by Andy Capp
“Commercials without pictures?! BORING!!!” Tough crowd. I’ve worked a lot of rooms over the years, spewing the virtues of radio advertising, but never to a group so hostile to the subject from the very beginning. Who was this potential riot of thugs? Magazine Publishers? Television General Managers? No, we’re talking a real savvy crew here, a group that has its collective thumbs on the pulse of advertising.
You see, my partner in Continuity has a son in kindergarten, and I was the Show and Tell item.
I can remember at that age being stunned that there was no TV (not even black and white) when my parents were kids. These kids would be stunned to know that I had no computer (not even a 486!). The last 30 something years have seen a chain reaction of exploding image potentials. Life is pretty pictures to children today, even music is ignored until they see the video. How could I possibly get through to a group convinced that words without visuals are cheap, meaningless? Still, I remember these words smoldering in my mind, “I’ll show YOU boring!!!”
I doubt that I really shook their faith in the “photographed word,” but they did find out that you can take away the pictures and still have fun, a lesson several surrounding classrooms and the Principal also unintentionally learned (and I thought I was done going to the Principal’s office). They smiled through a few of my goofy theatre of the mind attempts, but what really tuned them in was the “live commercial.” I read; they supplied the sound effects (I think it was their impersonations of a hungry stomach that brought the wrath of the front office). We left the classroom to choruses of, “That was cool!!!” I felt vindicated, despite the eight afternoons of detention...
So what’s the use? With Generation Next already convinced that pictures are best, what’s the use of radio? I guess that depends on how we want them to use it.
The door exploded open. The reject for the 98 pound weakling part in the Charles Atlas ad nearly took it off its hinges.
“Boss!!! Disaster!!! A nightmare!!! Oh, the HUMANITY!!!” (sfx: SLAP!) “Jack! Good Lord, get a hold of yourself, man! What now, another blimp go down?!” “No sir, a real tragedy! New York just called... Art Lordfrey just walked out of the studio, and he took the band with him! He’s said he’s going to- to- Television!” “Television!? Well, that’s that. Our last highly paid talent has left the business, and for what?! A chance to ape in front of a camera!? And I do mean ape, have you ever SEEN the man?” “That, and more money, sir!” (sfx: cash register) “Sir? You’re drooling. The show is about to start. What should we do?” “Jack, I have it. YOU will do the show!” “M-m-m-me, sir? But I’m not a performer! I won’t know what to say.”
“Never mind that! I have a wonderful idea! Grab some records. Play some music...LOTS of music! The listeners won’t know it’s not a live band, that it’s coming from the local studio. They’re not that smart! Just keep spinning discs, Jacky, and you’ll be my new star! In fact, that will be your name, “Disc Jacky...” nah, well, we’ll work on it!” “Oh boy, a star, me! And I bet I’ll get a huge, star-like raise too, right sir?” “Sure, Jack, sure. We’ll talk. Now get in that studio and play those records!”
(Jack exits. Music cue: “We’re in the Money!” Boss dances around the office.) “No more big ticket National Talents! No more big buck bands! Just a cheap Jack and some records. The listeners will never know the difference! THANK YOU TV!”
There were sequels to this soap opera. The episode when Jack finally realized he was being used and broke down the door again, this time demanding a raise. An unhappy ending on that one. The engineer had just installed an automated system of reels and cart machines. Jack’s timing could have been better. Then there was the one when the Boss called Jack back when the ratings went down. It seemed the listeners found the automation too, well, automated. Variations of those two themes were re-tooled and played out many times over the years. And then the most ironic twist in the plot. The Boss called Jack into his office to inform him that the station was being sold to a 7000 station group, and that he was going to be replaced by a big dollar national DJ off the bird, all automated, in a cost saving effort. Yes, they might sacrifice some local elements, but the listeners aren’t smart enough to know the difference....
Full circle, and what has been accomplished? Basically, all we’ve really done is change the way listeners use radio. As a child, entertainment on the radio did not mean the same thing to me as it did to my Father. His radio was true Theater of the Mind; mine was one-liners between songs. What will it mean to Generation Next?
Crosstown, they’re changing again. Upbeat, hot hits, so far no DJ’s. Do the kids like it? Sure, their favorite songs over and over and over, immediate gratification, just like TV. The only personality the station has is its sweepers and jingles—short, loud...lifeless. This is what the kids are listening to. This is what radio is to them.
Radio can be more, but the business needs to chart the course. Despite the excuse of “external forces,” radio has always ultimately defined and taught the listener how to use the medium. To survive, the industry has to remember its strengths and capitalize on them... the communicator, the imaginative thought provoker, the entertainer.
Boring? I guess it all depends on us.