Q It Up: Commerical Breaks: Other Ways to Make Them Listener Friendly

Q-It-Up-Logo-sep95Q It Up: Commercial breaks. We hate them; we love them. And they’re getting longer all the time. Unfortunately, many of us are finding that we’re unable to control copy content the way we used to. Especially now when the bottom line seems to be, “get it on the air no matter what it sounds like ‘cuz we need the money!” So, aside from doing the best creative work you can under the circumstances, what else do you do to make spot breaks as painless as possible, if not downright enjoyable? Does your station “program” the spot breaks, with good production up front and the dull ones buried? If so, what are the criteria? Do you play interesting liners or “spot breakers” in the middle of the stopsets to plug the upcoming music or other programming material? If so, how long are they, and what do they say? How do you make your station’s long commercial breaks tolerable? Or is this something completely out of your control?

Greg Williams [frithfamily[at]tnkno wms1.iol24.com] TurtleDove Productions, Knoxville, TN: We, as production people, are the worst to talk about commercial breaks. They’re what we listen to most, so that makes us a bit biased as to their length.

Now that I’m listening more than actually working at a radio station, I AM finding stop sets running noticeably longer. The use of “spot breakers” does keep the stop set more interesting. The one thing that drives me crazy, as it did as a Production Director, is the use of promos to open a stop set. Usually the last thing mentioned in a promo is the station’s logo. The station’s name becomes associated with commercials when a promo opens a stop set, rather than be associated with music if it closes one. I always arranged the more “entertaining” spot first, be they hot concert spots, or cold-voiced Budweiser/comedy copy spots.

Gary Griffey [radiogriff[at]hot mail.com] WHOP AM/FM, Hopkinsville, KY: Spot break structure and content is completely out of my control. However, since I am the guy responsible for last minute copywriting and production, I get a fair amount of leeway. The best times are those where the sales reps say, “It needs to say this, this and this, and it starts tomorrow morning!” That happens rarely, but I love it when it does. Most of what I get is, “I need a spec spot for this client tomorrow morning. I don’t know what it is they do, but you can do magic, can’t you?” (I’m a sucker for that line, mainly because I love what I do.) As far as those “this-starts-today” spots, I use odd types of music beds, beds that sound different from the basic retail-oriented stuff that others on our staff use. I’ll use dance tracks or rock beds under the appropriate voice styles (smooth voice=jazz beds, driven voice=rock beds, etc.)

Our stopsets are the average 3:30. My boss is old school, and he keeps things pretty tight as far as the breaks go. We don’t use “spot breakers.” There’s no need. We have 4 scheduled stopsets per hour. Each of those breaks is a maximum 3:30 including a weather forecast.The bottom line is that different music beds, or somewhat off-beat music beds are the key for our needs. If nothing else, the reps and jocks like ‘em. And they’re never quite sure what’s coming next.

Ric Gonzalez [Ric.Gonzalez[at]cox.com] KISS/KSMG, San Antonio, TX: I remember well the days, when I heard a spot of questionable quality or questionable content, I could do my duty to programming and pull the spot until we could resolve the problem between the client, rep and programming. Now, most times, the spot “runs” until the problem can be resolved between programming and sales. We recently had a spot air on our AC for UPN that mentioned shaving lesbians and black buttered women. Programming finally pulled it. If the client sends in a cassette and that’s all we can get, then the decision is usually made to air it anyway. If it is a client voiced spot that sounds horrible and is poorly written, it will most likely air unless there are listener complaints. My screaming about quality and integrity don’t match up to lost revenue. I’ve learned to accept it and move on to something I have control over...like writing that spot that starts tomorrow. It’s really a programming issue and I’m not the PD.

As for order, I was taught to play commercials from least produced to most produced. This was basically building back up to music. I’ve also had other PDs tell me the opposite—most produced to least produced. And I’ve even been told to play the crappy spots in the middle of the stopset. It changes with PDs. As the Production Manager, I don’t decide how the stopsets get programmed. I do set up a system that identifies production intensity. “Pink” for dry, “yellow” for VO over music, and “blue” for jingle/clubs/or singing of any kind. The PD can tell the airstaff how to program the stop set. I merely give him the means to make this possible. I had one PD tell me it really didn’t matter because people don’t listen to stopsets. I know better and someday I may program again.

Dave Foxx [foxx[at]z100.com], Z100 Radio, New York: We’ve long believed at Z100, that the further we can get the listener into the stopset, the less likely they are to tune out. Like a gambler who feels compelled to cover his or her ante, once the listeners realize they’ve invested a couple of minutes, they’re afraid that if they tune out now, they might miss their favorite song, a funny bit or a chance to win a gazillion dollars So, the answer is yes.

We try to order the spots according to “production value,” which is our term for entertainment value. Spots can be very “produced,” with a jingle, loads of sound effects and witty dialogue, and still not be as entertaining as a really funny monologue by Ben Stein, so it’s a subjective call, which we leave entirely up to our Commercial Production Director, Hal Knapp. But generally, we try to start the set with spots that have a lot of production value. A dry monologue for a furniture store will almost be guaranteed to run last in the set. If two spots have similar production value, we will mark them according to tempo, and the faster spot will run first.

We’ve already got the cume. If we can stretch the TSL by just a couple of minutes, it can make a huge difference in the share.

Darren Marlar [submit[at]marlar house.com], AM 1030, KCWJ: Regardless of how heavy the spot load is, I try very hard to follow these rules every single day when scheduling spots into the music hours. Since the DJs have control over when the spots air (as long as they play sometime during the hour that they are scheduled), it’s usually a pretty easy task to follow these rules.

First rule: Spot breaks should never be longer than the average length of a song (four minutes, approx). Unless the commercial is scheduled for an exact time (like a sponsorship), I can pick and choose which spots play at which times so that I don’t have several 60-second spots in one break, making it very long, and then only 30-second spots in another making it shorter. If I can keep the breaks down under four minutes, I do it.

Second rule: Regardless of spot lengths, there should be no more than five elements to a break. This includes spots, traffic, and weather if required. If a break requires both traffic and weather, that leaves three other open elements (which can be spots or station promos). Five elements is the MAXIMUM. Fewer is, of course, preferred.

Third rule: Two spots can play back to back, but never three without a liner. We have very short two-second jingles that can be thrown into a stop set to break it up a little. Also, since identifying the station is important (isn’t it to all of us?), this gives us one or two more opportunities to do so even in a spot break. The short liners do NOT count as elements. We also have a couple of artist liners saying to “stick around,” and even one where the artist says, “Hey, this is (artist) and you’re listening to a commercial station! So be sure to stick around for the commercials!” It’s hilarious, and we’ll throw those in occasionally instead of one of the short jingles.

Fourth rule: Station promos (the more highly produced and exciting stuff) are scheduled at the beginning of the break. However, if the scheduled station promos are “generic” they can be replaced with commercial spots if the log is especially heavy. For example, we definitely won’t drop a promo talking about us giving away a million dollars next week, but we might drop one that says to check out our website. It’s almost always more important to get back to the music rather than get that promo played though (even the million dollar one). If worse comes to worse and we HAVE to play the promo, it can replace a liner in between a couple of songs later in the hour (as long as it is a highly produced and exciting promo that listeners will not tune out).

If the spot load is especially LIGHT (which is almost NEVER), I sometimes drop a fake commercial into the middle of the set just to keep listeners on their toes. Hopefully that will convince them not to tune out during spot breaks because they might “miss something.”

Donnie Marion [dmarion[at]104 krbe.com], 104 KRBE, Houston, TX: Right now, since we went to a Vault system (Enco) this year. the spots play the way they show up on the screen. This is mainly because I haven’t figured out how to change the order the spots appear on the screen in the control room. But back in the olden days, we played carts, and we liked it! Every morning I would get the list of spots that had been dubbed overnight. Then I would alphabetize the cart labels. Promos were “A”s, then all the spots fell in line according to the advertisers perceived value (by me) to our target demo. So a spot set might be played like this: Promo, concert spot for core artist, night club spot, movie, beer/soda, grocery store, screaming retail advertiser. That may be too many units for what we actually run, but that’s kind of how we ran them for a while.

I have worked at stations where we used the alphabet system according to dollars spent on production. Example: Full sing jingle-A, jingle with donut-B, voice over music-C, voice with sfx-D, dry voice-E, politics-last, then station promo.

Another option I’ve heard about is this (Bill Young-KILT/Houston in the ‘60s and ‘70s): I saw it in a textbook at school, in the ‘70s: End of music, do your bit, then dry voice spot, voice w/sfx, voice over music, jingle & voice, full sing jingle, station jingle, back to music (no talk).

Jack Steele [jacks[at]amfm.com], Clear Channel Birmingham: We do program the spotsets with a number code: 1 being the best production quality and entertainment value. 2 is given to all local in-house production, and 3 is given to bad sounding production like voice only “hick” sounding political spots to bad small town agency spots. They are played in the stopset in that order. I have even heard that you could play the BAD spots first in the set ‘cuz folks will remember bad spots. I don’t sound off on that though.

As far as a bumper in the stopsets teasing music, our CHR station does that with a short 2 second tease before the last spot saying, “…music next…”

Jim Kipping [jkipping[at]lbjs.com], LBJS Broadcasting Co., Austin, TX: With 40 sales folks and 5 Stations, you can imagine the pressure we in the Sound Design department have on a daily basis to “get it on.” In fact, our motto in the Department is: “We Get S*[at]T On,” and it’s quite true. It all depends...different days of the week dictates how you say it. Monday-Wednesday the positive “..we get s<*t ON!!!” When it comes to Thursday and Friday we say it this way: “We get SH*T on!!!”

To alleviate it, we try and steer the client away from the average, two person, husband-wife type spots—you know the one—that use the same people in the prod department for the same type spots over and over and over again. Then the same voices have to try and sell you a bank or a car ad, a lot of the time, in the same spot set. If it comes down that the client MUST have the husband-wife spot, we have a voice we don’t usually have on the air, or even have the client come in and provide voice talent, something to break it up. This is especially important if your station has limited voices to use. We also stay away from the first person type scripts, unless it is truly a character type spot.

We tend to try and use more than just voice over music. If, again it’s out of our control, we save those for the jocks who don’t want to spend an hour a day in the prod room anyway. But the majority of what we try to do is to push the creative envelope, with interesting copy and utilizing more sound to create that theater of the mind--you know, the roots of radio. If you let it, radio is more a visual medium than just an auditory one!! This can do nothing but help when you are bunched in with 4 to 6 other minutes of “creative” that comes in from other sources that we can’t control. It used to be, anyone with a cell phone and a fax machine called themselves an agency. NOW anyone with a computer and a CD burner is a “production house.” Great. If it’s in the best interest of the station, we’ll even re-cut stuff that comes in, so we all don’t lose money. Let’s face it folks, if traditional terrestrial radio does not do something to re-invent itself, in a few years, with technology changing the way everyone lives, we’ll be in trouble!

Breakers in spot sets... nope, not here. That would fall under the programming side.

Well it’s 5:35A on Wednesday morning. I am at the station at 6am. “Time to “get s^>t ON!!!!!”

Be fun; it’s your Job!

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