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.