by Mark Margulies

A radio station in Washington, DC uses an overnight jock to write their creative under the idea that "it's part of their job." A radio station in Philadelphia insists that copy is part of their "AE's responsibilities." A top ten major market station that annually bills well over twelve million dollars refuses to spend less than the cost of a large pizza to get a client their copy in a timely manner. Just what the heck is going on here anyway?

Welcome to Radio, the 1995 version. I join Dennis Daniel in his outrage at how low on the collective totem pole creative people seem to be held. But, I'll take his idea even one step further--the pole is about to tip. The ride that radio stations have enjoyed for so long is coming to an end. In a medium where penny wise and pound foolish, with very few exceptions, seems to have been raised to an art form, radio executives need to realize it's time to change the way they do business, or the marketplace will do the job for them. In a very real sense, the industry is reminiscent of Detroit in the early '70s--a self-righteous machine convinced of its invincibility and invulnerability, even in the face of disastrous market changes fostered by external forces.

What does all this mean? It means we, as creative people, need to start sounding the alarm and making a difference. The fact is, creativity has long been the bane of most bean counters and order takers because the prevailing attitude is, creative ideas are just like navels: everyone has one. That, combined with the fact that there is no true "proven" formula for successfully creating a spot that is guaranteed to draw, diminishes the work of the writer and producer in the mind of the executive. We perform a job, they feel, that anyone could perform. After all, how hard is it to write and produce a spot?

So, therein lies the ultimate beauty of the paradox of radio: salespeople will be taught to go out and sell themselves as experts in the field with a full, qualified support staff backing their efforts, then return to the station to let a client or an overworked jock or an intern or an AE--ANYONE BUT A CREATIVE PROFESSIONAL--develop the ideas and create the ads. All that, based on the fact that executives are of the opinion that "we can't afford to hire a creative staff" or "it's just not so tough to write a spot."

Yet, these same people will agonize for hours over formatics and day-parting songs to defeat the button pushing and tune-out that occurs. But they'll totally overlook almost 20% of their air sound which comes in the form of commercials, perhaps ignoring the primary place where tune-out begins. It's a paradox no one has ever been able to explain.

Well, the bad news is, the clients have caught on. For years, while radio was one of the few games in town, we could spiff the client, sell the client, walk the client, and talk the client into anything. But now, there's competition. Satellite radio, once thought to be unfeasible, is alive and well, and may yet be developed to the point of destroying the local broadcaster. Cable rates are prohibitively better than radio's and have proven they can deliver just as much bang for the buck. The Internet is a new and untapped source of cheap and effective advertising with a dedicated, captive audience at its fingertips. And burgeoning technologies are bringing new advertising opportunities alive every single day, opportunities that have the clients listening and buying. Radio is no longer in its snug little niche. And that's why radio is at a crossroads. The way we ultimately deal with this dilemma will determine the future for many of us.

Will executives continue to ignore the fact that the message can't be left to amateurs anymore? Will they begin to understand that creative staffs don't cost the station money, but are essential in developing new streams of revenue through happy, successful clients? Who knows. Facts indicate that a majority of broadcast executives out there still carry the attitude that, "Hey, look, we're not spending money on something that's so easy to do. We'll pour our money into better sales training." It's that attitude that leads to skeleton creative staffs and a total elimination of creative development.

Well, if that's the prevailing thought, I feel they are missing a truly golden opportunity to take the idea to its complete fulfillment. Don't increase creative at all--in fact, go the other way. Eliminate the middleman. Take the idea of budget controls and cost cutting to its fullest extreme and make your radio station self-service. Let ALL clients write their own spots. Let them voice them, too. After all, they can't be any less professional than the receptionist or intern who doubles as your "female talent pool" now. Since getting the BUY is most important, and fulfillment can be done by ANYONE, let the client handle it all. That way, you've freed up your salesperson or intern. You have no responsibility in terms of whether the client will like the ad (after all, they wrote it so they'll LOVE it). The client gets what they REALLY want, which is a complete ego boost (a very important part of many sales, just ask any AE), and you're guaranteed a happy client. Results? Well, if they're not there, just deal with unhappy clients as always--by spiffing them or countering objections. Best of all, it allows you to manipulate rates because the built-in cost of labor for writing and production has been eliminated.

Sound a little venomous? Maybe. But the subtle approach hasn't awakened many people in management to this point. Now, that's not to say that EVERYONE in radio is dense. Every day I deal with GMs and broadcasters who are sharp, dedicated people who understand that the SALE is just the starting point of creating a successful marketing campaign for their clients, people who understand that results come from a dedicated working effort of the sales, creative, and production teams. But I'm still running into too many people who think good creative is just an "unnecessary expense" and a "fixed budget item that has to be eliminated."

To this I say, let everyone who loves this business, but especially those of you on the creative and production side, work towards making those people see the light. Only then can they become the exception instead of the rule. And only then will the creative and production people, the true unsung heroes of any radio operation, begin to enjoy the respect and credit they all so richly deserve. This is not only the key to survival in the years ahead, but it's a chance for our industry to flourish and lead, allowing it to enter a second "Golden Age of Radio."