Letter To A Smart Copy Writer


(By Ronald Robinson) After swapping a few very cordial emails with a well-known and credible sales-man/copywriter, it was confirmed: He and I are operating, generally, from polarized models-of-communication for radio. Besides being an impressive, creative talent, he is very much a copywriting traditionalist. But then, so is everybody else. The copy edicts – the “givens” – are those I, too, have been hearing for decades.

“The Book” on copywriting was written a very long time ago, originally for the print medium. At the time, David Ogilvy and Marconi were still hanging out. The copy-and-paste transference of the material to broadcast was accepted as seamless, appropriate, and effective. Few distinctions, if any, were made between print and radio. Since then, the principles have also gone completely unchallenged. “The Book” had become a hymnal.

Now, I would be foolish to argue all “typers of the hype” are writing copy that is utterly ineffective. (Radio does plod along without me.) My proposition is that copy, and on-air presentations, need to and can, drastically, be made more effective. My friend forwarded mp3’s of a dozen ads he had written. Here is a portion of my (edited) response:

“Having listened again to the mp3’s, I can reiterate I was hearing the work of a talented and skilled practitioner of the trade. Plus, the creative twists were welcome and appreciated. I should point out that I am, much too often, voicing scripts that don’t hold a candle to yours. What follows, then, is not a critique of your work. That would be insulting and of no practical use. I want to avoid all that.

Rather, I want to (very briefly) introduce to the conversation a different and contemporary model. The traditional template could be labeled “Old School” – adhering to the set of copy writing, carved-in-store rules and regs on which we were both raised. The model I promote might then be (formally) called “The Whizzy, New, Advanced Model.”

Please appreciate: I didn’t pull this material out of my butt. It was not a revealed truth – no stereo voices from the lilac bush, either. I had already been a trained “Old School” radioman for about 15 years (on-air and copy) before crashing into these new materials.

I had begun studying to work as a counselor. I was always intrigued by “mind stuff.” The first shock came from my being piled high with texts on the complexity and power of language. I mean, I was already (supposedly) a “professional communicator.” The reams of researched, rule-governed, tested, and already successfully applied information demonstrated I was anything but. Nevertheless, I was absolutely thrilled when I realized this material could sound natural and be incredibly dynamic when transferred to radio.

I began applying the precise techniques, strategies, and methodologies to my on-air and copywriting work, with extraordinary and spectacular results. I won’t bore you with the “this is me diggin’ me” specifics.

In a recent Radio Ink piece, “Radio’s (Un)Comfortable Pew,” I invited readers to do an online search of just one portion of the material: “psycholinguistics.” That one introduction alone can send a writer scurrying for cover in much taller timber. Although there are many techniques – bold and nuanced, obvious and subtle – I will provide a couple of basic premises, as they apply to radio influencing listeners.

The First Big One (“You”)

Radio has never been able to single-out or identify any individual who is listening. The reality is: Many people are listening at any given time and we can’t identify any of them, not in real time. The singular “you” becomes a jolt, an affront to their identity and space, particularly given that a direct connection to any listener has never been confirmed.

I do agree that “you” tends to (briefly) get somebody’s immediate attention as in “He said ‘you,’ so I guess that means me.” Unfortunately, whatever message goes with the “you” almost always has nothing to do with the majority of listeners. I also point out that since the “you” shows up in virtually every piece of copy, its desired impact gets weakened, even annoying. No sane listener ever accepts the explicit intimacy.

I don’t know everyone responsible for the original dogma, and that is what it has become, a series of unproven, unsubstantiated edicts. It is wholly inaccurate to claim radio is a “one-to-one medium”. Nor is radio a direct medium. Rather, it is a “one-on-unspecified” – an indirect medium. Are listeners individuals? Certainly! But, we have made no connections. We address individuals as if we had at our peril. Practically, the second person (“You”) is distorting and destructive! Without further, detailed explanation, the provided alternative is to go to Third Person. (More later.)

The Second Big One (“Do”)

Writers and on-air folks are constantly telling people what to do. We justify the practice by identifying it as a “call to action”. Listeners who have never heard of a “call to action” are still getting smacked with “demands for behaviors.” This element shows up in every writer’s copy. It’s easy, expected, and as natural as breathing. To a listener, although subtle and usually an unconscious process, it is still insulting and annoying. Where else in our culture – unless somebody is a cop, boss, or a Mom – does anyone have the explicit authority to tell anybody else to do anything? Do jocks and copywriters get a pass? I think not. The demand can be as subtle as “Get 40% off” or as outrageously direct as “Do it today!” The quick solution is to imply everything. (More later.) Meanwhile, I invite you to print this email and re-read it as hard copy. The reason: Print and electronic media have completely different brain access!! (More later.)

So. Those are just two of the many planks making up this platform, this “New, Advanced, Whizzier Model.” Please appreciate the information also screwed me up for a good while, until I started implementing it, and began enjoying amazing results.”

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach, and has trained and certified as a personal counselor. E-mail him at [email protected]


  1. Thank you for that, Kevin.
    I knew that shaking up the habits and traditions of a life-career would be a daunting task.
    What I didn’t expect is that it would be so arduous, take so long and attract the derision it does.
    But, and as you know, the plodders keep plodding and it’s worth it – so long as the content is viable.

  2. Great article Ron! You always seem to stir the pot and cause all to think twice and question status quo! That’s a good thing! Keep it up!

  3. In order to avoid using a separate blog as a retort, I will offer a few brief thoughts here to those readers who are interested enough to become students of the medium.
    All the positions, strategies and methodologies I have been providing have been practiced, tested and demonstrated in a number of fields including radio – and for decades.
    These are not philosophical approaches. They are practical and useful elements. They are real.
    Some commentators will refer to this model-of-communication as a “theory”. I would accept the term if it was applied as it is similarly to the theory of relativity, the theory of gravity or the theory of evolution.
    But when “theory” is used as a debasement delivered with a pretentious sneer, I can only assume a writer, while still uninformed, has already dug in and is determined only to protect a status quo.
    I have learned that the presenting of my materials generates just such responses. This is to be expected. My burden.

  4. Too bad. Shelly continues to pull stuff out of… some other place.
    I repeat – and for the last time in this cycle:
    Radio is neither “one-to-one” or “one-to-a-group”. It is “one-on-unspecified”.
    All other shifts in the communication-forms follow.
    That is as clear a distinction as I can or care to make.

  5. Looks like Ronnie is showing signs of the big AlZ….he’s forgetting his own BS.

    Wasn’t long ago, Ronnie, that you wrote 2 blogs on how using “You”-the individual, in radio ads is wrong. The ads should be addressed to “the group”, instead when trying to get a response.
    That is a statement of belief in a station’s audience as a single entity.
    When you put your BS in writing, Ronnie, it can come back and bite your shifty butt.

  6. Note to shelly:
    “You claim a radio audience is a single entity….”
    Over the years I have made no such claim. That would be the antithesis of “radio is a ‘one-to-one’ medium.
    I repeat: Radio is a “one-on-unspecified” medium. And yes, listeners do so – as individuals.
    Perhaps the distinction is just too difficult to grasp.
    That will and does happen.

  7. Note to Tim:
    Physics – schmysics. 🙂
    Indeed, Tim, there is a crate-load of available information.
    My experience here, however, has been one of getting bogged down before providing many of the intricasies of the subject due to an impressive volume of boos, hisses and cat-calls from (wholly uninformed, but substantially sincere) participants.
    Again, I suggest that most people react well before they think.
    As a counsellor, I understand that. But, it still does get tiresome.

  8. Ronnie,

    It is you who is without “evidence.” You claim a radio audience is a single entity, not a mosaic made up of individual people as I do. As proof, I can show that certain offers made on the radio are responded to by some and ignored by others. Your theory, silly as it is, would have the entire cume respond en masse to your perfect commercials, as only you know how to compose.
    As further “evidence”, I have sold radio ads for many years, successfully, and you have not. My stations, the “status quo”, are doing very nicely-you have no stations.
    You peddle snake oil, hoping to find a lost soul who will grasp at anything different, claiming it is “thought-provoking”, when it is really a waste of time and useless.

  9. Why anyone would even bother to insist the status quo – the litugies from the radio hymnal – still have validity and to do so without corroborating evidence, is providing no more than wild assertions.
    Again, shelly only reacts with traditional mantras, challenges to which she conveniently ignores or refuses to consider.
    It’s okay, shelly. Nobody is trying to bring you to The Dark Side.
    These pieces are provided to those broadcasters who are still willing to consider themselves as students of the medium.
    I already know these folks would be small in number. Yet, it is they – those inquisitive few – who are my target audience.

  10. Everytime Ronnie gets cornered, he accuses the commenter of not getting “it” with “it” being Ronnie’s well-worn opinion.
    Or, he accuses the commenter of not disagreeing with his premise but just being a jerk. Not true. I disagree with your notion of talking to a radio audience as a group, which they are not. The audience of any station is made up of individuals that changes constantly throughout the day.
    Ronnie, go hum ” I Vow To Thee.”

  11. When people (like the anonymous troll, shelly and others) refuse to read, comprehend and think, but only react (in expected manners) while so spectacularly missing the point, I have to ponder…
    Her non-comments have nothing to do with the piece. But, here she is – running her mouth.
    I wonder if shelly has searched “psycholinguistics”. Actually, I don’t wonder, at all.

  12. Ronnie, of course, has never sold for a living so he doesn’t understand closing the deal. A “call to action” is the same as “please sign here.” Unless you make the request, no movement occurs.
    How many marriages would occur if no one said “Will You?”
    Radio ads-good ones- describe the features and benefits of a product, service or event to THE SINGULAR LISTENER, then, asks (sometimes commands) the individual to respond. Each ad is a sales call. The more calls, the more sales (frequency).
    Ronnie, have a grown-up sales rep take you on a call and watch this. Also keep your mouth shut the entire time.

  13. Let it be understood, Merv. Just because I live above the 49th doesn’t necessarily make me “nice” or complacent. Besides, the very issues I criticize are exactly the same in Canadian radio. There are no nationalistic distinctions available.
    Offering a generalization about Canadians having a propensity to avoid delivering instructions would be about as accurate (and useful) as my suggesting that Americans like or accept being ordered around – even if it was true.
    To the contrary, this piece is about the linguistic distinctions emanating from a medium (radio) that has absolutely no authority to tell anybody to do anything. None. (An exception would be: “The dam just broke! Run for your lives!!”)
    If somebody is going to order me around or abuse me in other ways, they’re going to have to, first, dress up!:)

  14. Ron,
    I think your taking offense at “calls to action” stems from your being Canadian.
    I’m married to a former Canadian and even after all these years she still jolts at the directness of Americans. “Telling it like it is” would never be well received in Canada.
    “Be there!” translated into Canadian would be ” Attend, if you’re not too busy.”

  15. Ron,
    Great piece. You referred to more ‘later’ a few times. I sure hope ‘later’ gets here sooner than later (although that sounds like it would defy physics) so I just hope ‘later’ gets here soon. Sure would like to hear the whizzier part.


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