How To Present Your Commercial Radio Announcements

IT is with considerable misgiving that the writer of this chapter undertakes to discuss the purpose, structure, and wording of the “commercial” announcements that are the beginning and the end—and in many advertisers’ eyes the entire meat—of the radio program.

For the commercial announcement is abused by everybody—by the advertiser who sponsors it, by the writer who conceives it, by the speaker who delivers it, by the listener who hears it—and it is not likely that any one person’s views will be accepted as the formula by which this vexing problem can be solved.

Each participant in the development and presentation of the announcements has his own private opinion, and it goes something like this:

The advertiser says he is paying good money, and a lot of it, to get the ear of the public. He feels he is entitled to wallop that ear and expect it to come back for more. If the ear shows cauliflower tendencies so that hearing is impaired after one wallop, he’ll just put more punch into the next one.

The radio man who is in the happy position of constructing sustaining programs which do not have to contain commercial announcements, says the ear won’t wait to be walloped—or at least won’t wait for wallop number two. It just goes away from there—quietly. Like the man whose only privilege is to walk out on a scolding woman.

The copywriter who is detailed to prepare copy for the announcements goes at the first one with faith and hope. He wants to make it a masterpiece, a little gem. To that end he chooses his words with thoughtful care both as to their meaning and their auricular effect. Fourteen-dollar words (as Floyd Gibbons calls them) are his meat. He writes and rewrites and reads his efforts aloud to any one in the office who will listen, holding a stop watch on himself the while.

And after he has written the six hundred and ninety-fourth announcement on the same old subject he goes out and finds him a pleasant grave among the valley-lilies. Or any place where there are no dictionaries, no thesaurus, no encyclopedias.

The speaker, and by that I mean the announcer or the character in the show to whose lot falls the delivery of the commercial announcements, merely grits his teeth and does his best to say his lines in the way that will suit everybody. The announcer or the actor is paid to do this, and in my radio experience I have found but two people—one an announcer and one an actor—who gave any out-ward evidence of hating the job, or rather my particular brand of commercial talk. But I have heard low mutterings and rumblings from them about commercial announcements in general. They think the public is fed up on them. They think the advertiser should entertain the public royally (at no expense to the public) and let it go at that. They think that anyway they could ad lib much better announcements, as they do on sustaining programs.

As for the public—well, what does the public think about the commercial announcements?

If we could divorce the commercial announcements from the entertainment features of the program, probably we could get a clear reaction from the public on their subject matter, style of delivery, etc. We could learn what the public wants to hear, and how best to tell them what they want to hear. But we cannot do that as most of the good stations will not accept product announcements alone in the best radio hours during the evening. Obviously this rule is made because the station or net-work management does not believe that the audience really cares to hear about the products, but only suffers commercial talk for the sake of hearing the entertainment offered by the sponsor.

Our understanding of the public attitude towards the announcements is clouded by two other facts. One is that some of the most popular and widely heard programs display the least taste in the wording and delivery of their announcements. The other is, that after a program has rolled up a big audience on its entertainment merits primarily, the advertiser begins to plug his commercial talk more frankly and the radio audience seems not to be offended—at least not to the extent of tuning out the program.

Let us try now to put ourselves in the place of the listening audience and consider the announcements from that position. The mass of listeners are people who live in a modest way in cities and towns and villages and on farms. They are people who work in stores and factories and offices; they are painters and plumbers and letter carriers and truck drivers and school-teachers and house-wives who do their own work; and boys and girls going to public schools. These are the mass of listeners because these represent the bulk of the population. These are the people who buy the general advertiser’s merchandise. They are the only people to be considered in building a radio program or the attendant announcements. No national advertiser of an ordinary commodity could live if he were to depend on the small group of people who represent his own class of buying power, sophistication, education, worldly experience.

The average radio listener has no chance to visit Broadway or the opera; he makes no trips to Europe, or to New York or Chicago; often he never expects to depart from his own immediate locality whether that locality is Allen Street in New York City or Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. His only entertainment, his only contact with broad general human experiences, his only chance to see the world and be taken out of his humdrum daily existence, is through the motion picture, the radio, through newspapers and magazines.

Of all these contacts which his mind and soul craves, only one is free to him. That one is radio. And radio entertainment comes to him free, we must remember, be-cause of the commercial sponsor, the advertiser who pays the bill.

Is it any wonder, then, that the first reaction of the radio listener to your program is one of gratitude—thanks to you for giving him so much? Or that he is tolerant of your commercial talk no matter how dull it is? Or that he goes out and purchases your merchandise because he thinks his purchase will help keep your program on the air?

In the early days of sponsored radio programs, the public used to send money to the sponsors—odd contributions of one dollar or five dollars or twenty cents in stamps. They sent it in payment for the program. The practice is dying out as the public has become more accustomed to sponsored programs, but the underlying feeling of gratitude is surely there. It is one of the big reasons why broadcast advertising is effective as a sales medium. Naturally, no advertiser would want consciously to destroy this receptive and responsive mood of many mil-lions of listeners (and customers).

That there is danger of destroying it is attested by the amount of criticism of commercial announcements that one hears on all sides. Yet the building of interesting announcements is not one half as difficult as the construction of new publication advertisements. For in the case of the former there are still many new ways to be tried while in the case of the latter almost every way has been tried.

As in planning any other form of advertising there are really only two basic principles on which to operate: (1) have something new to say and (2) say your old something in a new way.

The first one is easy. If the story is news all you have to do is to deliver it in an understandable voice and understandable language. The salesman’s tricks have no place in the delivery of such a story, and the audience won’t care two hoots whether the announcer thunders his words or croons them. Listen to this announcer :

“Here we are at Roosevelt Field. The crowds are milling around. Now they are craning their necks as the red and gold monoplane of Jones and Smith comes into view. The plane is circling the field. Perhaps you can hear the drone of the motors. It’s coming down to a neat three-point landing. It’s down. Now Jones is stepping out of the cockpit. There is Smith right behind him. The two world flyers are being carried on the shoulders of the crowd. . . .”

Simple words every one. There’s no need to use any others. The audience is intent only on what is being said, not on how it is being said.

It is not often that the advertiser has this kind of message to deliver. When he does, as for instance, in announcing a new product or a new feature of his service to the customer—he would do well to state the case clearly and simply, to take whatever time is needed from his pro-gram to tell his story adequately, and above all to stop talking when there is no more to be said. Abjurations to the audience to “remember, now, what we have told you” to “be sure you get our product because no other has this feature,” etc., take all the news value from your offering and bring the listener down to earth with a thudding reminder that after all you are just trying to “sell” him something, not to tell him some news that may be useful to him.

Usually, however, the advertiser has only an old story to relate. And so he must search for new story-telling devices in order that what he says may strike the listener as of fresh importance.

For novelty effect we used to rely on catchy jingles sung by tenors or maybe quartets or trios of male voices —jingles that went like this:

Spuds! Beets! Beans!

You get them at every grocery store,

If you don’t go early there aren’t any more.

You scrub them and salt them and cook them in pots, And when daddy sees them he cries “Why there’s lots Of Spuds! Beets! Beans!”

That was the nursery stage of radio announcements. We’re outgrowing it.

In fact, we are getting stronger and more adventurous every day in our handling of these all-imporant product stories. There are times, for example, when we have the modesty merely to say in a dignified manner: “We are about to present the XYZ Radio Recital.” Times when we have the grace to omit the commercial closing at the end of the program that winds up with the singing of the Doxology, times when we have the wit to let the hero who has just knocked the villain for a loop complete the advertising message quite simply by ordering around a tube of a “Vaseline” jelly for the victim’s wounds.

As a matter of fact, there is no particular reason why commercial announcements should be placed fore and aft of the program. That system was devised in the days when nearly every program was a musical ensemble. Now that so many programs are novelties of one sort or another,. the most effective advertising stories can often be incorporated somewhere else in the program or at least introduced in a manner that ties them to the program. There was a series of famous detective stories that were told over the coffee cups, the coffee of course being the sponsor’s product. Full details were given of how to make the coffee and of its delightful flavor. The scheme here was a good one and reasonably natural. Perhaps there was too little variation in what was said, but the manner of the telling was agreeable enough.

There is a one-man show advertising a variety of products chiefly appealing to children in which the product talk is part of the entertainment, to the extreme de-light of the child audience which loves its Uncle Don enough to like anything he says.

There is a series of small town sketches in which all the announcements—including the commercial talk—are handled by one or another of the town’s citizens speaking in character. Of them all, the audience loves best a young girl; there is some kind of magic in this girl’s personality that gets over. And yet they say the public dislikes women’s voices on the air. The audience hangs on her every word—and that is something to accomplish with commercial talk. They write her thousands of suggestions for uses for her product, or for ways to tell her product story. In other words, the audience actually likes the advertising. Yet analysis would show a good deal more product talk in this program than in almost any other you could name.

By contrast I think of another program for a detective story magazine in which the “Shadow” delivered a most interesting and amusing final admonition to the listener to get the magazine and learn more. And the whole effect of this clever ending was anticlimaxed by an ordinary commercial announcement which followed.

There is no one formula or procedure for constructing radio announcements. Every case is an individual one dependent on the nature of the program, the product, and the audience one wishes to reach. But there is a multitude of ways to present the product story, and the trend is distinctly towards incorporating more interest into it. Probably we would have gone a lot further in this direction if the times had been different. When the cold wind of adversity blows we scuttle quickly to the shelter of precedent.

We pull out the bag of old tricks. Contests, prizes, bonuses, big talk. Most of them are shabby and outmoded but we are familiar with them, we remember that they once worked, and we expect them to do equally well by us again.

All too rarely is the advertiser’s point of view as unself-conscious as that of the customer. He is partial to his product. He has put his whole life into it. He begins to consider it of more value to the customer than it really is. He begins to get impatient with the indifference of the public. So he raises his voice and shouts, or he uses too grandiloquent language, or he invents pseudo-scientific phrases that have no meaning to the customer’s simple ears. There was a famous publication campaign in advertising history in which one such phrase became the keynote. It got into the language to such an extent that there was a great scramble among the other advertisers to find something like it. But I’m sure the familiar human situations and the realistic pictures of people that were accompanying features of this campaign played a much bigger part in its success than the mere use of the word itself.

The most popular of all radio programs to-day owes its success to this same human quality. It is amusing, yes. But that is so much velvet. The real underlying reason why one can walk a full block’s distance each evening down any street in America, and never miss a word of this program, is because we have become so attached to these two simple souls that we follow their trials and tribulations with affectionate interest.

In mentioning the entertainment part of this program I am not departing from the subject in hand but only using it as an illustration of the point that man’s favorite subject is himself as demonstrated by his liking to hear the human experiences of others.

Radio is at its best in two fields—disseminating news and giving a very wide assortment of entertainment to suit all tastes. People who don’t care for radio under other circumstances will use it to get first-hand news of the prize fight, the great political conventions, or the results of the Kentucky Derby. Those who dislike Broad-way, or think the opera is old-fashioned, or consider the ordinary talking picture silly, or would not be found dead in a speakeasy, can still find something or other to amuse themselves on the radio. Even those who find books a bore and conversation a lost art will enjoy stories and other people’s chatter as it comes to them over the air.

And so, for the average advertised commodity, commercial announcements can be either newsy or entertaining with some degree of certainty that they will get a pleasant reception from the radio audience. Preaching and lecturing are forms of exposition that can well be left to more weighty subjects than chewing gum and soap chips; ballyhoo inspires more suspicion than confidence; good taste offends nobody; and as my parting shot for today—the opinion of the man in the street is worth two opinions in the board room.