Twelve years of making radio:
What I've learned, and what I like
Last week, I was in the studio producing a radio spot for our friends at Georgia United Credit Union. When we got back to the office, I went through my standard routine after every production: traffic the radio spot, archive the final, and add a copy to my iTunes library in a playlist titled "WMG Commercials". This playlist is my personal repository of spots I've made over the years.
To my surprise, this modest little spot for Georgia United was my 151st (I didn't notice when I hit 150). My how time flies.
In honor of this admittedly arbitrary milestone, I spent a few minutes reminiscing and rummaging about my archive. Below are five of my sentimental favorites over the years (I'm not saying that these are my best, or for that matter the most effective, just my sentimental favs). But before we get to the spots, I thought I'd first share a few of the things I've learned in my last 12 years of writing, producing, and directing radio spots.
1. Hire professional voice talent
Relatively few people make their living as professional voice actors. Those that do, tend to be awesome — and their non-union rates are about the same as anyone else. Don't hire your niece who wants to be an actor. Avoid first-timers. Go through reputable agents and get audition demos based on your script. Did they bring something special to the part? Is their timing good? Do they sound rushed? Did they record variations? Are they improvising? Are their improvisations any good? The answers to these questions will make all the difference. Most of the hard work is done in the casting — nail it, and the rest is easier.
2. Be nice to actors and especially their agents
No one wants to work with jerks. It's true for you. And it's true for actors. If they like you and the project, they'll do a better job. Ask them for their opinion on your favorite take. Listen to their suggestions. If they want to go again, let them. And make sure everyone gets paid on time. Agents are your friend — they round up the best talent they can, and ask them to burn an afternoon recording a custom demo for you. You want them to answer the phone if you call. Also, don't beat 'em up too bad on price. Pay their asking rate as often as you can — it's not that much — save your negotiating for when you really need it.
3. Read your scripts out loud
It should go without saying, radio is all about sound. Often, beautifully written sentences that read well on the page simply cannot be read well out loud. Use short sentences. Break up thoughts. Look for rhythm and cadence. Radio grammar is different than normal grammar. Structure your scripts so that they can be read well. Break lines if you have to. If a double spaced script can't fit on a single page, you're probably too long. So read your scripts out loud. Read them to someone. Time yourself. Make sure you've got a little buffer of time for SFX and music cues. Shoot for :55 of voice (or less) for a :60 spot.
4. Nail down your legal disclosure early
Almost all of my spots have had some sort of legal disclosure. Try to get it nailed down early. Even a brief disclosure can use up :05-:07 seconds. Some can easily top :12. Want to feature a loan rate, sweepstakes, or investment product? Depending on your client compliance folks, that disclosure could easily top :20! At that point, you have to ask whether or not the trigger (that message item that requires the legal) is worth having. Does the 1.99% auto loan rate get you anything if no one can remember the financial institution's name because all they're thinking about is the :30 legal disclosure?
5. Leave room for improvisation
Some of my favorite radio moments have been improv moments. Be open to it. When it happens naturally it can make a good spot great. Of course, if your spot is :03 seconds too long, there's no room to fit in the improv. Also, how is the client with unexpected, unplanned, and unapproved change? Prep them in advance that it may be coming. Make sure that the improv doesn't impact the legal in an unexpected way — that's on you as the director.
6. Have fun
If you're not having fun making radio, you're doing it wrong — and you'll hear it in the finished product. Of all the types of projects I work on, radio is my favorite. The projects are small and compact. You go to the studio in the morning, and by the afternoon you're finished and drinking beer. And unlike TV (or even print work and photography), budget isn't really a factor. Once a minimum threshold of studio time and talent is reached, there isn't much separating your spot from a big budget spot (except, of course, the sweet molasses of Morgan Freeman's voice).
7. Let talented people do their job
Odds are, the people you're working with have worked on way more radio spots than you. Tell them what you're looking for. Help them understand what you want. Then try to get out of their way. Don't over-direct your talent. Don't micromanage their inflections. Work with a great studio. They'll help you turn average stuff into awesome stuff. Thank them for it. For 12 years or more, I've been working with Clatter & Din in Seattle. I love these guys. If another studio offered me free production for a year, I'd politely say "no thank you." The folks at Clatter are that good. (If you're getting ready to produce a spot, you owe it to yourself to give them a call. I promise you won't regret it.)
Okay, that's enough pedagogy. Here are five of my sentimental favorite radio spots.
"President Grant" (2004, Numerica Credit Union)
A senile old President thinks he invented the $50 bill.
This may be my all-time sentimental fav. This is the first spot I directed. It features the talents of the great Dave White, whom I have worked with many times since. Remember my advice on improvisation? The "should I say that" exchange at the end was all Dave's improv. Totally unplanned. And it makes the spot.
"Metaphorical Ponies" (2008, Anchor Bank)
A giveaway promotion without a the giveaway.
I love this spot for the sheer silliness of it. I love this spot because there's a part of me that still can't believe that I presented this to a client. But I did. And we made it. And it actually worked. People heard it. People remembered it. And people went to the bank.
"Any Given Saturday" (2012, OnPoint Community Credit Union)
An active and diverse community is connected by a credit union.
The multi-actor spots with a lot of sound design are fun to put together. But as a writer, I've become more fond of well-written narration over the years. I like this spot because it does so many things at the same time: promotes Saturday hours, community connections, and a full range of services.
"Unsolicited Advice" (2013, OnPoint Community Credit Union)
Investment advice is easy to find. But good advice? That's something else all together.
This spot is the radio counterpart to this TV commercial. And a tough assignment. We wanted to make an investment spot — which is especially hard for a credit union due to the regulation and disclosure requirements. Remember my point above about "legal triggers"? The disclosure here is more than :20 long. That's a lot. But we decided it was worth it. I love working with actors, and this spot has a lot of them. And on the radio-geek end of things, we did a little trick with the music about half way through the legal. It sounds like it's over and winding down, then the disclosure picks up again for another :12 or so. Amuses me every time.
"Dr. Shleffhausen" (2002, Portland Teachers Credit Union)
A patient struggles with low self esteem, caused by her bank's awful service.
This spot is the first one I ever wrote — and my first time in the studio as a "professional". There's plenty I'd do differently today. But you never forget your first time.