The Radio Program As An Advertisement
( Originally Published 1932 )
MOST of the mistakes in radio are made because we fail to grasp the fundamental likenesses between radio and other forms of advertising.
The radio business is entirely too full of people who think that clever twists in radio programs are more important than basic advertising principles.
Commercial radio is just twelve years old. Network broadcasting is about half that age. In this time considerably over two million separate "radio advertisements" have been produced in the United States, either by advertising agencies, networks, stations, radio program bureaus, or directly by advertisers themselves.
With this background, we should have learned a good deal. We should know by now what makes the wheels go round. We should be able to tell which programs will sell goods. And along that line, I would like to predicate everything I am going to say on one simple definition. It is this: "Advertising is the business of helping you make more money." This is done by making more people buy more of your goods. In "advertising" I include not merely the preparation of advertisements, but proper counsel on product, packaging, price, personnel, finance, distribution and display. By "goods" I mean everything from baking powder to banking service.
I hope you and I can agree on that definition, because unless we do, we can't agree on much of anything.
Advertising is the business of helping you make more money. Not this afternoon, perhaps. But sooner or later.
Extend your calculations as far ahead as you like. Talk about your potentials and public relations and distributive mechanism if you want to. But if your advertising agency can't show you how to make more money with advertising than you can without it, you had better change to an agency that can.
Now all that seems pretty obvious. The only reason I've made such a point of it is the fact that there seems to be a great deal of persiflage, especially in the radio field, about this matter of "good will."
And you do hear people say, "Our sales are down, and we know this has been a good year for our competitors, but our radio program has built up a tremendous back-ground of good will."
A statement like that reminds me of the college man who says, "Our football team lost the game, but we out-played them every inch of the way," or the baseball coach who says, "I know we didn't make as many runs as they did, but we had more hits and less errors."
And now some one is going to object. "Good will," he will say, "is the basis of all sales." Not on your life! Not in any day and age where we don't even know the man who sells us our goods, let alone the one who makes them! Personal good will, perhaps. Corporate good will, never !
Ill will can hinder sales. A great corporation is right in spending good-sized sums to correct misunderstandings that may cost it money. And any company, small or large, can do worse things than to spend its advertising effort in making people understand why it is fair and reliable.
But I buy no tomatoes because they are canned by "a great and friendly company" . . . and neither do you. Still less do I buy them out of any sense of gratitude for an enjoyable radio program that the canner has put out. I buy them from a perfectly natural, perfectly sensible, desire to get the best tomatoes for the money . . . plump, firm, delicious tomatoes, properly canned, fairly priced, and sold at a store conveniently near at hand.
All of us act from self-interest, not from sentiment. We want to get the most for our money. Show a man how he can gain by using your product, and he will buy it.
That is basic in all advertising—you can't leave it out of radio!
And yet this lesson has not been thoroughly learned by radio men who have had no previous advertising training —and there are hundreds of them on the service staffs of networks, program-building organizations and stations. Even in agencies there are those who overlook this fundamental when radio comes around for discussion.
But all these people are learning fast. Most of them know by now that the commercial elements of a radio program must make a complete sale—just the way a salesman would do if he were selling books or brushes or aluminum from door to door, or from store to store.
That is literally true. Radio must sell, not ingratiate, its product. Radio must admit that people as a whole act mainly from self-interest.
And now you are going to ask, "Where is the self-interest in all these millions of letters of appreciation that are written in to program sponsors?" Millions of letters?? Yes. Letters of appreciation? No!!
The agency with which I am connected has just completed an analysis of something over a million letters received by clients.
There were some letters of appreciation, of course, and even a few who said they liked some program so much they bought the product advertised. But 93 per cent of all those letters were written for some selfish reason. A girl requested a picture of Rudy Vallee, a man wanted his favorite musical selection played during some hour, a woman asked for a recipe chart or a poem or a souvenir that had been offered during one of the pro-grams.
Most people are not grateful for radio programs. Why should they be? In an average year the American public pays for its radio (in sets, tubes, and parts) about ten times as much as advertisers pay for radio talent and station facilities. This public believes (and rightly so) that it has paid for its radio entertainment and is under no further obligation to the broadcaster.
In every other medium, products are sold on a business basis. Why not in radio?
Now, if we can accept that as the fundamental psychology of the program as an advertisement, we're ready to discuss the two main divisions of the program: the entertainment factors, and the commercial elements.
For the strategy of most good advertising programs is like that of the old medicine vendor. When he arrived at a town, the vendor let down the side or the back of his wagon. That was his stage. He put on a show—a real show—something that made the rustics gather 'round. And when he had a crowd assembled and gathered in close, he started his Special Saturday Sale of Dr. Danker's Snake Oil, good for man or beast.
Get the crowd around, and then sell your wares. Good radio is just as simple as that.
First, let's discuss the matter of getting the crowd around—the entertainment part of a radio program.
No conference on a radio advertising campaign is complete until some one says, "What this program needs is more showmanship."
Now all that is quite true, but not very definite. Saying that a program would be better if it had more showmanship is like saying a girl would be more attractive if she had more personality.
George H. Faulkner, himself an excellent radio show-man, has given us a very constructive definition of showmanship: "Showmanship," he says, "is a combination of unity, variety, pace and punch."
Let's just analyze that briefly. It holds good for any radio program from a one-minute recipe announcement to a full hour musical extravaganza.
Unity—something that hangs together and has a personality—a "flavor" of its own. A program that makes a show. A show that makes sense. Not just a lot of musical numbers laid end to end.
Variety—a matter of ups and downs—different tempos in musical numbers—or, in a talk, a quiet interlude after an exciting rhetorical climax.
Pace—something going on every minute. Faulkner describes it as the difference between an American revue and one in Paris, for the French have yet to learn that you can have a juggler performing in front of the curtain while you are striking the scene behind it. Musical arrangements, drama—even talks can have pace. But most of them don't.
Punch—this means climaxes—things that make you remember a show—high spots—real laughter and real tears.
Some radio programs have those things. Some never seem to get the spark. Showmanship is the theatrical touch, when that touch means magic, and not hokum. It is the unexpected, when the unexpected is pleasing, and not grotesque.
But showmen are born, not made. If you have an in-born sense of showmanship, you know all these things already, whether you have ever considered them in so many words or not. And if you are not a showman, the chances are that you never will be. You'll be lucky if you can even develop your sense of showmanship to a point where you can recognize this quality in others.
Almost as often as we hear the plea for "showmanship," we hear the frantic call for "ideas."
Radio ideas are usually far less fundamental than radio showmanship. Such superficial tricks as a catchy program name, the dramatization of a trade-mark, or a good commercial plug by way of a theme song are frequently hailed as outstanding achievements, while the use of an outstanding star or the production of a top-notch show are considered as program details.
Quite the opposite is true. A well-produced show, keyed to the tastes of the people who buy and sell any given product, is the fundamental of successful radio.
Now it is true that a program need not be stale and hackneyed. Originality always pays dividends. But proper execution of the show outweighs any other factor.
Each Tuesday afternoon in New York a speaker broadcasts for fifteen minutes. He speaks about a drug product. He started about four years ago. And sales of the product have been increasing steadily by the use of this (and no other) advertising.
For a long time now, the advertiser has had the same speaker, the same time, the same stations. And usually, at the end of each talk, the speaker makes the same offer —a free sample of the product he is advertising.
The only variable feature is the talk. Since all the other features are constant, it is assumed that a really well-written, top-notch talk will pull more replies than a moderately good one. No test is perfect, but this one is fairer than most.
As the program continued and built up its audience, these replies mounted from less than ten to more than a thousand.
Then the advertiser and his agency decided that they didn't need to test the talks any more. They kept on with the same kind of talks-the same policy, the same style, the same main points. A few new things crept in, and a few old ones were dropped out, but as far as any one could judge, the talks were just about the same.
And then something happened to the sales. There was a mysterious falling off of orders. Nobody quite under-stood what had happened.
The obvious thing to do was to test the talks again.
Come to think about it, they weren't quite as good as they had been, although the differences weren't apparent unless you scrutinized the continuity closely. But this link in the logic here wasn't quite as strong as it had been. And that sentence wasn't cast just right. All in all, the thing was being done perhaps 98 per cent as well as in the past.
So the talks were tested. And did the advertiser get 950 replies instead of a thousand? No, he got 106. A minor difference in the way the thing was done made a major difference in results.
The sequel to that story is that when the talks were strengthened again, the returns not only jumped back to normal, but to 43 per cent above the peak they had reached before. And now sales are following suit.
Do things well. That is the most important thing in radio.
If any one asks you, "Does the public like jazz or classical music or drama or talks?" here is your answer. The public likes them all. It will listen to any type of program. The most popular programs on the air do not fall into any one type of entertainment. They have only this in common. Each one is done supremely well.
At this writing, statistics show the three most popular programs on the air to be Amos 'n' Andy, the Chase & Sanborn Hour, and the Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. Very different but all well done. The next programs in popularity include one of dance music, one of light standard music, one drama, and one daily talk on current events. All different, but each of them the best of its kind.
What kind of programs do people want? They want any type of program you choose to present. But they want it done in the best possible way. They like any-thing but mediocrity.
Yet that is only half the story. Often an advertiser is after something more than mere numbers of people. He may be perfectly willing to sacrifice universal popularity if he can get large numbers of people who are over seventy, or under thirty people who own their own homes or people who are interested in dogs. His problem may concern the type of listeners rather than the number of them.
This throws added emphasis on what is done. But it does not relieve the advertiser of the necessity of doing it well.
Again, he may wish to choose between an entertainment program, used as a vehicle for selling, and what you could call an "all-selling" program.
If the entire period of the broadcast is to be spent talking about the product, the advertiser must content himself with a comparatively small audience, but he will have a chance to sell a much higher percentage of his listeners. Very often he elects to sell harder—to a smaller audience. This is the case with talks on domestic science, health and beauty.
A few advertisers are so fortunate as to be able to make their product the theme of their entire hour, and still to provide superlative entertainment. Magazines, whose stories can actually be "sampled" over the air, are a splendid example. Motion picture companies and owners of theater chains have a similar advantage, as do travel companies and the makers of phonograph records. Also a few—a very few—advertisers have succeeded in making their product or service the subject of really entertaining talks of considerable length, in the course of their program. But this combination of a large audience and intensive selling is often full of pitfalls.
Some advertisers have tried to accomplish this result by establishing an artificial relationship between their product and their radio entertainment. Some of them are successful, but most of the evidence points to the fact that their audience was gathered by a good show, and sales made after the manner of the medicine vendor—in the straight commercials—not in their sly references to the product or trade-mark.
Other advertisers who have tried to get entertainment and selling into double harness haven't been so successful. Many "clever" programs have failed miserably. And their sponsors are surprised and just a little hurt because programs which aren't half as ingenious as theirs—programs which don't even make the first tenor impersonate the trade-mark—in fact, programs which are nothing more than a good show—perfectly performed—are selling carloads of goods.
All these are factors worth weighing. And every radio advertiser may well ask himself what sort of program-bait will attract the logical prospects for his products. And his advertising agency, if it has any reasonable laboratory of experience, should be able to answer him pretty accurately.
Most large agencies do have such a laboratory. Out of it they can give intelligent counsel on program policy, as well as on the percentage of appropriation that can profitably be put into radio advertising, the wisdom of seasonal campaigns as against year-round effort, the pros and cons of chain and spot broadcasting.
And in almost every case you will find that their answer tallies with plain, everyday,, advertising common sense. Other factors being equal, the program which stands the best chance of success is the one whose entertainment elements most nearly approach the function of successful advertising media—whose copy policies approximate those of successful campaigns projected for the product in other forms of advertising.
For radio must learn its lessons from the salesman and the showman, and from successful advertising in other media.
Let me repeat. Most of the mistakes in radio are made because we fail to grasp the fundamental likenesses between radio and other forms of advertising.
Next to that, the most common mistake is to miss the minor differences between radio and some more familiar medium.
One of the greatest of American comedians was making his first appearance before the microphone. He told the jokes that went so well before his audiences, and they proved equally effective over the air. His famous routines were projected into countless homes, and people who had never even seen him on the stage enjoyed his work and pronounced him a great radio artist.
But just as he was finishing his performance he went into a whirlwind routine of pantomime that would have had any theater audience convulsed with laughter. He pretended he had lost something. With droll facial contortions he felt through all his pockets for the missing object. But he didn't make a sound!
It looked so funny in the studio that it was half a minute before the program director realized that it wasn't going over the air. And in that half minute thousands of dials were turned away from the program. "What happened?" people asked. Something very serious had happened. A great stage artist had momentarily forgotten the difference between the theater and the air.
That is, of course, an extreme case. And yet, every day, we are asked to transfer a routine from the show business—a phrase from printed advertising—to radio—and all too often it is a routine or phrase that loses its kick by being transplanted to the air.
Let's consider that carefully. How about the technic of the stage and concert hall? How much of this must be discarded when radio is used? Where can radio follow the beaten trail, and where must we blaze the way? In the matter of studio set-ups, and microphone technic, radio had its precedent in phonograph recording, and now has its parallel in motion pictures with sound. But in many of its phases radio has no precedent at all.
In dramatic presentations you must do without such "dramatic essentials" as curtain, scenery and costumes. In their place, radio has developed conventions of its own. They are familiar to all radio listeners. A phrase of music changes the scene and time . . . it takes the place of a curtain. Often it sets the mood.
This is an excellent example of "adapting for radio." What is the idea behind it? Let me give you an analogy.
A successful motion picture producer, in adapting a play from the legitimate theater, will hardly set up his cameras in front of the footlights of the stage, and photo-graph the play as it is produced there.
He realizes that motion pictures must face certain limitations which are not imposed on the stage. He knows that his medium has certain advantages which the stage does not enjoy. His object is to use his advantages to the full, and to avoid any situation where his limitations would be apparent.
A successful radio producer takes the same attitude. He knows that he has to do without visual aids. He knows that microphones can carry only so many combinations of frequencies. He knows that all visual effects, as such, must be sacrificed. But he also knows that he can create an illusion here, a new effect there .. . that he can gain two points for every one he must lose.
Dialogue assumes even greater importance. It must carry the whole load of establishing places, relationships, even costumes.
Sound effects are interesting, too. Two men exploring a hotel room turn on the bath shower by mistake. A handful of salt dropped on a newspaper gives the exact effect of the shower over the air, while dialogue helps the listener to establish the sound. Trains, crowded ballrooms, ships at sea, galloping horses and all the rest have their counterparts in radio sound effects. And good continuity men know which effects are practical—which are most effective—and whether any given effect will call for extra men, equipment, or expense.
Music—dialogue—sound effects—the radio dramatist must use them all with telling effect—to compensate for visual effects that he has lost.
Similarly, the man who writes the commercial elements of the program must dodge the things that limit him and use the weapons that enlarge his powers. Advertising agencies are accustomed to advertisements with pictures and punctuation, with many sizes of type—perhaps with color. We lose all these in radio. And we must create an advertisement which sidesteps these handicaps and takes full advantage of its best card—the living, dynamic quality of the human voice.
The entertainment part of the program can be used to take the place of a printed illustration in a certain sense. It can attract attention to the program and to the commercial matter it contains. But in so far as the picture diagrams a point, in so far as it explains a product, or enables you to recognize it when next you see it at the store—the radio writer has lost a valuable aid.
Let's consider some of the other aids a radio continuity writer lacks. Can he get along without punctuation? Or, rather, can the punctuation he writes on the announcer's script establish itself in the listeners' minds?
Often it cannot. Suppose, in reading a script, an announcer came to something like this:
". . Dr. Josef Sorgo, Primarius of the famous Ranier Hospital in Vienna, has given us some very valuable advice on this matter. Dr. Sorgo is considered one of the half-dozen greatest physicians in Austria today.
"Fresh yeast has been used for a long time to correct disorders of the digestive system,' Dr. Sorgo says. `Fresh yeast is a food. Unlike violent drugs, it acts naturally and gently. Thus, by keeping the system free from poisons, fresh yeast increases resistance to colds and other infections.'
"Isn't that sensible advice? Fresh yeast removes the cause of trouble. Start eating Fleischmann's Yeast to-day. Get it at grocers, restaurants, soda fountains."
On the printed page, that is all very clear. When you read it, with the aid of its punctuation, you know just what Dr. Sorgo said, and just how much is said by the makers of Fleischmann's Yeast. But read those words aloud, just as they stand. Read them to some one who can't see the punctuation marks. Your listener won't be so clear as to the authors of the various parts of the copy. And since it is quite important that this distinction be clearly drawn, the radio writer does something like this :
". . Dr. Josef Sorgo, Primarius of the. famous Ranier Hospital in Vienna, has given us some very valuable advice on this matter. Dr. Sorgo is considered one of the half-dozen greatest physicians in Austria. Let me read you his own words. [Pause]
" `Fresh yeast,' says Dr. Sorgo, `has been used for a long time to correct disorders of the digestive system. . . . Fresh yeast is a food. Unlike violent drugs, it acts naturally and gently. Thus, by keeping the system free from poisons, fresh yeast increases resistance to colds and other infections.' [Pause]
"That's Dr. Sorgo's advice. It's simple—and sensible, isn't it? Fresh yeast removes the cause of trouble.
"So start eating Fleischmann's Yeast at once. You can get it at grocers, at soda fountains, and at restaurants."
Reading that aloud, you have the radio equivalent of punctuation. The fact that you have no type sizes, head-lines, or captions, is another real difficulty in radio. In publication advertising, important things go in headlines, secondary things go in body type, and the captions take care of the minor addenda. You don't realize how much can be done with type until you have to get along without it.
But not in radio. Barring a little additional emphasis than an announcer can give one thing or another, every word gets the same weight. If you want to give a point additional importance, you have to use more words to say it, or say it more times. To keep little things from clouding your main idea, you have to boil them down, or strip them away entirely.
And even if you have the right words and the right punctuation, you have to write your script in such a way that an announcer can't possibly give it the wrong meaning.
Last year an agency was preparing a recorded program for an inexpensive tire. In preparing his continuity, the writer looked over the printed advertising, and saw this phrase: "A tire costs much less than you would expect to pay for a good tire." That sounded effective, so he put it in the script.
It was meant to be read: "... less than you would expect to pay for a good tire." But the announcer read it, ". . . less than you would expect to pay for a good tire." The continuity man, formerly a writer of printed advertising, forgot that he was dealing with a new problem. He had given the announcer a chance to go wrong.
Visual aids are not the only weapon you lose in trans-posing printed advertising into radio. A reader can pore over a printed advertisement until he knows everything it contains. But in radio advertisement, he has to catch what he can in the time it is on the air.
So radio writers must meet the problem of the fleeting impression.
In silent motion pictures it was always standard practice to show each subtitle long enough so that even the . slowest mind in the audience would get time to grasp it. Not only did title writers have to create copy that everyone could understand, but it had to be on the screen long enough for every one to get its meaning.
The converse of this task faces the continuity writer. He must make his point so clearly that every one can catch it in the time it takes to say it. He must avoid quick transitions, complex ideas, or concepts which the listener cannot grasp as the words fly by.
Some excellent radio writers believe that you should not express an idea on the radio which is more complicated than one you would use on a billboard. That may be something of an overstatement. But certainly it is safe to say that a writer is wise if he keeps his logic running in a straight line. He will do well to make his strongest point three times, instead of covering his main point once and embroidering it with minor considerations.
Because the fleeting impression is the essence of radio, it becomes especially important to strip away nonessentials for the sake of leaving one main thought, vividly expressed.
As you know, every word a radio announcer says is written on a continuity. An announcer's voice merely takes the place of type. Even though the words on the continuity may seem grammatically incorrect . . . even though the announcer thinks he sees a mistake . . . he has orders to read the words as they are written on his master copy of the continuity. He is at the mercy of the continuity man.
One of the most common mistakes of new radio writers is in giving the announcer long involved sentences. Obviously, an announcer must have opportunities to breathe as he reads the script. He must have sentence breaks and pauses to allow him to proceed naturally and effectively. He must have words that are comfortable to say.
A good continuity man will "write to his announcer." Like an actor in a play, an announcer suffers when he is given a part that is out of character. Listeners realize, either consciously or not, when an announcer is saying something that does not sound sincere and spontaneous.
"Tongue twisters" are always out of place, of course, but even innocent-looking words may prove hard to say. Combinations of words like "bad driving" . . . one word ending with the same sound that begins the next .. . may easily make trouble for an announcer. Most good radio writers make sure that no possible slip can creep in, by reading each continuity aloud before it is sent to the station for broadcasting.
Most radio men are familiar with the censorship restrictions imposed by networks or stations. Usually a writer's own good taste is assurance that he will violate very few of the rules. Many of these regulations are based on the simple fact that programs are heard by entire families—both sexes and all ages—and have none of the privacy of the printed page.
Few legitimate advertisers have any real quarrel with the matter of radio censorship. Good advertisers are glad of the fact that stations and networks will ban words, phrases, policies and even whole accounts—simply because they do not conform to certain standards of good taste or business ethics.
But in addition to these obviously fair restrictions, there are a few with which advertisers are not entirely in agreement. Some of these rules are made to keep the medium from becoming "too commercial." Such regulations are, of course, opposed by the advertiser and his agency because they weaken the selling message. Net-works reply that if every one shouts too loudly, no one is heard. Agencies say they can shout elsewhere, so why can't they shout on radio? And so on, far into the night.
Other rules have their roots in everything from public morals to fantastic personal whims.
The point, however, is that seasoned continuity writers save a good deal of time and temper because they know these rules, know in advance when they must be followed, and when they can be broken with impunity.
Continuity, as well as program, must have showman-ship. Even a one-minute talk may have suspense. Even a short announcement of a musical number may help to set the tempo of a program. And, of course, properly written continuities provide such essentials as proper cues for musical numbers, dramatic interludes, station breaks, and other program requirements.
A continuity writer, preparing a key radio script, will usually take the ideas used in the printed advertising. He will study the approach, the way the "sale" is made on the printed page.
Knowing what his show will be, he keys his continuity to the tempo of the program . . . and to the people he is trying to reach. He will take the sales approach of the printed page, and handle it with radio technic.
Incidentally, he won't forget the dealer and the salesmen. Especially on evening programs a radio writer knows that he is wielding a double-edged sword. Because radio is comparatively new, and still a little mysterious, because of the remarkable results reported by some advertisers, dealers and salesmen have come to place a great deal of faith in this medium. And so, be-sides writing for the consumer, the talent, the announcer, and the show as a whole, a good radio man keeps a weather eye on the trade.
Radio changes fast.
An excellent handbook for writers was prepared some six years ago. One chapter of it . . . a very well-written chapter, was devoted to "the radio play."
One of the author's closing remarks is quoted here: "One type of [radio] play, however, that should never be used, is the dialect play. It is difficult enough to follow the action of the play, listen for effects and hear the regular English lines being spoken, without having to decipher dialects, however well done."
"Amos 'n' Andy," the Stebbins boys, the Goldbergs and dozens of others can certainly smile at those remarks. They might have been right in 1926, but they were wrong in 1927. These artists can tell that from their bank books.
And before the ink that prints this chapter is dry, there will be something here that is just as wrong—and just as amusing.