(By Ronald Robinson) When fans of radio occasionally find themselves passing through Bison Groin, Montana, just south of Sweet Grass on Highway 15, they make it a point to pull in to the National Radio Museum for a trot down the no-exit Memory Side Road. Besides the old RCA ribbon microphones, the 150-pound mic stands, and the 16-inch turntables, one simple display generates the most excitement.
Their guide takes them into a room with four desks and four matching IBM Selectric III typewriters. “This area,” she respectfully intones, “was known as the Creative Department!” Radio fans stand quietly – totally in awe and sporting the slack-jawed countenances of the (sometimes) incredulous.
Those were the days, my friend sang Mary Hopkins on The Beatles’ Apple record label. We thought they’d never end. But, they did end. And here’s a beast of an irony – they never really got cranked up! Not in local radio, anyway. Even though it wasn’t uncommon for local, large-market stations to have five copywriters “typin’ the hype” for a couple of producers and a dozen or more jocks, the level of “creativity” was not only suspect, but was so lacking in quality and quantity as to be resented by the writers who were kept shackled to their Selectrics.
Writing copy was more of a M.A.S.H. regimen than it was specialized surgery. The occasions when one of our writers had an advertiser that was, first of all, even willing to “try the ‘creative’ route,” were extremely limited. Completion of the writing, voicing, production, and green-lighting from the client were occasions for a major celebration. Everybody involved in the process got lit up pretty good, considering the rarity of such events.
Another raging irony is that some of the most creative folks I have known in the business were, in fact, copywriters. The irony lies in that their creativity didn’t show up in the copy. They were charged with cranking out endless reams of pure slog – with all the attendant and well-known clichés that continue to wreck radio commercials today.
Creative was just beyond the grasp of the “Creative Department,” as it is now. Occasionally, an extremely creative and emotionally appealing set of spots were provided to an advertiser as spec productions. And there they would, almost always, die on the vine – filed away as fine examples of the art for a future opportunity that never arose.
Meanwhile, some serious radio pundits insist the state of modern radio requires that it is the Account Executives who must be the copywriters, bypassing the idea of a station having an actual creative department. The rationale is that AEs having more direct relationships with clients — inefficient justifications for the status quo. “Effective copy? Don’ need no stinking effective copy,” say the AEs. This, given most sales folks wouldn’t know effective, creative copy even when provided by experts.
And now, a disturbingly accurate reality check:
The chances of radio transforming to a medium of outstanding, creative, commercial productions I put at zilch. Ain’t gonna happen. To use another stretched-to-the-limit cliché, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades that radio will make an about-face and start insisting on creative Creative for the advertisers. The conversation is also unlikely to include the more positive audience reactions — as listeners and buyers — to more appealing and influential spots.
Besides, there is a step before that. This step, I believe, is necessary for radio to make any significant gains in both audiences and the more eager and aggressive participation of advertisers. There are, available right now, many strategies and methods for powerfully influencing and pleasing audiences through the written-for-radio commercial content.
It would be a fool’s fantasy to decry the amount of price/product, total content advertising that has been, not only the bane of, but the bread-and-butter fare delivered by radio. Product/price, another product/price, preceded by milquetoast claims of credibility and wrapped up with demands for audiences to buy, buy, buy! Polite term: “Call to action.”
Transforming basic copy is the priority. Emotional creativity would be a bonus. More powerful methods of radio have been available for decades. On-air presentations are included. They all are being ignored.
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]