I still love to write radio. I know that seems like an incredibly old school medium. But I love writing it. And I love hearing my spots on air (or Pandora or Spotify or wherever).
When you write a TV spot, you end up hiring a director and a production company and soon about 150 are working on an idea you came up with. And that’s a cool feeling.
With digital projects, the process is less elaborate. But you still have programers and designers and UX experts who come together to bring your idea to life.
But with radio, it’s most likely just you, a few actors, and your sound engineer. If it misses the mark, it’s all on you. If it’s great, same thing. I love the pressure. I love the collaboration. I love that you’re more of a SWAT team than an army.
Here’s a little inspiration for you radio writers: the radio reel for Oink Ink. They’re a great shop I got to work with a while back. If you ever get to work with them or even enter their Dead Radio Contest, you’ll have a good time, too. Enjoy.
The Radio Mercury Awards have just been announced. Click here to listen to the winners.
Radio is still a writer’s medium. It’s awesome to have an A-list director and a crew of 100 working on your TV or video spot. It’s really cool to see top designers and programers bringing a web site or an app to life. But it’s equally amazing to sit down with a small team of a producer, a sound engineer, and some great talent to pull off something like this.
As a junior with very little script writing experience, I found it challenging to get into the spot. I’d have an idea for a spot. But getting to that idea always seemed clunky.
Recently, I was invited to speak to a class at the Temerlin Advertising Institute at SMU, and we talked about writing scripts for radio and TV. Here’s an exercise we did together.
First, watch this classic SNL clip.
Okay. Now, take out a piece of paper and write the first sixty seconds of this skit. It’s not a memory game; you don’t need to remember the kids names. But how did the skit begin? Go ahead, try it.
When you come up with a great idea for a TV spot, it’s a lot like saying, “What if Chris Farley were a crazy motivational speaker who really lives in a van down by the river?” It’s a funny concept. But that’s not the first line of the script. You have to begin with “Open on a living room.” And you have to write some dialogue that’s not all that funny, or even memorable. But it gets you to the funny and memorable part.
As you watch TV – sitcoms, dramas, commercials – pay attention to how they begin. What are the first lines spoken? What is the first image you see? Figure out how how those elements serve as a base, and how they lead to the parts you really remember.
Writers and art directors, here is what I would like to tell you about radio:
- Radio is usually :30 or :60. Time your scripts accordingly. (This applies to TV, too.)
- When timing your scripts, read it aloud, and read it slowly. Don’t kid yourself. Read slow.
- If your script comes in at :32 seconds, don’t tell yourself you’ll just have the talent read it faster. Edit. Even if it hurts.
- Rule of thumb: 80 words for a :30, and 155 for a :60.
- Find the little ways of making your spot real. If your spot takes place in bed, consider having the talent lie down while they read your script. If they’re supposed to be tired and sweaty, have them do jumping jacks before each take. If they turn their head away from the person they’re talking to, have them turn their head away from the microphone.
- Make sure your script goes somewhere. Don’t just tell the same joke three times in sixty seconds. If it’s not building, it’s not award-winning.
- Great art directors can (and do) help create great radio. Radio is visual. Ergo, art directors can help create great radio.
Finalists for the Radio Mercury Awards were announced today. To listen to the spots, click here.
Here are just a few things that continue to fascinate me about radio:
- You can do anything. Anything you want the listener to see, they will see. And because they’re creating the images, they’ll see it perfectly.
- While it’s fun to collaborate with a director, a line producer, a full film crew, cast, an editor and a music house to produce a piece of film, it’s just as fun to work with a sound engineer, and some talented actors to make something just as memorable.
- There’s no medium where a writer can have this much control and this much fun.
- That said, the very best art directors I’ve worked with knew how to make great radio, cared what it sounded like, and had their names on the credits.
- You get about 80 words for a :30, and 155 for a :60. Radio was Twitter before there was Twitter.
Take out a stopwatch. Don’t rush your read. Allow for breathing room. Fix what’s not working. (That doesn’t mean read it a little bit faster.)
If you don’t time your script honestly…
- You will have to ask the talent to read faster than he or she should.
- You will end up doing multiple takes, hoping by some miracle the read comes in under time.
- You will get a poorer performance from the talent.
- You will end up having to scramble to figure out which words and phrases to cut from the script.
- You will risk having to explain to the client why certain words or phrases had to be cut.
- You will look unprofessional in front of your creative director, your producer, the engineer, and the talent.
If you do time your script honestly…
- You will realize what’s not working and have plenty of time to fix it.
- You will have an easier recording session.
- You will have a better script.
If you listen to NPR, you probably heard some of their Alec Baldwin spots during their most recent pledge drive. The spots were written and produced by Ira Glass. They don’t time out to clean a :30 or :60. But they’re still pretty good examples of announcer-driven radio. To hear them, click here.