Radio’s Abandoned Responsibilities – Part 2 

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(By Ronald Robinson) Although listed here at #2, the following may be the more important responsibility that has been abandoned by radio stations all over the country. Radio is famous within the advertising trade as being the medium that has been, pervasively and continuously, producing the worst examples ever of broadcast advertising. 

Other than the ongoing din about the lack of “creativity,” through my entire career as a station employee, if not instigated by me, there was not one instance where the standard methods of writing and producing commercial copy were ever challenged. Commercials were always some combination of product/benefit/price — hooked into some or other absolute quantifier (best, only, greatest, most, etc.), mentioning a location and tagging with a demand to rush to the retailer immediately! “Hard sell” announcer deliveries were the default position, and we were defaulting most of the time.

I tell the story often that the spots I read last week are the same spots I was practicing in Studio B as a part-time kid at my local radio station in 1964. The only difference is in the placement of the decimal on the price point. That alone constitutes a roaring indictment of stagnation.

Since then, the electronic advertising arts have made tremendous strides — in creativity, in styles of presentation and, most significantly, in the understanding of the impact of broadcast advertising on the psyches of audiences. In spite of these advances, radio is still mired in the mud of the obsolete.

For many years, I had no particular quibbles with the state of radio advertising, other than the ubiquitous complaints of the systemic suppression of “creativity.” The emotional impact of “creativity” was, as is now, considered an unnecessary luxury that stole time from products, prices, and strongly voiced admonitions to: “Hurry in today for your best deals!”

But, by the early ‘80s, I was stricken by a body of information that would lead me to become an influential counselor and an exceptionally effective broadcast communicator. I say “stricken” because there have been times when I wondered if I hadn’t been so heavily armed as a broadcaster. I might have been better served by staying less educated and more apt to participate comfortably in the traditions of commercial radio. It’s a lamentation I have willingly tolerated.

Before continuing, I consider the following to be so important as to represent the main purpose of radio advertising — even though this element constitutes the other of the abdications that have (perhaps unknowingly) been forced on unsuspecting advertisers by radio’s ownership and management.

Clarity is required on this point: Radio has the responsibility to influence, cajole, or otherwise motivate audience members to support our advertising clients. Whether audience members need or can afford the product is of no consequence to us. Audiences, long ago, have accepted the commercials are there to do just that — influence. Caveat emptor applies.

The crimes and tragedies are in radio’s inability to do more, significant work in these areas. No. I am being too kind. Radio refuses to acquire the necessary education so it can demonstrate the efficacy of more intelligently crafted and, whenever possible, more creative approaches to the writing and production of spots. 

Senior radio people are still eager to drag out Stan Freeberg’s demonstration of the often touted but rarely applied “Theatre-of-the-mind” concept — a production from the mid-‘60s, fer cryin’ out loud.

Because of a combination of minimal, contemporary information being sought out or applied, a belief that modern spots are as effective as they need to be to maintain an, at least, minimal, acceptable standard, and the awareness of the added expenses of arranging for superior spots to be produced has left us (radio) aimlessly slogging around in the backwaters of a dank and smelly, electronic advertising bog.  

Indeed, radio’s abdication of its two most important responsibilities is complete, but, I fear, not finished. More talent will either be scrapped or suppressed. The writing and production of more effective and, dare I venture, interesting commercials is not on any of radio’s to-do lists. More sophisticated and linguistically influential commercials are, if not in demand, then still required if radio wants to improve. I have little confidence of that happening, as well.

(Part 3 next week)

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. Contact Ron at [email protected]

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Ron Robinson
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. Ron makes the assertion that the most important communicative aspects of broadcasting, as they relate to talent and creative, have yet to be addressed.

8 COMMENTS

  1. True that, Jefferey.
    Jefferey’s list of cliches is enough to make any sales rep or copywriter that might be paying attention commence to producing extreme bouts of projectile vomiting.

  2. Ron,

    I agree that many in the radio business have abdicated their responsibility to advertisers.

    Clients who advertise on the stations I work with have discovered something amazing: improving the commercial message has multiplied their results many-fold, without changing the buy. Same schedule, different words. Better sales.

    And, happier clients extend their contracts, become better advertisers and more money flows to radio. As Rod says, there’s plenty of training available from many experts, including myself, but will broadcasters make the small investment to deliver on the promises made to their clients?

    Even if the folks responsible for creating the commercials just changed their approach from “some combination of product/benefit/price” to “customer problem/agitate/solution,” the response would be enhanced.

    For a truly painful list of the phrases that are killing sales across this great land, email me for my list of 407 Commercial Clichés.

  3. A reminder to Rod:
    My position has always been: Creative when it can be provided. Otherwise, more efficient and tolerable spots, particularly of the price/product variety are required and that aspect of radio is not being addressed. Likewise for on-air presentations.
    Further, to suggest that radio commercials don’t work at all would be foolish on the part of any commentator. Of course, they do.
    But radio is not nearly as effective or as efficient as it needs to be – if it has any expectations of future prosperity.

  4. Lawyers are crooks.
    Car dealers are dishonest.
    Radio ads are ineffective.
    All three of these generalizations require qualification. (All? Most? Many? Some?) Our choice of modifier in each case stems from personal experience and biases.
    It’s easy (and mostly appropriate) to condemn cliché-ridden “ads” that fail to engage listeners, reducing the advertiser’s investment to a regrettable expense. But to insist that “product/benefit/price” commercials are ineffective because they are not “creative” misses the mark. Such messages have satisfied the expectations of countless advertisers, attracting consumers interested in those products or services without need for embellishment or “creativity.” The primary purpose of such a commercial isn’t to entertain but to sell, (usually) to today’s buyer.
    Nevertheless, I agree with Robinson (and other commenters here) that too many radio commercials fail to sell, fail to engage, fail to inspire, etc. We ought to do everything we can to serve our advertisers, and there’s plenty of help available from books, audio and video training, etc. that are within anyone’s reach.
    Incidentally, Jerry Lee, who recently sold his iconic WBEB-FM in Philadelphia, continues to crusade for more engaging radio commercials. He’s offering radio advertising professionals free access (through the end of this month) to the Write to Engage webinar he helped develop. Anyone interested can read more about it and get the link over at Radio Sales Cafe.

  5. I find it intriguing that on this day, on this page, six of the better-informed half brains (conscious/unconscious) in the business are pontificating on much the same thing.
    Bob, Randy and I have been beating these drums for a very long time.
    Unfortunately, we seem to be doing so in a soundproof booth at the end of the hall – far away from any executive suite.

  6. If you want to get drunk really fast, get yourself a shot glass…your favorite hard liquor….turn on the radio….and take a shot every time you hear a commercial that includes “competitive prices”, “friendly/knowledgeable sales staff”, “family owned and operated”, or “conveniently located”. You’ll be on your butt in a few minutes. I sold radio for years and I can’t tell you how many times I saw a rep, who worked their butt off to get a client on the air, sit at their desk after writing up the order and say “now I have to throw a script together”. Sales people are not copy writers and, unfortunately, having a true copy writer on staff is basically a novelty for a radio station. Writing ad copy is an art, but the majority of what you hear on the radio today (both locally produced as well as from agencies) is crap.

  7. What copywriters don’t realize is that the Internet had handed us a “gift”. We don’t have to waste precious airtime with lists of brand names and obvious services. That’s what the website is for. Stimulating curiosity about a local business is what it’s all about. Appealing to the clients ego may get you the order but writing ads about their combined 196 years of experience will get nothing but yawns from the audience.

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