Radio’s Buggy Whip Approach


(By Ronald Robinson) Radio communication is considered by a huge majority of broadcasters, I believe, to be a nebulous and “iffy” art, and a closed science. Radio people will assert that everything that needs to be known about radio advertising/communication is already known, and those pesky, creative weenies need only be pandered to, patronized, and shuffled off to a dank and poorly lit cubicle somewhere in the back.

I am reminded of a time when the field of optics was considered a closed science – everything that needed to be known about making lenses was already known. That’s when a guy came along and said, “This is called a ‘laser.’ I wonder what we can do with this!” And that’s when optics exploded into whole new spectrum of possibilities.

Recently, a commentator suggested – with strong support from peers – that what radio copywriters needed to do was become familiar with the work of mid-20th century ad writing wizard, John Caples. He was a print ad copywriter. The commentator encourages modern copywriters to learn the methods of Caples and apply them to radio!

Hence, now we are forced to be dealing with a “C’mon, man!” moment. Given all the neurological research of the last decades, the assertion to model ancient print approaches is akin to representing old-time, tent revival rantings as functional communications. This is absurd! But, the base still seems to hang on. Whether out of desperation or not, I don’t know. But, I have deep suspicions.

Accepting a model of print communications and applying it to radio delivers extraordinarily ineffective copy that is produced and foisted on advertisers, and at the expense and annoyance of audiences on an everyday basis. This is the case at local and corporate stations everywhere.

I repeat: This strategy speaks to the rules that were developed before WWII, and became dogma in the days of print, posters, bill boards, newspapers, magazines, etc. – essentially, an electronic-free advertising environment. The distinctions that many observers and participants fail to make, yet still maintain as gospel, are the ones between the different brain accessing properties of print and electronic media.

Each medium has a different neurological impact and, as such, the “rules” need to be addressed and updated for electronic media. All messaging and advertising do not qualify as worthwhile and effective in the same ways or across all media or platforms. This is no trifling matter, and an appreciation of that distinction is a good place to start before differences, exceptions, and subtle but powerful nuances can be appreciated and applied.

Meanwhile, I read recently that a radio pundit essentially declared that the issue is more about what you say than how you say it. When I read that, I had to check for a pulse – mine! Print (and radio) ads are, often, no more than info-dumps – than what. A well-photographed vegetable comes with copy that reads: “Broccoli. Three for a dollar.” The delivered flyers are rife with that. And for good reason: That’s all that is required. If the produce looks good in the ad, and if the price is right, vegetables will be sold.

What, I wonder, would be the result of a well-crafted radio ad.

“With suppertime approaching, there is time for families to enjoy the taste, nourishment, and freshness of….here it comes: Broccoli! Now at Friendly Fred’s Food Mart.

“Some folks love their broccoli with a little butter and some salt and pepper. Others take it further – with a fantastic melted cheese sauce. There’s a rumor going around that even some kids can be tricked into enjoying broccoli, when it’s prepared with a flourish. Today at Fred’s, broccoli is just three for a dollar! And that’s no rumor.”

Now, another radio ad could have been written that was made up of an unending list of sale-priced products from Fred’s, crammed into a 30-second spot, with a big finish along the lines of “Shop at Fred’s today!” This ad would be about the what. This ad is based on an approach designed exclusively for print. For radio, it’s a buggy whip approach. The former is a “radio massage.” This situation is still alarming. C’mon, man!

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]


  1. Indeed, Will B. Right responded with what he obviously believes was a cogent manner.
    Still, his position is wholly unsatisfactory while ignoring other evidence that is pervasive and compelling.
    Maybe there is a lot of that where he lives, as well.
    Further, maintaining an “info-dump” and “direct-approach strategy – are processes that literally assaults audiences. This does not bode well for any of the participants, especially the advertisers.
    Plus, advertisers have little clue about what are the more influential radio strategies to apply. They aren’t expected to.
    Radio salespeople, however, are expected to know better.
    And they don’t.
    What they do know is: how to kow-tow and defer.

  2. That’s right, Will B. Not Necessarily Right.
    When one cannot respond sufficiently to their message being challenged, they will insult and denigrate the messenger.
    Perhaps there is a lot of that where you live.
    Further, I am repeating the science and the experience of others, as well as my own.
    In whose reality does my passing on the readily-available information also constitute an “arrogance”?
    Let me guess….

    • Mr. Robinson
      I think that I responded to your premise of local price/item advertising being nothing but an “info-dump” quite nicely. You, however, have failed to reply to the sales-oriented scenario which I outlined, where Fred decides where and how to spend his ad money. This, of course, is because you are a copywriter, not a salesman. We have a place for copywriters, but it’s not in a position where they attempt to tell businesses how to run the place. They have no idea what they’re talking about. This, you illustrated perfectly.

  3. Note to Will B. Right:
    Considering the claim of having more knowledge than you are willing to share, I have to surmise that the ‘knowledge” to which you refer does not include the volumes of neuro-rocketology studies that succinctly and convincingly demonstrate the advantage of engaging a radio audiences’ imaginations and emotional capacities in order to be more influential.

    Our colleague, Spike, is currently dragging out a one hundred year-old, 15-minute radio infomercial as the benchmark for how radio creative is to be applied.
    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention and acknowledge that the example given is purely, but nevertheless, still-accepted Dogma.
    The justification also strikes me as just a tad on the desperate side.
    (Maybe not. It might be quite acceptable and seem reasonable to some.)
    Further, I submit, so much water has flowed under the bridge that the structure may collapse at any time.
    In terms of radio creative – a rebuild of the infrastructure is required. Stat!

    • Mr. Robinson-

      You’re the one who selected the broccoli example-and it’s a good one. But, we’re not trying to convert non-users to broccoli consumers, are we? We’re trying to sell broccoli for Fred.
      Non-users won’t buy Fred’s broccoli even if he prices it at 10 for a dollar. Fred knows that. He leaves your image ads for purchase by the Broccoli Foundation. It’s their job to convert and your ad would fit right in. Meanwhile, in Fred’s town, Fred has to sell broccoli to broccoli eaters before Jim does. So he runs the print ad promoting “Broccoli-3 for a dollar.” while the radio guys talk about how stupid he is. Fred can sense their arrogance, just as all can sense yours.

  4. If I hear one more “fast friendly service, big selection, low prices, located across from the car wash, open Monday thru Friday 8 to 5, call 555-7264 with our combined 196 years of experience for all your bla bla bla needs” ad I will vomit. We have a golden opportunity to take advantage of the shredding of TV through streaming and the DVR destroying commercials and anti-social social media. That window is only open if we treat radio ads as “what’s in it for me” as a listener and potential customer. Ron is spot on that brochure style radio ads are BORING!!!

  5. Mr. Robinson–
    You’ve stated a print/radio comparison that leaves out important factors:

    The “radio ad” you’ve written for the broccoli certainly has more appeal to the casual observer than the “three for a dollar” print example, but to whom? Media people like you, of course.
    Media people love image advertising. They will insert a price, if forced, but vigorously resist. Your broccoli ad is written to advance the cause of broccoli, not sell it for Fred. Fred’s “Three for a dollar” print copy is written for the weekly shopper who already likes broccoli and is planning on buying it. Now Fred throws out a low-ball loss-leader to get her to buy it from him, along with dozens of other regular-price grocery items, offsetting the hit Fred takes on the broccoli.
    The broccoli is only one of dozens of items that Fred will feature this way every week. Fred doesn’t have time or know how to write a slick ad for each item (Robinson is probably available for this), so he just keeps doing things the same way.

    There is a radio solution for this, but I can’t give away all my knowledge.


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