LOS ANGELES — Use the word “creative” in a radio context and the first thing generally summoned up is a programmer spinning a different take on a music format, or as an application to that extremely rare, exceptional on-air personality who is capable of generating substantial buzz.
Infrequently though is it linked in a word-association game to commercials, which is not only distressing, but highly unfortunate since creative commercial content can be a strong attribute.
Not What It Appears
It hardly went unnoticed last Tuesday (7/9) that a genuine radio hall-of-famer celebrated his 79th birthday. As much as anyone else in recent memory, Dick Orkin has been responsible for developing/voicing some of radio’s most brilliant commercials. They are ones listeners have actually wanted to hear – almost like anticipating a favorite song.
Countless partisans are attracted to and they fondly appreciate Orkin’s enormously entertaining style, which is more likely to be regarded as programming content because he makes “a conscious effort to not make it appear as a commercial.”
Founder of Los Angeles-based The Famous Radio Ranch, Orkin’s initial incursion into advertiser spot making was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The holder of a Phillips Graduate Institute Masters degree in Clinical Psychology opted to recount home and life experiences by telling stories about his colorful – and what he describes as an – “odd” family. It eventuated in “providing excellent fodder” for doing the commercials.
Borrowing from personalities and vocal styles of people he knew, Orkin, revered for the hilarious “Chickenman” and “The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy,” made a natural evolvement to creating silly voices, which would eventually prove to be one of his distinctive trademarks.
Via that kind of openness emerged the cast of characters Orkin used for his commercials, and infusing humor led him to create positively memorable spots. “We saw no reason not to use it and were interested in giving listeners some ‘feeling’ about the product or service, rather than a literal understanding of that product or service’s function,” he commented in a recent conversation. “Dramatizing our spots with humor appealed to me. An important phrase is that the product or service will be useful, or relevant to your life.”
Undeniable “genius” is evident in Orkin’s commercial pacing, intonation, and sensibility.
Such verbiage triggers thoughts to one of radio’s most outstanding campaigns, Bud Light’s “Real Men of Genius.”
Created in 1998 as “Real American Heroes” by DDB, Chicago copywriter Bob Winter, the original dozen spots in that highly humorous series grew to 200-plus; Bud Light parent Anheuser-Busch reportedly spent nearly $40 million per year in its “Real Men of Genius” and “Real American Heroes” radio budget.
To say the spots had a rabid cult following is putting it mildly as collecting the full set of these ads became commonplace.
Celebrity endorsements are plentiful and we could provide a laundry list of well-known industry names lending their tones to products.
Certainly topping that latter heading would be the marvelously gifted Dick Summer, whose unique – often times playfully enticing but consistently unforgettable – style graced music radio at elite stations such as New York’s WNBC-AM, and Boston’s WBZ-AM (among others).
Fortunate, selected clients – particularly Binder & Binder – receive Summer’s famous personal “Loving Touch.”
Solving Specific Requirements
Last August though, Cumulus Media unveiled Sound Solutions, an in-house production department, headquartered at the company’s network operation in Dallas.
Customized production is offered to the radio group’s owned-and-operated properties, with executive vice president/chief operating officer Jon Pinch commenting, “It is very helpful for sellers. If one of our salespeople wants to take a spec spot to a client, they can look in the library and see if they can re-create it for their particular market. They can also customize it to answer a specific need.”
They accomplish that by filling out a questionnaire, which is then forwarded to production manager Robin Marshall. “Her people will create something for that need,” Pinch remarks. “If a client wants a foreign-sounding voice, we can find that and we can do the same if a client needs someone who sounds like a cowboy. It utilizes all the resources we have and is a central clearinghouse for fabulous creative.”
One-Person Operation Expands
Possessing one of the industry’s most impressive, jaw-dropping work histories, Marshall was brought onboard for her exemplary writing and voicing qualifications, but the company really did not know very much about her production skills. “Quite honestly, neither did I,” she candidly admits. “Created by a woman in a man’s world, this startup was designed to be a not-for-profit tool to aid salespeople.”
Genesis of the new venture however coincided with a difficult, trying time in Marshall’s personal life, as her father – also possessing a radio background – just passed away and Robin was desperately trying to ascertain which direction to go in her life. “I had just moved my kids from New York City to the Carolinas, so I didn’t want to uproot them again for a job I wasn’t sure I could handle,” the former on-air personality at CBS Radio-owned hot AC WWFS, New York “Fresh102.7″ explains.
After asking production directors to send her 10 of their best spots, Marshall – then serving as the entire division, including the clerical aspect – entered the collected material into a database.
Only those within Cumulus knew Sound Solutions existed, so Marshall selected spots for random categories. “After we had about 1,000 spots in the library, we hired my production assistant, Larry Thompson, who is the male version of me – this division would not be as close to stellar without him,” she asserts of Thompson, who for many years with his wife Susan, fronted well-known Dallas jingle company Thompson Creative. “That was when Jon [Pinch] opened the doors and all hell broke loose. It was just unreal.”
A Pittsburgh-based writer was hired and a fourth, Michelle Strum, is in the mix as well. Moreover, Marshall’s administrative assistant – Ashley Butts – writes and does voices. “They are the core, and then we can reach out to our fellow Cumulus family if we need extra voices,” states Marshall, who for three years (2004 – 2007) was an on-air/imaging talent for Emmis smooth jazz WQCD, New York. “As things grew, I began interacting and building a rapport with the Cumulus account executives. [The more than 600 AEs] are now like my children and I can yell at them when there are revisions.”
Wonder Woman Bolsters Female Presence
In less than a year, the Sound Solutions database library has ballooned to approximately 6,000 spots – with scripts to match. On a daily basis, Marshall applies her warm and friendly tones to at least half of the voicing. “We just did a back-to-school campaign and I think it’s the best thing we’ve done so far,” she proclaims. “Everyone in the Cumulus family thinks we are this big organization, but when we can’t get something turned around the same day, I have to explain that I left my [superhero] cape in the closet. We can usually get things done in three days. If a spot is already written though, I can get it done the same day because all we need is the voice and production.”
Instructions that Marshall provides her team are straightforward and elementary. “They are never to write anything that doesn’t have humor, sex, or is not compelling,” she flatly states. “Those are the key points that people listen for. Everyone loves to smile, to laugh, and to have [his or her] heartstrings tugged. A spot has to be enticing in some way, shape, or form.”
Regardless if someone does an-air shift or production, one-on-one communication is critically important. “I don’t like to use the word ‘we,’ or talk to a bunch of people,” Marshall points out. “The person on the other end should think you are talking to them – not at them.”
At first blush, it would seem that an operation such as Sound Solutions would eliminate many production director jobs. “That is what I thought when I first came in,” Marshall concurs. “I was nervous about that because I didn’t want to feel as if I were wiping out 75 jobs.”
Instead though, the intention is that her division complements those at the local level, especially since some Cumulus markets do not have production directors. “We are there to help them,” Marshall explains. “We are not here to take away from – but to add to. On top of that, many smaller market stations only have one woman they can use, so I am an additional female voice.”
Recording spec spots with the objective of bringing in new business is Sound Solutions’ fundamental purpose. “Anything I create is an imaginary spot for an AE to take [to a prospective advertiser] and say, ‘Hey – you can sound like this on the radio,'” Marshall states. “We will occasionally turn around a sour account. It is only here to help other people, so it’s one of the few positive things I have seen lately in radio.”
Notwithstanding the present trend is for more 30-second and 15-second spots, Marshall has always, “believed in subliminal seduction. Something about five seconds between songs works like a charm. It eliminates long stop-sets and I think it is the way to go.”
Given that Marshall, who in the mid-1980s, identified herself as Chelsea Lewis on New York City’s WQHT “Hot 97″ while simultaneously known as Robin Marshall on WPIX, no longer has to deal with the clerical part of the operation, she has more time to focus on elements she enjoys. “I was using the creative and non-creative side of my brain just to get through the day,” she recounts. “I was building it; trying to organize it; tagging; writing; producing; and voicing.”
It was overwhelming, but now Marshall feels like she can breathe. “[Administrative assistant Ashley Butts] takes care of the organizational aspect for me and takes a lot off my shoulders. It allows me to have more creativity. I never get tired of the creative part and I love doing production, which is like a puzzle. I firmly believe in theater-of-the-mind and that radio spots should [be equivalent] to Super Bowl commercials. I wanted to take a crack at keeping people tuned in for stop sets, as much as for the music.”
Not surprisingly, automotive and medical are among the leading spec spot categories, but Marshall finds another genre especially fascinating. “Adult-oriented commercials are a riot – they are done very tastefully, not cheesy,” she emphasizes. “They frequently require a ‘sexy’ voice and the fun part is trying to make it so it is not offensive to female listeners. Home improvement is another tremendous category.”
Meticulously monitoring day-to-day Sound Solutions activities, the former lead singer of rock band Entourage/Marshall Arts Communications president confidently maintains, “This division is kicking ass. I am an entrepreneur and I would get excited to see businesses that I started grow – I love that feeling. I am very proud of what we have done here. It is such a joy to watch people want to come to work.”
Taught how to use Adobe Audition by one of her friends, Marshall concedes she is “shocked” at her latest career twist. “I had no idea and still have no idea – I do everything by ear,” the president of female-targeted “Jayne-FM” contends. “I might not know what something really means – I just know how to do it. While I was on the air in New York City, I learned how to do production because I could not afford to pay someone to do it for me. That was a good platform to bring me here. I was not as good when I started [at Sound Solutions about one year ago]. I’m 10 times better because I have been hands-on and I am very grateful for that.”
With more than 500 radio stations in 110 markets included in its corporate portfolio, Cumulus has found that an undertaking such as Sound Solutions is tremendously worthwhile to its account executives. “We have always realized that creative is an important aspect of the success of any ad campaign on radio,” Pinch acknowledges. “Better creative will lead to better results, so putting a little muscle into the creative side of our ad campaigns makes total sense.”
As Pinch jokes, there is, “no gun to anyone’s head at a Cumulus station” to use Sound Solutions, particularly since the company’s properties in markets such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have their own in-house production facilities.
Extremely pleased with the progress of the format agnostic division, Pinch declares there have been many success stories. “Clients have been thrilled with the messages Robin and her team have created. It is a real advantage for our sellers to walk into a prospective client with a piece of creative in the form of a professional grade, spec spot. Agencies have their own creative departments, so ads that we create are for local, direct clients. Top ad-spending categories are the ones we talk to the most. Consequently, we create the most ad campaigns for them.”
Business in general, Pinch opines, seems to be a bit on the uptick. “Overall, though, it is a fairly stagnant economy,” he comments. “We are certainly affected by the macro economy as much as anyone else is.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief for TALKERS magazine. He can be reached at 818-985-0244 or emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com.