For All Your Blog Post Reading Needs

Last Sunday, as we drove home from out of town, we listened to the Packer game on the radio. One of the stations we tuned in was located in a very small town.

As we listened, I was struck by how little the sound of small-market radio production has changed since I was doing it 20 or even 30 years ago. The quality of the ads still varies wildly. Some announcers sound really good, but some have what I call the “small-market lilt.” The lilt is hard to define—it’s a vocal timbre, and/or way of speaking, and/or style of reading copy that sounds less than entirely professional. Sometimes people have it because they can’t help themselves; it’s the way they talk. And sometimes people have it because they haven’t been coached. Sketchy or nonexistent coaching of air talent is extremely common at small-market stations. There’s either nobody with time to do it—which was the problem I had when I was a program director—or nobody who is qualified to do it. As a result, bad habits learned early in a broadcaster’s career become lifelong traits.

Small-market commercial production suffers from another problem it’s had for years—the quality of the scripts. Radio consultant Dan O’Day says that the first job of every commercial is to identify a problem the listener has and then solve it, but even large-market and ad agency scripts don’t always do this. It occurred to me during the Packers broadcast that the ads I was hearing on that little station were like billboards: they told who the advertisers were and what they did, but that was about it. They didn’t offer to solve a problem.

Except for meeting my “needs,” of course. Identifying a listener’s need (as distinct from a problem) is a valid approach to scripting an ad, and nearly every spot I heard over the hour or so we listened included the word “needs” in some form. But those needs were to be met only in the most general sense—your automotive needs, grocery needs, floral needs, farm-equipment needs—as opposed to a specific need and solution, such as “your car needs an oil change every 3,000 miles, so bring it to So-And-So Auto Repair for your next change and get a special price.” It’s not just this one station, either. Small-market advertisers everywhere love to meet your needs, and small-market radio stations love to tell you so, even though nobody talks that way in the real world: “Gosh, Bob, for all my carpet-cleaning needs, I rely on So-And-So Incorporated.” (A friend of mine remembers with equal parts amusement and horror the time he was handed a script that included the phrase “for all your grave-blanket needs.”)

Sometimes you’ll hear about needs in an expanded form that adds additional horseshit: “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ____ needs,” which is a giant blinking red light and siren warning of lazy hackwork. Such a phrase even shows a certain contempt for the listener—that you think your audience is so stupid that they’ll be persuaded to act on the basis of such weak sauce when you know you wouldn’t be. No radio station or client should accept it, but many do, again because there’s either nobody with time to critique ad copy, nobody who feels qualified to do it, or there’s nobody who cares.

It’s not always the broadcasters’ fault that this stuff gets on the air, though. Many advertisers have heard “needs” and “headquarters” and related ad clichés so often that they’re comfortable with them. They think radio ads are supposed to sound like that, and they’re happy to pay for ads that do. I once worked on an ad for a client who had never done radio before—creative copy, character voices, sound effects—but he kept sending it back for revisions. He was unable to articulate precisely what he didn’t like about it, and the sales rep was unable to pin him down. Exasperated after several rounds of this, I wrote a 60-second dry read (no music) containing every advertising cliché I could think of, starting with “Make ___ your headquarters for all your ___ needs.”

You can guess where this is going.

The client pronounced it the best radio ad he’d ever heard.

8 responses

  1. WestBerkeleyFlats | Reply

    I’d never thought about it, but it’s true about “all your needs.” Not being in the biz and not having grown up in a small town but perhaps having lived somewhat close to them, I find those kinds of advertisements to be somewhat endearing. Perhaps small town businesses don’t think that they need to explain their services to people because they assume that everyone already understands what they provide. It’s probably not very efficient or effective, but it reminds me of those kinds of businesses buying ads in the high school football program yearbook.

  2. Personally I’d like to strangle the person who decided “solutions” should be the next advertising cliche.

    Onto another pet peeve, a local station runs ads voiced by owners of an web marketing/website development company who have given it such an esoteric name that they have to spell it out on every ad. Yeah, nothing like giving your business a name that only you can spell and pronounce. And why would I go to these guys for marketing advice when they flunk rule number one of marketing?

  3. I grew up in New Jersey, in an area only about 45 minutes from NYC. I listened to all the greats – Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, Jack Spector, etc. etc. etc…

    I shall never forget an instructor I had in college radio who told me I was the luckiest person in the world, because I grew up on the best of the best. They were professionals, paid their dues, moved up the ladder, and became the best in their business in the number one market in the nation. He had grown up in Portland, Oregon, and happily reminisced about listening to some of the WORST spots ever committed to tape.

    I had never thought of it that way. Made a huge impression…

    Flash forward a few years, when I worked a a friend’s (very) small market station for the summer. I did a bit of everything, including selling a series of spots to a local appliance dealer. I also had to write the copy for the ad.

    The headache started when the dealer revealed it was to be a co-op ad. This meant that said copy was CRAMMED with information that HAD to be included or the whole deal was off. I think I had to shove in the names of some 7 or 10 appliance manufacturers, ranging from one syllable (Norge) to several (Westinghouse) in one :60 spot. Oy.

    Drove me nuts but I did it.

    I read it real fast…which, sadly, I hear more and more in ads (and newscasts) these days.

  4. Wickert’s is your family-friendly grocery store at 17th and Oregon in Oshkosh. They’ve been in business since 1953 right after Mel Wickert got back from the Army in Korea. Mel believes in working hard and he works hard for YOU to bring you great values for your family. They have wide aisles, bright lighting, and the friendliest checkout personnel in town! So why not check out Wickert’s for all your grocery needs! Weekly bargains and prices too low to advertise! And be sure to check out Wickert’s big ad in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

  5. Right on target. I still hear tons of cliches on stations in the Ft Myers Market. Usually delivered by a “Ron Radio” puker delivery. One guy seems to do most of the production for one of the groups. and he’s terrible.

  6. I think Brian and Tim have it nailed. If your family’s been running a business since 1935, and it’s still around, then the ads you’ve always taken out (with the language you’ve always used) must work … or so the logic goes.

  7. The day after the new P.D. arrived, he assigned me the job of updating the station promo (which he’d loved) that I’d cut prior to his arrival. I thought the follow-up was fine, but he immediately took me to the woodshed for having taken the easy way out. He proved to be the best coach I had in the business, and we’ve remained friends.

    A dozen years ago, he bought a small-town AM station given up for dead. Putting his “build the programming and engineering first and sales will follow” philosophy to work, the once-dark outlet is now a profitable community beacon. So imagine my shock when I heard these words while streaming his station a year ago:

    “For all your glass block needs…”

    Granted, that’s one hell of a product category curveball for even the best creative minds, but to hear such a lame old crutch over his airwaves was a shocker.

    But at least it wasn’t ambiguous. Had it been “your glass block headquarters,” I’d have been searching for the sponsor’s all-glass block building on my next visit.

  8. […] addition to writing about radio, we listened to some of it, including small-town radio advertising and all-night broadcasts. And I took you behind a microphone of a different […]

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