The Mind’s Eye: It Doesn’t Matter What You Look Like On the Radio

June 1, 1992

There’s a great scene in Woody Allen’s Radio Days in which the young Allen character’s Uncle Abe catches his wife Ceil listening doubtless not for the first time — to a radio show improbably called Ventriloquist of the Air.

As she cackles and hoots, the obviously exasperated Abe bellows, “He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How do you know he’s not movin’ his lips?!”

“Who cares?” Aunt Ceil cries, continuing to hoot hysterically. “Leave me alone!”

It’s typical Allenesque irony, of course, but it also makes a telling point about the medium of radio. It has been called the “theater of the mind” because it takes advantage of one of the most powerful forces on Earth — the human imagination. When used creatively and effectively, no other medium can conjure up mental images as well as radio. And without need of sets, props, makeup, costuming, stuntrnen, trick cinematography, or visual special effects.

Radio has other built-in advantages. It’s in virtually every American home (99 percent), in 95 percent of all cars, in 61 percent of workplaces — and, as a take-anywhere medium, also plugged into the ears of 20 million or so walkers, joggers, and other assorted outdoorspersons. Radio reaches almost 80 percent of all adults every day, more than 96 percent each week. All that, plus, unlike broadcast TV, radio is intrinsically a- 24-hours-a-day, all-seasons medium. Unlike cable, it is always free to the user.

In political campaigns, radio can: Roust voters out of bed in the morning even join them in the shower. Poke voters in the ribs as they drive to work, to shop, or to the beach. Bend voters’ ears as they jog down the sidewalk or hike through the woods. Work side by side with voters at office or factory without diverting their attention or reducing productivity.

Even in multi-million-dollar campaigns with access to all communications modes, no other medium can make all these claims. And for hundreds — make that thousands — of downballot campaigns, radio is the broadcast medium of choice for reasons of economics or efficiency.

Or, of necessity: A recent ruling by the Federal Communications Commission may serve to deny access to broadcast TV altogether for local and state campaigns. In federal races, the law requires TV and radio stations to sell time to all candidates if they have the money to pay for it. No similar statutory requirement has ever existed for state and local races, but station licensees have traditionally believed that the FCC would frown on denying access to downballot candidates. Now, the commission has explicitly given its thumbs-up to such thumbs-down policies. on the part of stations.

Garry South is president of Los Angeles based EarWorks Inc., a company that produces radio communications for candidate, issue, and independent expenditure campaigns. South was director of communications for former Gov. Richard F. Celeste (D-OH).

Out of goodwill or political reality, many TV stations can be expected to continue to sell some time, when available, to state and local candidates. But in markets with tight inventories (the amount of broadcast time available for spots), some downballot candidates will be shut out of broadcast TV despite how well fixed they may be.

Radio stations are also included in the ruling. But because there are many more of them, and because of softer ad inventories on most stations, few radio stations are likely to follow suit and shut out state and local candidates altogether.

Summoning radio’s power and magic in campaigns does, of course, require that the medium be used well — with skill, intelligence, and sensitivity to the way people listen to radio.

First, the commercials themselves must be well-conceived, powerfully written, convincingly narrated, and well-produced. Second, maximizing radio’s effectiveness in campaigns demands paying close attention to the buying strategy involved.

These basic tips can help put radio to work in your campaign:

Radio is inherently a task-oriented medium. It is thus particularly well suited to helping solve specific problems in a campaign — hammering at an opponent’s Achilles’ heel(s), shoring up support among ethnic voters, helping voters sort out complicated or confusing ballot propositions, trumpeting endorsements, and reacting to late-breaking or unexpected developments.

Remember, though, there is no magic number of spots needed to ensure an adequate and effective radio campaign. In designing the spot mix, careful thought must be given to the intended purpose of each and every commercial. If no clear purpose can be articulated for a spot, then it probably should not be produced.

The number of spots aired will be a factor of the amount of money available for the radio buy: It makes no sense to produce a host of commercials if you can’t afford sufficient frequency for each of them over the course of the campaign.

Keep in mind, too, that the nature and purpose of the radio spots will be determined by the overall media mix of the campaign. A campaign that can afford the wide use of television may use radio to concentrate on specific tasks — carrying the brunt of the negative attack, for example, or playing out subthemes considered more appropriate for radio than TV.

In radio-only campaigns, the medium may have to carry the typical media-campaign functions — building name ID, developing (or refurbishing) the candidate’s image or persona, articulating issue stands, appealing to voter blocks, etc., as well as drawing comparisons with the opposition.

Radio is a powerful medium because it uses the stored-up experiences and vivid images already in the listener’s brain to elicit the desired response. But this hearer-supplied resource is not just there for the taking. To tap into it, spots must be powerfully and evocatively written.

To start with, you’ve got to talk about things the listener cares about, not necessarily what the candidate wants to tell the listener. That means the subject matter and approach of every commercial must be based on voters’ real concerns as determined through survey data or other research techniques.

Forget that old saw about mentioning the candidate’s name as many times as possible. If a spot addresses a subject people genuinely care about, in terms they understand, a single mention of the candidate’s name can be very powerful. If a spot doesn’t grab and hold people’s interest, or is inherently unbelievable or obnoxious, you could repeat the candidate’s moniker two or three dozen times in 60 seconds and no one will be left with it — because they’ve tuned out the whole thing, anyway.

Along these same lines, it’s a mistake in most cases to give away right upfront that a commercial is a political spot. The reality is, most people don’t like politicians, don’t pay much conscious attention to campaigns, and don’t willingly submit to listening to campaign advertising. The object, therefore, is to draw the listener into the spot before he or she realizes it’s touting a candidate or a political cause. One good way to do that is by leading with a question — preferably, as in the courtroom, one to which the probable answer is already known (“Do you think taxes are too low?” “What would you think if I told you I could give you something for nothing?”).

Another principle of radio: People listen to the medium like they’re listening to someone talk to them one on one. Political media guru Tony Schwartz calls it “private speaking, not public speaking.” That’s why good radio scripts follow the patterns of everyday conversation, not the formal rules ( continued after the inset… )

Don’t Blow Your Horn

Be suspicious of the overuse of sound effects in political radio spots. It’s a common giveaway that a media consultant doesn’t understand how to make effective use of the medium.

Some consultants load up their radio spots with sounds like slamming doors, whistling trains, banging gavels, blazing guns, ringing phones even four calling birds. They’d be well advised to spend less time inside the sound effects library of their favorite recording studio and more time trying to get inside the heads of the listeners they’re trying to reach.

Radio is not about getting things across to people — it is about getting the reaction you want out of them. No amount of sound effects or production gimmicks can be as effective in eliciting the desired response or behavior as accessing the listener’s own experiences through powerful, evocative writing and convincing narration.

As an analogy, think of the popular “talking books.” These audio tapes usually use only narration to develop a book’s characters, build its plot, set mood, evoke motion, change scenes, convey atmosphere, etc. If straight narration can be effective carrying a full-length book, it is also powerful enough in most cases to do the job in a 60-second radio spot.

Sometimes a well-chosen effect is useful — to suggest venue, for instance. On occasion, a sound effect may even be unavoidable. I once produced a spot for a client who wanted to bash the opponent — a boastful, self-promoting sitting governor — but without mentioning his name. I substituted the double blast of a trumpet as an audio stand-in wherever his name would have been mentioned. (The spot was titled, appropriately, “Blowing Your Own Horn.”)

As a rule, though, gratuitous sound effects in political radio spots are often the equivalent of cheap sight gags in B movies — little more than a cover for a lack of intelligent dialogue or plausible storyline.

— Garry South

of grammar. Sentence fragments? Fine. Ungrammatical constructions or contractions, if in common usage, are OK. Ditto slang terms, provided they’re not vulgar or condescending.

In some campaigns, fever-pitch arguments take place between candidate and consultant over the use of one word or another in a proposed script. Unless it involves a loaded buzzword that could incite a negative backlash, or a plain misstatement of fact, such tiffs are usually mountain-out-of-a-molehill propositions. Effective radio commercials are designed to evoke a feeling in the listener, not to provoke analysis — much less total recall of every word used in the spot.

A lot of political radio spots are rendered ineffective or dysfunctional because of inappropriate or just plain bad voicing.

Radio is inherently a very personal and intimate medium. Radio pioneer Arthur Godfrey said it best: “There is no mass radio audience, only one man or woman in a room.” Today, of course, the audience can be just about anywhere. But more often than not, the most effective radio is still an authoritative, distinctive voice talking to each individual listener.

Despite this widely accepted knowledge of the nature of the medium, many media consultants persist in peopling their spots with stilted, stentorian voices more suited to a carnival barker or used-car pitchman than to someone with whom you’d like to have a one-on-one conversation.

A closely related mistake is using recorded snippets of a candidate’s own speeches, often shouted in their original version over tinny sound systems in hollow-sounding halls or ballrooms. Either approach shows disregard for the listener’s sophisticated — if subconscious — listening aptitude, and violates his or her personal space at the same time.

In fact, using the typical candidate’s voice on anything other than the mandatory disclaimer demands a sober sense of realism. Because in radio, the voice is everything — and its ownership is a lot less important than its credibility and effectiveness. And unfortunately, even the most intelligent candidate can sound like a synthesized voice or a dull-witted drone. Unless the candidate is James Earl Jones or Casey Kasem, therefore, it’s usually best to steer clear of candidate-voiced spots.

Professional announcers or actors, who make their living persuading and entertaining people, are almost always worth the cost — particularly if a script is complicated or dependent on nuance and inflection. Ordinary people, too, using their own words with or without prompts, can often provide very believable and poignant testimonials.

What if you haven’t worked with announcers before and don’t have any regulars? Most recording studios usually have a stable of them at their beck and call; and they can provide not only a demo-tape library to audition, but also make recommendations and actually help you “book” talent.

In major cities, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the union for talent, can often provide a casting call notice to members on behalf of a producer seeking a certain type of talent.

Specialty talents or unusual needs — an Amold Schwarzenegger voice impersonator, for example, or someone proficient in speedtalking as featured in those Federal Express ads — can often be dug up with a call to Central Casting, the booking agency for models, actors and actresses.

Satellite technology also makes it possible to draw on a pool of talent much larger than the one that exists in any particular geographic area — a blessing when local announcers are overused in a given market. Many spots today are made using a narrator sitting in a studio thousands of miles away from the one in which the director-producer sits. Satellite transmission results in excellent broadcast-quality recording, while the announcer is directed by a two-way telephone hookup.

The fees for announcers used in narrating spots are set by AFTRA through a nationwide master contract. The rates are based on the media market(s) in which the spots will run and are calculated using a complex formula that assigns “unit” value to every market in North America. The range is from $142 per announcer per spot produced to as much as $653 (for spots broadcast in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, the nation’s three most expensive markets, as well as in some other markets). Payment of these fees allows for 13 weeks of use of the spot(s) involved. State and local campaigns, because of their concentration on fewer markets, can expect to pay in the low range of the rate card for most talent. In addition, a mandatory 11.5 percent health and retirement payment is added to all talent fees by AFTRA.

A few especially good or well-known talents charge up to two or three times AFTRA scale. But it is a very competitive business — and most talents in most markets will be more than happy to bill you only for scale.

One of radio’s chief advantages is its relatively inexpensive production particularly as compared to the costs of making high-quality TV commercials. Top quality radio spots, using national-caliber narration talent, are usually within the budgetary range of campaigns at nearly every level. The same cannot be said of television — which is why many campaigns have to forgo that medium even if they could afford to buy at least some TV time.

Unlike TV, radio spots can be produced quickly and with a minimum of arrangements: New spots can be produced, or existing spots changed, and literally on the air by the next day.
Just because radio production isn’t costly doesn’t mean it should be done on the cheap. Remember there are no visuals on radio to distract or dazzle listeners; the quality of the writing, narration, and production must carry every spot.

It’s often difficult to convince candidates — and some consultants, too – that when they go on the air they’re battling not just against their opponent’s commercials. They’re also competing for attention and credibility with the cutting-edge advertising of billion-dollar advertisers like Nike, Pepsi, and Toyota. (And these product and service advertisers are hawking products that are a lot more popular and in demand than politicians.) To ensure good production values in radio spots, there are a number of steps to take.

  • Record and produce in a fully equipped, soundproofed recording studio with a qualified engineer on the control board. If no such studio exists in a given community, the facilities of a local radio station can often be used subject to availability.
  • If on-location recording is necessary, use a portable digital audio tape (DAT) recorder to ensure the highest-quality sound — and hire a qualified soundperson to set up and operate the equipment. (DAT recorders are very expensive; the smart thing is to hire a soundperson with access to one.)
  • Remember, most listeners will likely hear the commercials on their car stereo system or on a small portable radio, such as a clock-radio. Listen to them in the studio on a similar-sized speaker to ensure that the sound quality is retained when emanating from those sources.
  • Use real-time, rather than high-speed, dubs where possible to retain the full audio range. Make all dubs from the master reel, not from another dub; just like photocopies, each generation of dubs made from dubs loses quality and clarity.

Particularly in competitive markets, studio time is not very expensive — the range is about $60 to $150 per hour (except in New York City, where the rates are much higher). That gives you a sound room, control room, and engineer; how efficiently the time is used is up to the director-producer of the spots. In addition, you’ll be charged for access to special effects pulled from the studio’s sound library (usually $15 to $25 per effect) and the master reel (about $25 to $30). Dubs, of course, are extra; expect to pay $4 to $6 per reel, and $3 to $5 for cassettes. If you can’t get your dubs produced within the studio time you’ve booked, you’ll also be charged for additional studio time, usually in 15-minute increments. For this reason, it is often cheaper to have dubs made at a specialty dub house.

For remote services, charges usually range from $95 to $150 an hour; and sometimes there is a two-hour minimum. That gives you an engineer and the recording equipment set up on site. To edit and produce remote recordings, of course, you’ll incur studio charges and any other relevant costs.

If you bring in a narrator via satellite, significant additional expenses will result. A one-hour domestic satellite feed can cost as much as $350. And if the announcer is narrating from a studio at the uplink site, there’ll likely be studio charges at that end, in addition to those at the downlink.

Still, when compared with television production, the costs of quality radio are within reach of many more campaigns. Through careful planning and comparison shopping, you can produce high-quality spots in the can for roughly $750 to $1,000 each (not counting the media consultant’s fee). If a campaign cannot or is not willing to dig up enough cash to pay these prices, it is probably foolish to consider using radio in the first place. Don’t forget that putting schlock or subpar products on the air, no matter how much time you can buy, is no favor to the campaign.

Like TV, radio must be bought efficiently and correctly to be effective. And there’s the rub: Too many campaigns that use radio suffer from ineffective or inadequate buy strategies.

A frequent error: buying too few spots over too long a period of time on too many stations. This should come as no surprise given the casual or dismissive attitude toward the medium on the part of a lot of top media consultants: I’ve sat through many campaign strategy meetings where one or another suggested “putting a few bucks on radio” or “adding a little radio to the buy.” A related problem is placing too many different spots in the rotation, thereby reducing the frequency of anyone to the level of ineffectiveness.

Assuming that the commercials themselves are powerful and effective, frequency is truly the candidate’s — or issue’s best friend. Listeners are bombarded with thousands of commercials every day (an average of 14,000 per week, according to some estimates), for products and services as well as candidates and causes.

Traditionally, 24 spots per week on a given station has been considered “saturation”; but many campaign buys contain as few as six, 12, or 18 spots per station per week. Except in the most unusual of cases, even the high-end buy hardly constitutes saturation. Stations themselves often run upward of 50-60 promotional liners every week; that ought to tell you something.

The hottest current buying theory, called “optimum effective scheduling,” turns traditional radio on its head, advocating buying fewer stations and loading them up with 30-to-50 spots — or more — per week. The objective (the results of which can be measured pretty accurately) is to ensure that at least 50 percent of the heavy listeners are exposed three times or more per week to anyone commercial — the minimum number of exposures considered effective.

This “effective reach” approach regards both total reach and average frequency as outmoded, defective measures of what you’ve bought on radio. It demonstrates that the use of gross rating points in radio buying — as opposed to TV buying — is a grossly deficient way of figuring actual reach.

The OES formula is based on a station’s “turnover rate” — i.e., how rapidly a station’s audience changes. It is figured by dividing the station’s cumulative rating (CUME) by its average quarter-hour audience (AQH). The result tells you a station’s turnover rate (See Ask the Campaign Doctor, C & E, July, 1991).

Turnover is driven primarily by format. Consider this analogy: during anyone period of time, chances are more individuals go in and out of a typical 7-11 than go in and out of, say, the typical natural history museum. Radio stations are similar some have formats that listeners spend a lot of time with, others are more like drivein fast-food restaurants. Since turnover varies considerably by station, this calculation must be made for every station in a proposed buy plan.

Once you’ve figured turnover rate, that becomes the only number that matters, because it will help tell you what you’re really buying. By multiplying that number by the OES spot-factor constant of 3.29 (a refinement of audience-research numbers going back 20 years), the product will tell you the number of spots needed to produce a schedule that has 50 percent of total reach falling into the effective reach group (those heavy listeners who’ll hear each spot at least three times per week).

The formula for determining optimal effective scheduling has been designed, fine-tuned, and field-tested over the past decade in product and service advertising. Political media consultants and buyers, as well, should heed the principles involved.

Buying according to this scheme, which concentrates heavier frequency on fewer stations, also renders less onerous one of the most trying aspects of radio buying: dealing with a multiplicity of stations, some with relatively unsophisticated sales staffs, buying a nickel’s worth of schedule on each.

For every truly bad TV spot you see during an election cycle, you’ll probably hear three truly terrible radio spots. Many sound like nothing so much as “Saturday Night Live” parodies of political spots. One of the reasons is because some media consultants consider radio a child of a lesser god. If you really believe radio doesn’t rate as a primary medium, you’re clearly not going to devote a lot of time to the writing or producing of it. These tasks often fall to a junior-level employee or even the summer intern.

Often, radio commercials are little more than knockoffs of soundtracks from the TV spots. Such mindless recycling evidences not only creative constipation, but also an appalling ignorance of the fundamental differences between the two media.

Before you hire a media consultant, make sure he or she understands the nature of radio, appreciates its role in campaigns, and has a track record of producing creative, effective radio. This means asking to hear demo cassettes of radio spots.

Don’t be sucked in by the basic irrelevancy of a knock-your-socks-off TV demo reel. It doesn’t necessarily follow that an accomplished, award-winning TV producer can also create great radio, any more than a composer of Mozartean symphonies is also necessarily a good writer of a Garth Brooks country ballad.

Consider hiring a consultant that specializes in radio. This is an age of specialists: If your child had tonsillitis, you wouldn’t take him or her to an orthodontist. Why make the same mistake in a campaign?

To be sure, the medium of radio has changed dramatically in recent years — a large increase in the number of stations, wider variety in the choice of formats. But nearly every other communications medium has changed, too. Using radio properly and effectively in candidate and issue campaigns requires the same thing those other media require: creative adaptation to changing structural, format, demographic, and economic realities.

As long as it retains its unique ability to get inside the minds of its listeners, radio will remain a potent campaign medium. If you need further proof, ask your Aunt Ceil.