Radio is an interesting medium: it is more intimate than TV; it has been described as a friend; it can uplift and energise (according to a recent survey); it can inform; it can involve; it’s background. It is the second most consumed channel after TV in both the UK and the US. In the UK, 47 million tune in and listen for an average of more than 22 hours a week, with the BBC and commercial radio having roughly the same overall share. Many well-known brands spend around £5 million a year advertising on radio. You might think it should have its share of ads that are ‘modern classics’. I think they are scarce. Why?
Perhaps one reason is the various ways in which radio is used. Although British radio soap The Archers gets around five million listeners, and the BBC still produces many plays, music and talk shows dominate. People are less used to listening to drama, or to comedy shows like ‘Round the Horne’, ‘The Goons , ‘ITMA’, or ‘Lake Woebegone’ than they were in the days before TV. This may have an effect on the interest or ability to write for radio.
The way many advertisers use radio may also make it hard. Many radio ads simply give information – about a sale, or an opening, or a promotion. And they often shout it, and repeat it. Another tendency is to try to be funny without having the time or understanding to succeed.
Radio is not easy. And because it is not seen as important enough by many agencies, and not attractive enough to promote a creative career, it may not be taken seriously and is often done by juniors. There are exceptions: Paul Burke, Mandy Wheeler, Nick Angell, Eardrum in the UK and The Radio Ranch in the US, among a few others.
When I was chair of the London Radio Awards some years ago, I put together a jury who were interested in radio rather than a jury of advertising people, including Kenny Everett, Rory McGrath and Andrew Sachs (better known as Manuel in ‘Fawlty Towers’, who had written a silent radio play which had won a Golden Bear in Berlin).
This led to a project on improving creative standards for The Radio Advertising Bureau. My conclusion was to accept the situation: for many creative people radio was not going to be considered as important as TV, so turn that into an opportunity.
My starting point was David Mamet, who wrote in ‘Writing in Restaurants’ that ‘radio is a great training ground for dramatists.’ According to Mamet, what radio demands is that the protagonists, and the situations, are stripped down to the essential elements. ‘The model of the play is the dirty joke: two guys go into a farmhouse. An old woman is stirring a pot of soup. What does the woman look like? ….It is absolutely not important. The dirty joke teller is tending toward a punch line and we know that he or she is only going to tell us the elements which direct our attention to that punch line, so we listen attentively.”
Writing for radio teaches you to stick to the story, and the production takes place in the mind of the listener. We hear juries talk of the ‘theatre of the mind’ and yet, where are the great examples?
My pitch to the RAB was that radio could be championed as a way for creative people to learn how to write TV better and in doing so, perhaps fall in love with radio along the way. Radio is relatively inexpensive and with a good producer you get the chance to work with some of the best actors around, which in turn will add to your knowledge and experience.
Years ago, Mandy Wheeler set up some workshops with Dick Orkin from the Radio Ranch, which were excellent for showing how radio and radio comedy can work for advertising. Here’s one example.
For more, go to www.radio-ranch.com; and if anyone is interested, they’ve told me they will come and do some more workshops).
Sad to say, my recommendations were greeted by the then head of the RAB with horror bordering on anger. The RAB is doing great work, but given the paucity of great radio ads (in my opinion), I still believe this is worth consideration. So in my search, have I found any ‘modern classics’? Anything as good, say, as Mel and Griff’s ad for Philips, ‘Firrips’?
Mel and Griff’s ad for Philips
Maybe this is dated but only by the technology it is advertising, and the fact that it might now be banned for making fun of the Japanese.
I think this Dove ad uses radio well for its audience.
Two ads that use the ‘theatre of the mind’ well, with the classic misdirection that a good joke can have, are these ads for Phillips and the WWF. And the Stephen Fry ad for Ford Focus is an example of good writing that fits the proposition.
Phillips Night video
Save the Rhino
Stephen Fry ad for Ford Focus
(By the way, the RAB site has an excellent section on briefing for Radio, and warns of the pitfall of the ‘misleading proposition’.)
What is also encouraging is that radio is being used in a wider and more interesting way. A NZ TV station promoted its ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’ by setting up an actress as a call girl in an apartment directly opposite a radio station. AMV’s campaign against Domestic Violence encouraged people to call the station to stop recordings of such violence. The German campaign ‘Radio Ghost’ against Drink Driving is even better.
But these are innovative uses of radio rather than examples of great writing for radio. These remain thin on the airwaves.
A final plea to clients. Radio is relatively inexpensive to produce and to air. Please allow your agencies a long enough time-length if the ad isn’t just an announcement – 40-60 seconds is about right. And please have more than one execution. When you have a captive audience, repetition of the same ad (even if it isn’t awful) can lead to the channel being changed.