Saturday 27 October 2012

Don't Forget to Join me. The Art of Radio Imaging Production

Don't you just love the language in radio promos.  "Don't forget to join us".  Just like telling listeners not to think of an elephant, telling them not to forget is a sure-fire instruction to suggest they do exactly that.

'Why not join me?' OK, I won't. 

Thankfully, we've largely got away from those 'I'll be here with X, Y, Z and the very best in music" type scripts, but  gifted writing for radio imaging and general production is a rare skill. 

Many producers appear to spend many hours locked in their darkened studio doing the sexy, macho bits, fiddling with Pro Tools and cranking up the speakers loud.  Just maybe they spend a little less time with the fluffy bits: chewing the end of a pen and poring over the script.  The choice of words is the single most important element of any production.  Some words are so much more evocative than others: warmer, brighter, colder, funnier.  A comedian will wrestle over every syllable.  'You' is a powerful word.  Make sure the killer words are in the right place.  The rhythm is important.  Often it's the words you strike out that lend so much more meaning to the remainder.  Type it out, then hack it apart.  Leave it to stew, then come back and polish it again.

Brevity is powerful. 

Often a great script is made even greater by sacrificing the first three lines you wrote.  Just like in real life, and indeed just like the start of a great live jock link on-air, you do not always need to set things up nor start at the beginning.  Books jump in feet first in the opening words on Chapter One:  'I didn't mean to kill him. The knife slipped'.  So do Tweets.  Grab me.  Paint vivid pictures in my mind.  Not too many pictures, though: beware of creating those long scenarios followed by a riposte which sells the opposite.  Ask yourself if it really works?  Or was one of the journeys needless?

And detail.  Oh, the detail.  If your enthusiastic programmer has breathlessly planned a great, yet complicated, Holiday Monday of Summer songs, it's not essential to inform me that they are all songs which hit number 1,2 or 3 between the months of June and August over the last twenty years; and that you're playing three an hour at 20 past, twenty to and on the hour. Just tell me this weekend the music will make them feel it's a Summer's Day.  Give me the results, not the mechanics.  Great car ads on TV picture the owner driving with the roof down, speeding  through the greenest countryside on the warmest day.  You imagine the car impressing your friends; and how you'd feel driving it.  A canny brand would rarely devote huge amounts of media spend in communicating the exact spec of the car.  Sell the dream.  Tell me the listener benefit, not how complicated it is to enjoy it.  Look out the window into real life for inspiration. Get out the studio and go for a walk and visualise what you're really trying to commmunicate in the real world.

For competitions, sell me the prize and make me want it - and tell me the next step for me to win it.  Don't explain the whole mechanic.  Frankly, it's even a little too much to ask me to 'find out more', as that sounds like hoops are on the way.  Why should I bother?  I'm busy.  Don't say 'if', say 'when'.

Don't get me started about 'register online'.  Where did that phrase come from?  Yes, you may not emerge as a winner when you go on line to complete your details, but the same was true when you phoned in for contests.  You don't register to play the Lottery - you play it.   "Enter now/win now at (website)" or similar makes me feel closer to victory, and avoids that that lovely  council/school-sounding verb 'register'.

Traditional radio thinking suggests you should use the same VO for everything.  It's all about station sound, a cohesive identity and all that jolly stuff.  There's probably something in that thinking, but should we always be bound by it?  We all know that despite our best efforts, many listeners could not name many music radio presenters or recognise their voices.  I always smile at clients who spend a fortune on a big name in their radio and TV ads, whose voice is actually not recognisable by most listeners.  I suspect few listeners would actually know whether or not your regular voice-over was being used on your promo or not.  What matters is, does it do the job? For some purposes,  a different  sort of voice can add a wealth of added value.  Oh, and unless your colleagues are really good at acting, don't ask them to put on silly voices.

In production, do the music, FX  and VO tracks work in harmony as one beautiful symphony? Or are they fighting?  Those lovely promos where a measured vox pop sits uneasily across a bed moving at a thousand miles an hour means you notice neither the bed nor the words.  They should work emotionally as one.  Just like those annoying jocks who like using a music VO bed for no real reason: a vibrant music bed does not make a poor link better. Research from neoroscientists suggests that incongruent sounds really mess things up.

Your masterpiece will be aired whilst a mother is stuffing dinner money in the hands of one child whilst telling off another.  On the delivery and in the mix, can a listener hear the words sufficiently clearly whilst doing something else in their busy lives?  You know what's been said, given you wrote it, but can a listener hear every single word first time? Sometimes a simple piece of work for some purposes is just fine. Listen critically.  And ask yourself whether the delivery is natural, believable and persuasive, or is the VO just dragging out the words for no apparent reason, sounding like an infant school teacher talking to a class of nine year olds. 

Remember too, when this is aired, it will be one person - the VO - talking to another - the listener.  In pacing and scripting, have you allowed time and space for the listener to soak up what's said and respond emotionally.  Enough time to think, smile, shiver, salivate, desire?  And if you asking your VO to act, just check they can.

I don't have too many favourite consultants, but one I do respect once said to me 'British breakfast promos are shit'.  Although it was a generalisation, and I know my own current team have certainly done some simple yet powerful work in getting the characters of the breakfast teams across, I think you and I know what he meant.  Clips sometimes work.  Often, they don't.  Don't air the ones which don't.  It's tough to suck a winning twenty seconds out of even the finest long breakfast link in a way which works in isolation.  If your goal is to communicate that 'this is a funny show', make sure that message is clear to the person who's never heard the show.  Hearing three people you don't know shouting nonsense and laughing loudly is the corner of the bar you would not go and join.  As for 'join us at 6', nope, I won't be awake. And 'on breakfast tomorrow'? Listeners eat breakfast, they do not sit on it.

I'm puzzled.  In BBC local radio or any high-talk environment, why they make so much use of promos, or 'trailers'?  You create the most incredibly powerful attentive environment with what you do within your programming, and then wander off for 30" for no reason.  You create 'ad breaks' where you do not need to.  Try instead seizing the 70" clip of audio from something you've got coming up or went before, with the presenter your listeners trust wrapping round and lending their live endorsement.   On LBC this week, when James Max talked live about how Nick Ferrari had taken a 94 year old veteran on a surprise visit to see the PM at Number Ten, I came home and went online to hear the earlier clip.  Consider the power of the relationship your presenters have built with their audiences.  They are a friend; and a personal recommendation from a  friend is persuasive. 

What do you want the listener to know, feel or do when they hear your material?  Know that - and satisfy yourself that the material meets that end, and you'll probably win some listening and some awards.


  1. 'Brevity is powerful'

    Couldn't agree more. Although a Voice Actor, I've written and performed StandUp and I can honestly say, the hardest part? Is ditching all the words you don't need. It's the cutting back that makes the difference.

    That, and having the confidence as a performer or writer, to allow the words the space, to do their stuff.

    Karl Jenkinson

  2. David I love you, everything you say I teach to my students, most of the creative thought process is down to common sense and empathy with the listener (singular)get that right and everything else falls into place.

  3. Calm down, Steve! But, well, thanks. Appreciate that.

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