Out of Tune

William Burroughs once wrote that 90 percent of everything is crap. Ninety percent of the shoes we buy, the cars we drive, the books we read, the people we meet.

Radio ads? At least 90 percent.

I recently drove across the country in a rental truck built during the Carter administration. With no CD, cassette or even 8-track player, I got to sample a broad spectrum of advertising on America’s radio stations. Somewhere west of Indianapolis, hunched over a steering wheel larger than a public rest room, the moon rising over another cornfield, I found myself asking, “Why does this suck?”

Now, Luke Sullivan, who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, will tell you (and has told you, in his excellent book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This!) that there’s so much lousy radio advertising because there’s no glamour, money or prestige in it. It’s thrown together by the A team while they’re winging to Borneo to produce award-winning TV, or it’s handed off derisively to the B team (or the C team or whoever’s in charge of turning off the lights before everyone goes home). It sucks because no one at the agency wants to do it.

And while he’s probably right, I think there are two more important reasons radio sucks.

A lot of clients use it as a repository for all the stuff they can’t jam into the TV spot. Mind-numbing litanies about product features are routinely shoehorned into the radio spot and trundled out with all the grim determination of a stage mother shoving an untalented brat into the unforgiving maw of public scrutiny. Sometimes I think there’s an inverse relationship between TV and radio in this respect: The more artful the TV, the more the announcer sounds like Mickey Mouse on diet pills in the radio.

But this is only half of the problem. Or less, actually. Turn on your favorite radio station—I guarantee that the ratio of local to national ads is almost exactly the opposite of what it is on TV. Which means that in addition to the big guys shoveling 10 pounds of gibberish into a five-pound sack, you’ve got the guys from the neighborhood hawking sandwiches or lumber or tanning booths—guys who don’t give a damn about “brand equity,” “breakthrough creative” or “demographic insights.” Guys who just want to shout their name and number at you for 60 seconds. Guys who can’t afford TV.

Sounds like I hate radio, right? Au contraire. As a writer, I love the fact that it’s the hollandaise sauce of wordcraft—a few basic ingredients but nonetheless easy to screw up. There are no Hollywood effects, no awesome locations, no brain-frying graphics. Just you, some words and some airtime. Just enough stuff to produce something really great or really awful.

And I love it for another reason—because people make a personal connection with radio stations and DJs that is completely unlike any other connection they make with any other media outlet. A sort of personal endorsement you don’t find with the Internet, print, out-of-home or TV.

What I hate is the 90 percent that sucks, which is probably produced by 90 percent of the agencies in America.

But who’s counting?