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Higher Education for Radio

A wise man once told me that if I charge too low a price for my services, people would be suspicious of the quality and not buy. So, here I am, dispensing free advice to production people all over the world. Maybe I should double my price. OK. Let’s see, two times nothing is…uh, well…. If you’re a guy or gal who’s slaving away in market 943, trying desperately to move up in the world, here’s my free advice: learn to be a triple-double player.

In the NBA, triple-double players are franchise makers. Any player who can get double digits in rebounds, field goals and assists will invariably end up as the team MVP every time. In radio, that could translate to writing, voicing and producing. Wouldn’t it be nice to be your station’s MVP?

In my last blog, I talked about getting a life and mentioned taking an extension course at a local college as a possible activity. (If you’re a student already in school, this should be automatic.) I highly recommend three.

First, take a creative writing course. Learn how to tell an engaging story. Learn how to stay away from bland words that are too subjective, and find the emotionally charged words that truly motivate, fire up the senses and stimulate Broca’s Brain. (If you don’t know Broca, you really need to read Roy H. William’s books.)

An example: the word beautiful. What does beautiful mean? On the surface, this word would seem to be “emotionally charged.” According to Miriam-Webster…

1: having qualities of beauty: exciting aesthetic pleasure 2: generally pleasing: EXCELLENT. Synonyms LOVELY, HANDSOME, PRETTY, COMELY, FAIR mean exciting sensuous or aesthetic pleasure. BEAUTIFUL applies to whatever excites the keenest of pleasure to the senses and stirs emotion through the senses.

What does it mean, really? Every word has at least 2 meanings, one being denotive and the other connotative. The denotive meaning is what you get from Miriam-Webster, the connotative meaning is what you get in real life. To me Megan Fox is beautiful. But I know a LOT of people who insist Angelina Jolie is more beautiful. You might think Ryan Gosling is beautiful, but sorry Eva Mendes, he’s just not my type. My daughter and her two daughters have been binge-watching White Collar recently and are completely gaga over Matt Bomer. You should have heard them wail when I told them he and his husband are very happy together. I have to admit though that he IS a beautiful man. Beautiful, as a word, has so many meanings to so many different people, it’s useless for our purposes.

What you need to learn is how to write promos or commercials the way William Blake writes poetry. Use an economy of the right words. Red becomes crimson, blue is azure…soft becomes velvet while hard is flinty. Learn to use words that describe a common experience. Not common in that it’s everyday, but convey a shared experience. Everyone knows the smell of gasoline, the sound of sizzling bacon and the texture of buttery-smooth leather. Find the words that evoke those images in your reader’s (listener’s) mind and you’ll score big every time.

While you’re at it, learn to write for speaking. You don't really want to have a monologue with your listener, you want to have a dialogue, even if the listener can't talk back. It's just WAY easier for them to accept it. Plus, it gives you a better perspective on sounding authentic. The most common mistake in all of radio gets repeated every day on nearly every radio station. Think about this: how many times have you ever heard anyone say the words “located at” in a sentence? In real life, never. On the radio, maybe millions of times. If you write copy that says, “located at 18 South Main,” lose the word located. It comes right out of the Department of Redundancy Department. You don’t need it, and it sounds completely unnatural when spoken.

OK. That’s one of the “triples” down. Next up is voicing. You say you don’t have an announcer’s voice? Good. There are too many POWER voices in this world as it is. Your radio station might want to have a power voice do a certain amount of the image work, but certainly not all. Your audience would be more able to relate to a “guy-next-door” voice anyway…provided the guy next door can speak the King’s English. So, while you’re up at the school signing up for a creative writing class, sign up for a Speech class.

When you first show up at your speech class, make sure your instructor knows why you’re there. You’re NOT there to learn to speak in front of 100 Rotary Club members. You’re there to learn to speak in front of 2.8 million radio listeners. (Your actual cume might be smaller in market 943.) You’re there to learn how to sound natural, to sound authoritative or sympathetic, depending on circumstances.

If you have a strong accent of any kind, you’re there to soften the edges, giving you a more sophisticated bearing, without making you sound snobbish. What you are there for is to polish your instrument. Don’t forget that when you speak on the radio, you don’t have the lights, makeup and costuming that an actor uses to portray his or her character. You have to include all of that in the words you use and the way you use them.

Understand that I am not advocating you losing your accent. I am suggesting you learn to use it with more discrimination. If you were born and raised in Georgia, and are working in the heart of Atlanta, being able to speak real “Georgian” is a good thing. However, you don’t want to use it all the time. Even native Georgians will think you are uneducated. (Unfortunately, that IS the stereotype.) If you’re not working close to home, you definitely want to be able to turn it on and off, depending on the circumstances.

So, with two courses down, that leaves grammar. With all the polish you’ve given your voice and the creativity you’ve added to your writing, you would think that would be enough. Nopity-nope-nope-nope. If you have a great delivery, creating all the right emotions, you can totally screw things up with the wrong use of one word. Learn to keep all your writing in the same person. Learn to use the proper tense. Learn to parse your sentences correctly, so your audience doesn’t turn you off in disgust saying, “What an idiot.” It happens, all the time.

I’m not saying you need to use perfect grammar all the time. There are times when the wrong grammar is exactly the right thing to use. Last week I voiced a Valentine’s Day promo for a station in Cork, Ireland which had excellent grammar throughout, until I got to the question, “Ain’t got nobody?” Just about nothing is right about that question, grammatically speaking. A double negative, slang and a poor use of the word ‘got,’ make it pretty awful throughout, but as a counterpoint to the rest of the promo, it was perfect. The big difference here was, I knew why it was wrong and I knew why it was right. Most of the time, questionable grammar is a subtle thing.

So, add those three courses to your schedule and you will be on your way to superstar status in the radio world. Your current position might not allow for you to do the actual writing for the station promos and/or commercials, but having a strong foundation in that skill will help you recognize problems before they become a problem for the client. Plus, you never know when an AE or your PD is cramped for time and needs help. Having that skill will be a life-saver for the PD/AE and you.

Your current place of employment might already have a full complement of voices, but people get sick or quit all the time. Being able to step into the breach at any time will open a door that otherwise would remain locked to you. Believe it or not, that's exactly how I started voicing Z100. The late Keith Eubanks was on vacation and we had an emergency promo come up at the last minute. Keith and I didn't know it at the time, but he had already voiced his last promo for the mighty Z.

Honestly, good grammar is something everyone should have anyway, but too many don't. If you're doing any writing or voice work for your station it become essential. Sounding "street," as some say, is fine, but you really need to be able to turn it on and off at will. If you sound "street" all the time, nobody will ever take you seriously.

I should hasten to add that I am far from perfect in any of these categories. Learning is an on-going process and I do learn new aspects of all of these just about every day. However, I manage to hit the triple-double most of the time, which is one of the big reasons many people consider me an MVP…at least for today.


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