Tuesday, January 31, 2006

You Know It When You Hear It

There's been a lot of talk about obscenity and media lately, magnified by Howard Stern's move to satellite radio. We'll get to Howard soon enough, but before that I want to recount a radio spot I heard during the holiday season last year. It went something like this:

(sultry female voice discussing the history of mistletoe and people using it to get a kiss)
“…and if twigs and branches can get you a kiss, just imagine
what a luxurious new Jaguar can get you…”

There’s another one in the campaign that is more detailed, progressing from getting a “thank you” for flowers, to a hug for cashmere, to a “steamy kiss” for diamonds and then the big Jaguar payoff. Just so we’re all on the same page: the implicit message is that if you buy your woman a Jaguar, you’re going to get lucky.

Now in this age of FCC behavioral retrenchment regarding indecency and obscenity, we note none of George Carlin’s favorite words, and no lengthy repetition, but what about that gray zone where “material panders, titillates or is used for shock value?”

The cynics in the audience might argue that the above phrase defines advertising. Advertising folks reading this might call that copy “edgy” – and it is. It bumps up against the edge of something, but what exactly? We’re all grownups reading this (at least age-wise), so what’s the big deal?

First, let’s suppose that my two daughters, aged 12 and 16, were riding with me in the car when this spot aired. My 12-year-old might ask: “Daddy, what would a new Jaguar get you?” – a reasonable question that shows the benefits of good production in getting a listener to pay attention to the copy. And I would sputter and mumble something like: “Well, sweetie, maybe an even bigger kiss and a hug to go with it”, and while I was saying that my 16-year old would be making gagging noises and thinking about a steamy scene involving a new Jaguar and the cast of The OC. And both of them would think about the expectation of a woman’s sexual favors in return for a shiny new car.

I’ve got a problem with that, and I’m a guy. Can you imagine how a mature woman might feel listening to this ad? She might chuckle to be polite, but bet that deep down she’s offended in a most basic way at the suggestion that her virtue can be had for the price of some expensive metal (or gemstones, or any other product that’s pitched like this).

Moreover (from the Radio Refugee's point of view), the station airing these ads is committing audience-cide. Jaguar’s agency thought this copy was clever, and sold their client, who in turn paid a radio station to run the ad. Now here’s the old codger talking: what ever happened to the idea of spot approval? The station I heard this on is a highly-rated AC outlet that prides itself on its strong numbers with upscale women. Think about that for a minute: the advertiser is running spots on this station that are almost sure to alienate the very audience the station works hard every day to attract.

I don’t know about you, but to me, that’s obscene.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rationalizing the Process

Here's the deal: I started in radio in 1971. Junior Achievement in Providence, RI had a program where you could apply to be part of a radio station "company" sponsored by a local station. We learned by doing -- sales, production and on-air work. I remember selecting Baba O'Reilly from the then-new Who's Next as the opening theme to our weekly show on WJAR-AM (take that, CSI). The next year we moved up the dial to WICE-AM -- that was cool because it was a non-union shop and we got to actually touch the equipment. Those of you in the proper age group will nod in recognition when I recall the transcription-sized turntables that were controlled by light switches mounted into their base plates.

Looking back, I think it was the gadgetry that first got me hooked on this crazy business, probably followed by the thrill of hearing my own voice coming out of that little box (come on, admit it, you like it too even if it still sounds a little weird). And I needed more than just the school-year fix I was getting. So, in early 1973, I began aggressively hanging out at WBRU-FM, Brown University's Class B FM outlet, purchased for a song in the late sixties when no one thought FM would amount to anything. I ended up spending ten years at WBRU, starting as a techie, then a newsie, then programmer, Production Director and de facto weekend Program Director. During the latter part of my tenure, I generated the highest ratings ever recorded by the station while also doing a full-time "real" job.

In late 1982, for some weird reason, I decided to start a software company. I went through an agonizing period of introspection and finally decided that making the company a success would take all of my focus, and I'd have to walk away from radio. And I did, literally. One Saturday afternoon during my last airshift, I asked a young intern helping in the studio if she liked radio. She said yes. I said "Good. Do my job", walked out, and didn't look back until about 25 years later. But I did look sideways.

I've had the great fortune to travel all over the world. When traveling, I have always paid attention to radio -- scanning the dial, making station visits when I could, bringing back samples of local music. One of my favorite escapades was in the late seventies: I walked up to the BBC headquarters in London, introduced myself as an American radio guy, and spent a magical few hours in the studios of Radio 1 with Johnny Walker and David Hamilton as they broadcast to an audience of millions, talking about the differences between American and British radio (off air, unfortunately). Couldn't do that today...

About two years ago, I began looking at what had happened to both radio and the music business since I left. The outcome of my research was a new startup that attempted to marry the worlds of music and advertising, and radio played a major role. It landed with a unnoticed thud, for reasons which will be enumerated later. However, during that time, I kept hearing the sirens of radio calling to me, and I've tried hard to ignore them.

I love radio for what it can be, not, in the main, what it has become. I figure that writing this blog might be my last, best chance of resisting the call of the airwaves. Maybe if I bare my radio soul in print I can keep the smell of audiotape, the challenge of talking up a network feed, the frisson of a great seque and the satisfaction of building an engaged audience buried in the deepest recesses of my memory.

Or maybe not. Stay tuned.