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Monday, October 19, 2015

My Commercial Days

Early in my career, I voiced and produced a lot of commercials. Not for ad agencies, but inside the radio station. I did spots for night clubs, department stores, restaurants, car dealers, and anything else that came down the pike.

Radio stations didn't charge the client for this service (which gives you an idea how valuable it was) and the end result reflected that. It could be embarrassing to hear some of our quickly-thrown-together spots next to the well-produced national ones -- particularly those from Stan Freberg or Dick Orkin and his gang at the Radio Ranch -- but our mission was a little different. We were in the volume business where it was clear we were not to bust our asses creating the perfect spot. Just get it done and in the rotation so the station could bill the client for the airtime; that's what counted.

The process usually started with a salesperson bringing me a few details about what the client wanted promoted. If the account executive were particularly lazy, that information would be nothing more than the client's newspaper ad with circles around the most important details. It was my job to turn that into sixty seconds of audio salesmanship.

Unlike at an ad agency, where there was a copywriter and an executive or two to shape the sponsor's message and decide what it should sound like, in radio it was all up to whoever the copy was handed to. The "production director" (often one of the DJs with extra responsibilities) either did the spot themself or doled it out to one of the other air personalities. At stations in smaller markets, which ran mostly local commercials (as opposed to national or regional buys which came down fully produced from those agencies), this meant each host spent an hour or so each day in the station's off-air studio turning minimalist information into a final product -- which then went on the air without review from anyone else, including the sponsor.

Most of the time, the person doing the spot was just trying to get through it so they could get to the fun part of the day -- being on the air. As soon as you recorded a decent take and added some music in the background, you were done and on to the next one. Occasionally, some inspiration went into producing that aural product.

I remember having to create sound effects that weren't in the pre-recorded production library, or spending extra time editing a musical bed so it fit just right (and this was in the days before digital, where I was cutting and splicing tape). Sometimes, the salesperson would make an effort to write some copy, but it was invariably too short or too long. The commercial had to be sixty seconds long, but when you read the copy, it only filled 40 seconds. I'd ask the salesperson for more info and be told, "Just give the phone number a few more times!" Worse, the copy would contain 90 seconds worth of bullet points, and the client wanted them all jammed in there. What a nightmare.

After finishing the commercial and putting it in the system, we rarely heard another word about it, but I remember one occasion where I ran into a sales guy for whom I had recorded a car dealer commercial a couple of weeks earlier. I'd spent extra time getting it just right and was proud of the way it came out, but neither he nor anyone else had said anything about my masterpiece (typical!).

I asked the salesman whether the client liked the spot. He told me that, in fact, the car dealer wasn't happy at all and was going to cancel the rest of the schedule. I asked, "Aren't our listeners responding to the commercial?" He told me that, yes, a lot of our loyal listeners had gone to visit the dealership, and foot traffic was way up since the spot had started running. I wondered, "So, what's the problem?" He replied, "They're not selling any cars."

I suggested he go back to that dealer and tell him that instead of cancelling his commercials, he should fire his sales staff. After all, we were doing our job -- getting more people to visit his business -- but his own people were failing to convert them into paying customers! That wasn't our fault, it was his. Naturally, the "account executive" didn't do that, and the car dealer's spots disappeared from our airwaves shortly thereafter.

It didn't matter to my bottom line, since I wasn't paid an extra penny for doing commercials, regardless of how effective they were, but I shook my head at the ineptness of both parties in that business transaction. As for that spot, I was so proud of it that I saved it for my own demo reel -- which, a year later, helped me land a job at another radio station.

By then, that salesman was long gone.