if you can sell the idea of something dramatic and amazing, you have a shot at convincing a lot of people to at least consider it. You can take a counter-approach too, by appealing to a person whose significant other is always complaining that they never do anything involving culture. There’s almost always an angle you can exploit. Fact is, finding that angle is really kind of your job. If you’re collecting a paycheck every couple of weeks, you probably shouldn’t try to not do your job.

So that brings us back to the question of when to start with a question. Why do it at all? When you ask a yes/no question, you eliminate a major portion of your audience with the answer, whatever it is. You rob yourself of the chance to be brilliant!

My direct response to Carl is a more condensed version of all this:

As a general rule, I never start with a question. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but I really seldom do it because while it narrows your audience down immediately (sometimes a good thing) it also narrows down your audience immediately (in this case a BAD thing.)

The copywriter’s main task is to make the listener interested, to SELL an idea or emotion. When you give up a large part of your audience right off the bat, you forfeit your opportunity to sell. Sell it first, so you predispose the listener to WANT to go. When you make the call to action, if you’ve piqued an interest, you’re much more likely to get a positive response.

We’re Making ART!

Writing copy, whether for promos or commercials is an art unto itself. There’s a whole school dedicated to writing radio (and TV, I guess) copy just down the road from where I live called, The Wizard Academy. Tuition is anything but cheap, but the results are simply amazing. Roy H. Williams (The Wizard of Ads) runs the place that actually teaches anyone with half a brain to write succinct, compelling scripts that win awards and, more importantly, really work when it comes to building audiences and winning the hearts and minds of consumers. I personally have not gone to any classes yet, but I have had the distinct pleasure of attending several lectures by the Wizard himself. EVERY time, I’ve walked away feeling exhilarated about writing and astounded by the sheer force of what I’ve seen and heard.

My Writing Journey

I suspect that you probably don’t write your own copy. That's the case most of the time. When I first started at Z100 in New York, I was barely allowed to write my name, forget about writing any promotional copy. That was all handled by the OM, Steve Kingston (later the PD) and later, his right hand promo guy, Sam Milkman. I didn’t mind because I had no idea that ME writing could ever be an option.

Once there was a change in program management, that arrangement continued, but I was starting to chafe a bit at my restriction. After a few months Ryan, (the new promo guy) left the station for greener pastures and the PD, Tom Poleman took over completely. As a gesture of being a team player and to help relieve some of the pressure, I started to write some sweepers and stagers for submission to the big guy. He liked what he was reading enough to allow me to continue along that path.

As I’m sure you can imagine, the pressures involved with programming a behemoth like Z100 kept mounting until finally came a breaking point. Tom started handing me bullet points and having me write some of the promos so he could tend to other matters. I always had to show him the copy and he would tweak it a bit before green-lighting the promo and sending me off to the races. Once I really had a good understanding of what kind of copy Tom liked, the tweaking process dwindled to a point where he’d often just tell me to “handle it.” 

The whole process of going from not writing anything to writing the lions’ share of the load took years, literally more than a decade. Even through two more PD changes, there was always a brief ‘vetting’ period where I would get very specific copy points and phrases, but in the end, things settled back to where I was with Tom. When Mark Medina came aboard, he took back some of the promo writing duties, but he told me it wasn’t because he didn’t like what I was doing…he just loved writing and enjoyed the sense of power. I knew exactly what he meant and because he was cranking out top quality copy that I really enjoyed producing, I never complained. Why would I?

If you are not writing the copy you produce, you are missing a big part of the thrill of doing creative work. Having an idea, crafting a script around that idea and then producing a masterpiece promo or commercial from it is an incredibly powerful experience. Hearing someone laugh at a joke that YOU wrote is intoxicating. Having a client rave about the impact of a spot makes you feel like a Demi-god. It’s a feeling every last reader of this column needs to experience firsthand. 

I highly recommend you start down that path. You will eventually thank me for opening your eyes to the full creative process. Begin by writing up a series of sweepers for your PD and just leave them on his or her desk. If you really want to jumpstart the process, write a full-blown promo or rewrite a commercial for a station client and give it to the AE.

Just…don’t start your copy with a question.

Comments (4)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Good stuff. I went through similar experiences with my PDs in radio. And when I first started out I thought I would NEVER be able to write. Especially something creative. But you are 100% correct. Once you get the hang of it, it is very gratifying. But you have to go for it!

BTW - I've probably seen 500 spots that start with a freaking question. UGH!

Ed Bishop
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Honestly, writing excellent copy is not difficult ONCE YOU GET THE HANG OF IT. The thing most folks have difficulty with is being patient enough. It does take some time to win the trust of your PD or even the AEs, but the benefits are HUGE.

Thanks for reading and posting Ed!

Dave Foxx
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I teach a college level class on writing radio and TV commercials. One of the first rules I give is that students cannot start any script with a question. As you said, there can be times where it will work, but too often new writers use questions as a crutch. With my rule, it just requires them to think through better options.

When they get in the professional world, they can do what they want (or what their boss wants).

John Morris
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I like that approach! It doesn't say it's absolutely forbidden, but encourages young writers to think through all the options, of which there are doubtless dozens that are better. Start with good habits.

Bravo!

Dave Foxx
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