Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Back when radio was fun...

Terrestrial radio is doing everything it can to kill their industry. All syndicated shows, eighteen minutes of commercials an hour (or more), informercials on the weekend, everything on the cheap.

Podcasts are growing. Yes, they don’t have the reach of terrestrial radio – YET. But they will.

And a big reason? They’re communicating. They are hosted by people who are talking right to you. Listening to a few of these podcasts, I'm reminded of something else that was great and now abandoned by terrestrial radio.

The live-read.

The live-read is a commercial but read aloud by the show host or (back in the day) the disc jockey. It’s not produced. If there are commercials in podcasts they’re usually live-reads. Who has the time, money, and studio facilities to produce spots when the host can just read the copy?

And here’s what great about live copy: If the host can goof around a little with the copy and make it entertaining the commercial suddenly becomes programming. What’s the biggest gripe listeners have about radio? Too many commercials. Live-reads can turn a negative into a positive.

New York listeners of a certain age certainly remember Dan Ingram on WABC. Or the Real Don Steele in Los Angeles on KHJ. They always managed to slip in some irreverent quip or gentle dig that made the live-read commercial hilarious. When you can program a radio station where listeners look forward to the commercials you are really doing something.  Today I can only think of Howard Stern who still sometimes gets to read live spots.  

And ad libbing around live copy doesn’t have to be funny. People are mesmerized by a good salesman. Again, I have to go back to another era (since no one today is doing it) to Paul Harvey and Arthur Godfrey. Hey, even I wanted to buy a tractor when Paul Harvey was selling them.

It’s a win-win for all concerned. The listener is entertained, and the sponsor gets more recognition.

So why doesn’t terrestrial radio do this anymore? Two reasons: It means they have to employ actual live announcers, and secondly, they don’t give a shit if their programming is better or the sponsor is happier or the ratings go up. They just care about making as much money as they can – until they go bankrupt… which is coming and soon. But by then, more people will be listening to podcasts so whatever.

26 comments:

ELS said...

I live in Cleveland, and one of our local radio stations has announcers and an all talk format on the morning show. They have sponsors whose commercials are hyped by the "morning crew." I guess it's a bit better, but somehow, it sounds insincere - "Remember last winter when we didn't have much snow? Well this year, you want to be ready if we DO get snow, and that's why I got SeasonSeal Windows."

Another station has an announcer who does such presentations, and he drives me to desperation because he's always talking in the first person plural. "So let's donate our vehicles to 'Cars-For-Cats'", or "Let's give a call to those friendly folks at the Red Cross to help out with the blood emergency." Even for excellent causes or products, the personal reference is a little much for a host.

Of course, in both cases, they're just not fun, so that might be the issue I have.

Anonymous said...

Who can forget Ingram's "Schickhaus Hot Dogs - The Most Carefully Pronounced Name in Franks." Listened to him everyday on WABC in NY.

Xwordz

Andrew said...

There were a few episodes of Frasier where he read the ads live. (Was that your influence, Ken?) The one that instantly came to mind:

Frasier: Good Afternoon, Seattle. This is Dr. Frasier Crane, KACL 780. Well, it's another gray, depressing day here in the Emerald City. Here's hoping we can brighten up your afternoon. We hold it our personal duty to banish your rainy day blues. But first a message from our sponsors.

[reads paper] "Death is inevitable. But it's especially painful when it claims a beloved family pet. If you've lost, or are planning to lose, a cherished dog, cat or bird, let Pet Paradise console you with a tasteful Plexiglas memorial bearing the likeness of your departed friend. Pet Paradise - though your pet may be small, your loss is great."

Don R said...

I hate to re-hash the old "competition-breeds-excellence" thing, but in this case, I think it applies. When I was in radio, if there were five stations in a market, there were five different owners, all shooting for a piece of the advertising pie. We actively counter-programmed our competition -- for example, we tried to place the commercial breaks so that when the other stations were playing commercials, we were playing music. And we had commercial-free music sweeps; the only problem with that was that each commercial break in the next hour went from three to three-and-a-half minutes. Today I'd kill for a three-and-a-half minute break instead of the standard seven to ten-minute break. And I'm sure I sound like an old coot when I say that nowdays a conglomerate like Clear Channel or Cumulus owns all five stations, and they don't compete amongst themselves because they already have all of the pie. They don't try, and it shows.

Dan said...

Paul F. Tompkins has some of the best live reads in podcasting! He employs his considerable improv skill during the breaks of his Spontaneanation show to include characters, plots, and jokes during the ad for the mattress vendor, custom sock website, and other sponsors.

Darth Weasel said...

the hilarious commercial as programming might have been best done by jack Benny on his radio show in my personal opinion. He would sometimes do entire shows wrapped around the commercial and the months long search for a replacement for the Sportsmen Quartet was one of the best running gags in history.

As for live radio...is that still going? The things you talk about are many of the things that kill it. Why listen through 18 minutes of commercials to hear the same 7 songs over and over when I can plug in my Ipod and shuffle through songs I actually like...and still have more variety than actual radio?

Gary West said...

Back then, being on the air and having a "show" was truly, the art of the dj. They could do most anything and make it sound entertaining. Also, that same live read done by say, Ingram - was always a little different the next time around. And, how about donuts? Jingle into live read, back into jingle. Hitting that post back into the second jingle - always loved it.

Rory Wohl said...

Tony Kornheiser does great live reads on his podcast, called, cleverly enough, "The Tony Kornheiser Show" (http://www.tonykornheisershow.com/)

Buttermilk Sky said...

New York listeners of a certain age will also remember Jean Shepherd, who made an art of reading commercials. I was this kid in Jersey, see, and I wanted to eat at Great Shanghai, buy books at the Paperbook Gallery, and even get General Tires ("The big square ones!"). That I can remember these long-vanished sponsors after half a century is all down to Shep.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I miss the Real Don Steele's live reads. There was a shoe store chain in L.A. whose people wrote the most convoluted ad copy imaginable, but Steele read the words in such a way as to bring plenty of double entendre and laughs to the scripts. In contrast, most of the other dj's simply struggled.

I do monthly car dealer spots in Dallas and Chicago - typical high-energy, rapid-fire productions that I imagine make the clients and the agencies happy. I guess they help sell cars.

...but later today, I'll have a chance to entertain myself and others I hope. Serving as an ad agency for some used car dealers here in Oregon, I'm writing and voicing ten ads...as "Sasquatch" - playing them absolutely straight, as Sasquatch deals with his new job as a used car salesman for these dealers. I'm playing him straight and allowing the circumstances of the story entertain. (I learned that by reading a blog somewhere...)

:)






Mike Doran said...

In a way, this ties together the last two posts:

In the late '50s, when WGN Radio got the contract to carry the Cubs games, the announcers were Jack Quinlan and Lou Boudreau, the ex-shortstop.
The Cubs at this point consisted of Ernie Banks and whoever else showed up at the park that day.
They weren't even really bad, just mediocre in the extreme.
Jack and Lou had to do live-reads of the commercials, which at that point were a major source of income for the station and the team.
There aren't many "highlights" of mid-'50s Cub play - the best-known was probably the time that an umpire inadvertently allowed two baseballs into play at the same time - so Jack and Lou amused themselves with the live commercials.
On one occasion, they had to read an ad for Wieboldt's department store, promoting a forthcoming sale.
The product was women's foundation garments - underwear, in other words.
If you can recall what women's underwear was like in the '50s, you can probably imagine the awkwardness of Jack and Lou in talking about it between innings of a typically going-nowhere '50s Cub game.
Simply, Jack and Lou started cracking each other up at the mention of things like "shadow panels" (don't ask - please), and soon both men were helpless with laughter; getting back to the game was tough.
Years afterward, the Cubs (who'd gotten better in the interregnum) put out an LP of radio and TV highlights from over the many years; the '50s were represented by Bert Wilson ("I don't care who wins as long as it's the Cubs!"), the two-ball foul-up, and the Wieboldt's spot by Quinlan and Boudreau, which in the view of many ranks alongside any of the "laughing records" ever put out by regular comedians.
Those were the days ...

John in NE Ohio said...

Espn radio does live reads as well as prerecorded live reads. They are better than produced spots for reasons given above as well as the fact that they are often shorter. Hmmm.. a commercial I listen to that takes away less time, what a concept. OF course that just turns a 10 minute break into an 11 minute 45 second break...
Also, especially for music, don't ever listen to terrestrial radio. Won't go without xm after having it. More, better choices and most commercial free.

John in NW Ohio - all good, it had been awhile since I commented, and we need midwest representation. I adjusted mine so there is no confusion.

Kyle said...

When Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Rusillo had their show together on ESPN radio, they would do a live read for Samuel Adams beer in extremely cheesy Boston accents. Never not funny.

Anonymous said...

Larry Lujack got fired in Seattle immediately after reading a car dealer's Volkswagen commercial.
It seems he intimated that the dealership was run by a German with sympathies to a recently defunct German political party.

Hello again, anybody said...

Henry Morgan was another radio guy whose sardonic and disdainful live ads were more appreciated by his listeners than by the sponsors.

Andy Rose said...

I guess you're only talking about music radio, because talk show hosts all do live reads. I mean every single one of them, from Rush Limbaugh on down. They're actually doing a lot more now than they used to, in large part because the national spot sales market has dried up so badly for radio. So many other non-TV alternatives for ad dollars now.

The problem with live reads in music radio is that most people who are tuning in to hear music don't want to hear people talking. Like, ever. That's not the way I prefer it, it's just the way it is now. Stations have tried and experimented over and over again, and except for a few heavily targeted, tightly produced shows like Ryan Seacrest and Delilah, it just doesn't work. Your show generally has to be talk OR music, which is why so few morning shows on music radio stations hosted by former jocks actually play music anymore. That's also why talk-based morning shows are so common... because you can integrate ads into them a lot more easily.

H Johnson said...

I was just talking to my son about this subject the other day. I agree with you 100%. We still have a couple listenable radio stations here in the islands but I find myself more and more plugging in my phone to listen to a podcast.

It's sad because as local radio disappears, so goes the listener's connection to the broadcast. Howard Stern's great and all but he's never gonna talk about our local douche bag politicians or where to find the best eats.

If we'd just re-implement the old media anti-trust laws and kill off Clear Channel we could maybe might save terrestrial radio.

Aloha

JoeyH said...

The late Jack Carney on KMOX in St. Louis did the best live reads I've ever heard. You would think he was doing a bit, but before you knew it, you were halfway through a commercial. It was pretty seamless. The pitches were as entertaining as any part of the show. And, of course, both he and the Mighty 'MOX got top dollar for those reads.

Joe McCoy said...

Radio was exciting and fun...that's why we got into it! The DJ's told you everything you needed to know about music, artists, local happenings, weather, traffic and sports, and did it in a way that we all could relate to. We were always looking for something new to talk about, new promotions, new songs, etc How about those great jingles! Nothing like hearing your name sung for announced by Bill Drake. I'm glad we were in it when it meant something, and the powers that be actually cared about the listeners as well as the sponsors. Makes you wonder how many people today want to grow to be a radio DJ?

Cap'n Bob said...

I loved listening to Big Dan Ingram when I was a teenager in New York. Once, he was reading an ad for a department store and t said there was parking galore. Dan said in an aside, "I think her sister is in a James Bond movie."

Elf said...

Ken, since this could easily turn into a Friday question, what are your favorite podcasts lately?

And if you're open to suggestions, if you haven't already, check out Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast. Really. Not a joke.

sanford said...

rory took the words out of my mouth as far as Tony Kornheiser. I also listen to Penn Jillette's podcast and he does live reads as well. The other podcasts I listen to don't have commercials at all. There are a few NPR podcast I listen to that don't have commercials. I listen to a few movie podcasts and no commercials. There are a million podcasts. I am not sure how they can all possibly make money.

Tom Asher said...

This truly is a lost art. Besides Ingram, I think the best at this might have been Bob Crane, yes, "Colonel Hogan". There are some old air checks out there of him and his morning show, and he took the live read to a whole new level.

benson said...

One of my Holy Trinity of radio heroes, the late Bob Collins on WGN did live reads for Grover's soon to be famous Oyster Bar back in the 70's. God they were fun. Everything you said Ken.

John Hammes said...

Would be interesting to hear some of John Zacherle's radio work. The "Cool Ghoul" had a knack for interesting hosting duties on television - "Shock/Chiller Theatre",
"Zacherley At Large", "Disc-O-Teen" (think "Transylvania Bandstand") etc. He released novelty records - "Dinner With Drac" - down through the years. He was a DJ for Progressive FM Radio in the '60s and '70s: an aircheck or two (should they still even exist... unfortunately, early radio could be just as negligent as early television in this regard) should be worth the while. A commercial or PSA read with his maniacal laughter was probably, back in the day, worth even more.

cd1515 said...

Bill Burr's great at the live reads on his podcast.
(you're thinking of the "Me Undies" song now, aren't you?)