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Ron Robinson

Too Subtle To Care?


As recently as last week, during one of my V/O sessions here in Toronto, I broke my own rules and commented on the copy. Normally, Ill take a Gravol and hope the producers wont see me swallow burning vomit. This is to my immediate benefit as my agent does get to launch marshmallow-tipped, heat-seeking invoices on my behalf.
I realize I am not working with dummies not at this level of agency experience and expertise. I also realize these folks are still, however, operating out of a framework of what results when an entire industry has been brainwashed to accept dogma as not only infallible, but as good news gospel!
Example: In this particular corporate A/V, the writer was attempting to intimately include the business-audience who would be viewing the presentation. The copy read, in part: These are ordinary people just like you! (The emphasis was the writers.)
Expecting pain, I swallowed and asked, Could we please pause for a few moments? To be candid, I was fairly comfortable stopping down as the producer, engineer, P.A., and I had developed a friendly rapport before the session. I continued. Who, in this audience of businesspeople wants to be, or will accept, being referred to as ordinary? On top of that, with me as the speaker, who in this same audience will accept my pointing them out although they are unknown, unspecified individuals to me? Im not even there! Further, while undermining acceptance of the message, what does it do for the clients credibility as the representative (me) is calling them names? (Attempting an intimate inclusion is also a horribly destructive and overwhelmingly pervasive practice in radio. It never ends.)
There was an immediate cessation of all activity in the control room, as if all the air had just been sucked out. Even the lady bringing in complimentary snacks and beverages went immobile in mid-stoop. The talkback was silent. There was a tomb-like stillness interminable frozen moments. Maybe I had just thoroughly blown this gig and would never darken these doors again. Maybe I could carve it in pastry dough to follow my own rules. Maybe my agent would make inquiries and grill me with pertinent, uncomfortable questions. Maybe asking the engineer earlier if the studios washroom was still the window ledge wasnt such a good idea.
Only then did the lights brighten and the seas part. Air rushed back in. An escape route was revealed! As the talkback crackled back to life, I heard it: Holy s***! barked the producer. Sunovab****! He continued. Thats right! Thats exactly whats going on! Thoroughly relieved, I carried on. What we do to rectify this is just kill those last three words: just like you. No foul. No penalty
Unfortunately, this tale doesnt end with me crashing in for the big score, and spiking the Neumann U-87. Really? Hardly. As anybody who works with agencies can attest, there is often a very strict hierarchy that starts with the talent and producers at the bottom, followed by the agency writers and creative director. Next in line are the agency honchos and, finally, with the last word on everything: The Client sometimes called The Spoiler.
Before the recording session, everybody up the line had signed off on the script, including the clients cousin (once-removed). What we did was record the original line, including the just like you! and then recorded an alternate with the offending verbiage chopped out. No assurances that the alternative would be the one included in the finished piece were offered. None were expected, either. Still, we were good scouts.
I mention this event here because it stands out as a dim, subtle, poisonous, and pervasive example for radio. That is, it only stands out to anyone who will take a few moments to consider the approach and the ramifications of undertaking such a noxious communicative strategy as provided in the original script. This episode identifies just one of a series of multiple strategies that we (radio) have been unwittingly employing for decades strategies that have been continuously blowing off large chunks of both audiences and advertisers. What has been so tragically ironic and painfully annoying about all this is, indeed, the subtlety of these strategies. We have been automatically applying them without detecting them ourselves, and without anybody else pointing them out. As such, we have been unable to correct them. (We still dont know we still dont know!)
Since one of the more enticing methods of fostering understanding and encouraging retention is the application of an agricultural metaphor, Ill conveniently dig one up now.

A farmer has a number of tools for specific purposes. A manure spreader is but one. Radio stations have lots of those. A safe distance is urged whenever the implement is in use, which, in radios case is continuously. Harrows and tillers, meanwhile, are for preparing the soil for planting, and are necessary. Radio, however, hardly ever employs these marvels of agri-ingenuity. Radio rolls out the John Deere tractor and bolts a plow to the front end. This is because radio insists on pushing the soil (talent, audiences, and advertisers) all over the farm. What they fail to appreciate is that they can only push so much material before it quickly piles up and falls off to the sides.
Radio would be far better off working as tillers and harrowers rather than pushers. We need to be carefully preparing our talent, audiences, and advertisers for growth. Seems like all segments of the people we are supposed to be employing, engaging, and serving are getting weary of being shoved around, dumped off to the side, and having manure thrown over them. More enlightened efforts could produce better than weak, semi-nutritious, stunted, and costly crops. And that news is about as subtle as flying globs of steaming fertilizer. Now the trick is to find somebody who cares.

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian Radio since the '60s as a performer, writer and coach and has trained and certified as a personal counsellor. Ron makes the assertion that the most important communicative aspects of broadcasting, as they relate to Talent and Creative, have yet to be addressed. Check out his website