Radio Dazed. Why I can’t stand advertising on the radio.

October 22, 2008

“Do you hate this as much as I do?”

I loathe radio advertising. As a teenager, vainly reluctant to turn the dial from my favorite station (The Loop), instead enduring the echoing screams from SMOKING U.S. DIRTY DRAGSTRIP. SMOKING! SMOKING! SMOKING! As a man, navigating between sports and talk, desperately trying to avoid the hard-up pitches for sexual enhancement.

Radio is like ditch weed. It makes you wince and gives you a headache. It’s cheap.

I know this sounds like sacrilege, coming from a copywriter. Believe me, I’ve heard the defenses. Radio is theater of the mind. It’s voices only we control. Pure prose. Copywriters are supposed to love the medium because it’s our words and little else. No art direction. No stage direction. No client interaction. But I don’t care; I hate it.

Start with the volume. Every spot seems to shout its message from the top of a radio tower. LOW INTEREST MORTGAGES! INTENSE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE! REAL MEN OF GENIUS! Yes, even the arguably brilliant Bud Light campaign resorts to loudness. It has to. It’s radio.

And the clichés. Knock. Knock. “Who’s there?” I know -a dumb ass character in a radio commercial. You’d think every conversation in the world took place on one’s doorstep. Why? Because it sets the stage damn fast: two people, with one having to state his or her cause. Plus doorbells and knocking are easy to create and recognize. And what about all the shrinks? “Tell me about your dreams,” starts the spot. The remaining character (patient) is then given a soapbox to rant and rave, a necessary evil when exposition is critical.

While TV commercials are guilty as well, nowhere are the STUPID HUSBAND and NAGGING WIFE more apparent than on radio. We know these people from their voices alone. The man is a clueless dope. The woman is a whiny bitch. Sometimes they make up and then we get my favorite cliché: using words no one ever uses anymore. When was the last time you called your wife “honey?” Certainly not in a conversation about reliable pain relief.

Writing radio has its charms. The author goes it alone, which has a certain poetic machismo. But it’s not worth the result, which is almost always terrible. I’ve written plenty of radio campaigns. So far I have liked only one of them: a series for featuring Peter Graves in his iconic “Biography” character. It was cute. The rest all sucked.

Radio doesn’t have a foothold anywhere in popular culture. No one talks about radio commercials around the water cooler. Not even ad people. Radio doesn’t have a forum like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl.

Speaking of accolades, without exception, radio is the category NOBODY wants to judge at awards shows. Talk about purgatory. You’re in a room, staring at the walls, and expected to listen. And listen, and listen and listen. By the 15th commercial I’m ready to shove chopsticks in my ears. Unlike pizza (even when it’s bad it’s good), radio is the whine of a mosquito.

Look, I’ve chuckled at the occasional spot. I just don’t think those rare exceptions are worth the vast, remaining blitzkrieg. Do you?


18 Responses to “Radio Dazed. Why I can’t stand advertising on the radio.”

  1. Andy Webb said

    All advertising broadcast to the masses is going to turn off or bore 97% of those it is inflicted upon. That’s why God invented the index finger, preset button and remote control.

    On the radio, only the Real Men Of Genius spots deserve a listen because their humor/entertainment portions are so generous. The product message is so seamless and quick that is goes down smooth without objection.

    BTW, your blog is most excellent, Steffan.

  2. SRP said

    I like the line about “goes down smooth” Andy.
    And thanks for the props.

    PS: Do you remember when “Real Men of Genius” was “Great American Heroes?” They had to change over on account of 9/11.

  3. Jason Fox said

    I’m torn by radio ads. Most suck. Hard. Especially the ones on talk radio. If I hear about Ty Coughlin’s 50k-a-month webscam one more time, well, I won’t — I flip over to my iPod. And the ratio of good ads to junk is even worse on radio than TV.

    But great radio is great stuff. I dig it. I have all the Radio Mercury reels from 1996 on in my iTunes library. Of course, I love Real Men of Genius (and I do remember when that switched from GAH after 9/11). And if you don’t know what I mean when I implore you to kick fire ant butt, then you’ve missed out on a truly stellar campaign.

    As a writer, radio is a challenge I embrace. To create a spot that will actually get people to listen to it when it’s surrounded by mountains of auditory crap is an accomplishment to write home about. (Because mom likes that kind of thing.) And when you have people quote bits of your spots back to you, you know you’ve done your job. And done it well.

    Sure, I’d rather be on shoot in Santa Monica, but I don’t mind sitting a dark audio suite directing Jim Cummings over ISDN either.


    P.S., If anyone wants a bunch of Real Men of Genius spots, you can find over 100 here:

  4. Voice of Reason said

    As a kid, I used to love the upcoming concert and new album commercials that predominated FM radio. Not so much of that anymore. Guess it all went to the web.

  5. I love doing radio ads. For a few reasons. The first is that you’re right. It sucks. A lot. But that also makes it very easy to break through with something decent. I like creating characters, writing dialogue, directing talent.

    Plus, radio is the medium with one of the few awards shows that has something real attached to is honors…. $100,000.

    Honestly, I wish I could do more.

  6. SRP said

    More power to you, Ronan. Seriously… I’m glad you’re out there at least trying to do good radio. But I stand behind my statement: 99.5% of it blows.

  7. Jason Fox said

    99.5% blows? That’s still a better percentage than direct mail.

  8. SRP said

    Yes, Jason but Direct Mail does not interfere with my scores and highlights.

  9. Jason Fox said

    I see you’ve never been asked to take out the recycling – which is mainly
    DM – in the middle of SportsCenter. Thank God for the DVR.

  10. SRP said

    Touche’, Jason, Touche’

  11. I like radio because I love a challenge. Yes, every creative assignment provides a challenge, though radio assuredly offers more than most.

    I’ve worked on very little radio, and have admittedly not produced a spot that i consider to be among the best work in my career.

    But I love being told by the account staff “This just needs to be down and dirty” and “Don’t try to be too creative with this.” And then coming up with something that exceeds expectations, pleases my CD, and delights the client.

    Of course that excites me on every project I work on, not just radio. I think Luke Sullivan said something about how success in advertising is all about hitting curveballs.

  12. SP,
    Check out Bert is still the master. He and Dick Orkin were an incredible team. Remember Chickenman? I loved working with Bert and Alan Barzman and Jim Kirby back in my old Leo Burnett days. But you’re right, radio is the lost medium. It sucks worse than direct, if that’s possible. But every now and then, I hear a good one and wish I’d written it…but those are few and far between. Great column today.
    PS..You’re right about the awards shows. Wanna see a bunch of creatives scatter like cockroaches when the lights come on, just mention radio.

  13. Pete said

    You can’t listen to this radio spot and then tell me you hate radio, just not possible.

    [audio src="" /]

  14. samich said

    It’s true that most of it blows, and it’s a tragedy of wasted potential. But truly creative people I think enjoy crafting radio. If judges scatter when it’s time to judge radio, I think it says more about the judges than it does the medium.

  15. Steffan,
    I love the post. As a radio advertising guy there are times I just want to call up the client and ask “do you really think this is good????” 🙂 But, as you know it’s all about the sales. There are some terrible radio ads out there that are generating tremendous sales for the client. Go figure.

    M. Bruce Abbott
    Creative Director/Partner
    Radio Lounge

  16. scott said

    Radio people spend too much time thinking about radio. A great sounding creative spot is just that. If it’s not moving someone’s product, who cares how great it sounds.

  17. Selling is the ultimate goal of advertising. Great ads are ones that sell. Oftentimes entertaining ads don’t elicit a sale. We have found that humor does not make the phone ring. I enjoy entertaining ads as much as anyone, but I’ll leave those to the brand advertisers.

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