Radio’s Lost Concept: Theater Of The Mind


(Ronald Robinson) Anyone in radio who is promoting this medium as one that utilizes the principles of “theater of the mind” needs to be taken down the hall and have their mouths washed out with soap.

Radio ownership and management have made it one of their guiding principles to literally eradicate any examples of, or proposals for, the application of any theatre-of-the-mind approaches. Further, most of the people who could have participated in generating these productions have already been tossed.

Their rationale: Direct-response, content-laden ads are easier and cheaper to produce; and to be fair, they do work to some degree. So pervasive has this approach been that even the advertisers recoil at any approaches that are not consistent with those types of ads. Are radio reps going to get in the way of those expectations? They will, out of the necessity to book the business, do the bobble-headed, dipping dog, and secure the time-buy. Besides, “With these deals, the copy writes itself.”

There is also a more sinister and unacknowledged factor that needs an introduction: Owners, managers, and advertisers are completely unconvinced that ads that qualify as theater of the mind are all that much more influential than the standard, easy-peazy, widget ads.

From time-to-time, some creative group or other will produce a series of ads that tout how powerful radio can be as a theatre-of-the-mind medium. Marvelous visuals and scenarios are created – using only audio elements – that trigger audience imaginations and take them over the top. Stations gleefully run the spots, even as management is determined to never put the strategies into their own, local mixes. Everybody on staff celebrates the potentials of radio, and then they go right back to producing crap.

The three completely acknowledge and accepted rules of radio advertising are as follows:

  1. Gain and maintain the attention of the audience.
  2. Generate a desired emotional response from the audience.
  3. Introduce the product, service, or brand of the advertisers.

It really has been a shame that station management immediately treats elements 1 and 2 like they were cigarette butts, by stomping on and twisting them into the pavement. The indoctrinated Holy Grail of radio is about direct-response, content-loaded scripts that are also laden with demands and commands.

It is hardly a stretch to speculate, or predict, that unless an imaginative set of spots comes rolling in from an outside agency, radio will continue to avoid spending the time and expense of producing what has, for the most part, been perceived as unproven materials.

As a source of more influential and imaginative advertising messages, radio is just another abandoned and rusting hulk, pushed off to the side of the road. Fortunately, radio still has a fleet of older, under-powered vans that can keep the supply lines open. But just barely.

So staunch and locked in its ways is radio, it refuses to even address how the direct-response ads themselves can be improved to the point of being more influential and less annoying.

The application of anything even resembling theatre of the mind has become no more than a campfire story that the old-timers can spin during a night in the woods. Descriptions of huge Maraschino cherries being bombed into massive lakes of chocolate (with sfx), while entertaining, still leave management and advertisers wondering how any of that will assist them in booking time-buys, or selling tires and furniture.

The psychological research has been done and continues. We are surrounded by theater-of-the-mind strategies on TV and online. Sales results are available. But, of course, none of this is accepted as being valid. Nor does it serve as motivation to undertake local, internal programs of applying the principles.

People, including radio’s management, avoid uncomfortable situations. Applying the principles of theatre of the mind definitely qualifies as an uncomfortable exercise. Expert efforts, I understand, are being made to re-introduce the concepts. Good luck to them.

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. Email him at [email protected]


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