If there is a media food chain, radio has probably plummeted just slightly above carrier pigeon and skywriting. But there was a golden age of radio and a golden age of radio commercials.
Surprisingly, there is a very small family tree for some of the funniest radio commercials ever created. It began with the incomparable Stan Freberg. “Who put those eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can.”
Freberg was a big inspiration to Alan Barzman. (The talent voice over for the first series of Energizer bunny commercials). Alan Barzman got together with Jim Kirby and won radio awards by the ton.
Bert Bertis, the Bert of Dick and Bert radio fame, left Dick to create Bert, Barz and Kirby. Dick Orkin soared on his own and created “Chicken Man” and the great Radio Ranch production company.
I had the incredibly good fortune of working with Bert, Jim and Alan. And I wrote and directed spots featuring Jim and Alan as talents for my old company Dog Eat Dog Radio.
Having these guys laugh at one of your spots was like winning the Clio. Actually, it was better. The late Jim Kirby was an inspiration and a mentor to me. His distinctive voice, impeccable timing and a well-honed sense of the absurd, elevated his work beyond the ordinary.
What great radio writers and performers know is that the true creativity is in the seemingly tiniest details. Here is a portion of conversation that Jim and I had about a radio spot for Toyota that I wrote.
“Jim, I heard back from legal and we can’t use the name Clement Spackle for our main character – apparently Spackle is a trademarked.”
“Too bad, it’s a funny name.”
“Well Jim, I’ll come up with something…”
“How’s this? D. David Drywall”
It’s hard to explain but David Drywall isn’t funny, but D. David is funny. It opens the question, what in heck does D stand for and why make it an initial?
The spots created by Bert Barz and Kirby are stylistically linked to the 80's and 90's -- broad comedy, character voices and an almost vaudeville sensibility. But I have always thought that the creativity behind them is timeless. People are still writing great radio spots today, but we don't see as many craftsmen -- people who eat, breath and live radio.
The big lesson I learned from Jim, Alan, Bert and Dick are that when it comes to creativity in radio, you need to work all tiny moments and effects to build a great spot.
1. Make it visual.
“I heard it on the radio” was one of the great radio promotion campaigns ever created. Radio has always been a theater of imagination. You don’t need a passport or a Sherpa to start a radio spot on the top of Mount Everest.” Just wind and chattering teeth.
2. Story matters.
One of the techniques that Radio Ranch uses is to begin generating ideas by telling stories. Let’s say, the assignment is selling baloney. You might begin by sharing your experience with baloney – no matter how mundane. For example, I was never a fan of baloney because I hated the hot dog. For me, it was a flattened hot dog.
Another person may tell a story of trying to trade a baloney sandwich for a PP&J.
Here is an example of a story progression. Nobody wants to trade baloney for a PP&J until they discover its Oscar Myer baloney. Now, you add a dose of the unexpected, it’s not children but executives who are trading lunches at a board meeting. Or maybe it’s the President’s cabinet.
If the story is rooting in common experience you can move it to the edge as long the as the essential story is the foundation.
3. Avoid the speed bump.
This is term that comedians use about pacing. Sometimes you have to cut a good bit or joke because it steps on another joke. In production, I will often add a few frames (micro bits of time) in between lines or jokes to give room for the line to breath and linger in the listener's ear.
4. Talent. Talent. Talent. (And, yes, Talent)
If you listen to the spots created by Bert, Barz and Kirby and Radio Ranch, you’ll find the same voices appearing over and over again. Edie McClurg, (Ferris Buellers Day Off) Tom Poston, Miriam Flynn, Gary Owens, Phil Hartman – and, of course, Orkin, Barz and Kirby.
I spent hours and hours listening to talent tapes – and getting to know the nuances that each talent could bring to a spot. Julie Basham Smith, my producer at The Martin Agency would often wince when I brought up using Danny Mann again. Danny could do virtually any voice – an elf, a sarcastic man on the street, a Ninja Turtle. He played Ferdy the duck in Babe, Pig in the City.
Another reason why radio writers/producers often go with the same talent is that you know what you’re getting before you enter the studio. You often only have a half hour with these talents (or less) and if a talent is working, you’ve blown a radio budget for the client.
5. Don’t write for the eye.
If you record and transcribe the way people really speak, it isn’t pretty. Ums. Ahs. Stepping on each other’s words. It’s generally ungrammatical. When you present radio to a client on paper, it will remind them of a print ad. So when they see “uh oh” or pre-planned interruptions, it appears odd on paper, but not in production.
6. Sell sparingly.
This is the most difficult challenge of all. In the 60-second spot you have a lot of landscape to create funny bits and include the sell. In 30-second spots, you have very little especially when you have to include a phone number or web site. Or worse, both.
For example, I once did a spot for Bank One (Also linked below) where the client asked to put the phone number in the spot five times. Strategically it makes good sense, but it turns up the difficulty factor in pulling off a spot that will be enjoyed.
That means we often have to go to a donut – or the area where the “announcer” does the sell. It screams to the audience “this is the serious part.” The great radio spots like the Budweiser frogs didn’t need it, but for cell service or a bank offering, it’s almost impossible not to use this format to convey information.
One of the big amateur mistakes in radio is what we call the all too knowledgeable consumer. It’s your next-door neighbor who knows that you can replace your windows for “just $49.95 plus tax and delivery charges.”
Sometimes you can't avoid having talent saying things that oversell the product -- in the case of the Toyota spot below -- I had to mention payload which triggered "X amount of people, cargo and equipment." If you have a limited budget adding an announcer in addition to talent is going to raise the cost of the production especially if it's a spot that plays nationally or in major city markets.
Below are some of the radio spots I created using Jim Kirby and Alan Barzman as talents. Thanks Jim, Alan, Bert and Dick for the schooling and inspiration.
Hardware Hour (Jim Kirby Talent/Marty Baker Writer/Producer (Click below to download)
More spots to be added.