by Dan O'Day on November 21, 2014

I was in my first year of radio, working at my second station, in Naples, Florida.

On Saturdays I worked an 8 (or was it 10?)-hour shift, babysitting the network feed.

A few times each hour, I’d pop into the studio and play the local commercials and station I.D.

I spent much of the rest of my time browsing through the station’s record library, immediately outside the broadcast studio.

It was there I came across several LPs by Mike Nichols & Elaine May.

And my world changed.


Photo courtesy of the Dan O’Day collection.

I’d never heard anything like it. Two voices. Two people conversing.

On the surface, a comedy sketch. Just beneath, sharp commentary on our culture and, sometimes, the human condition (aka the silliness of humans).

Is there a style of music you absolutely love? When you hear it, it’s as though it was written or performed on your own personal wavelength?

That’s how it was for me with Nichols & May. They just happened to be on my personal wavelength.

From the first time I heard them, I experienced their performance as a musical style that I loved.

It was a dozen years later before I experienced that sensation again.

I had moved back to Los Angeles. At the time, L.A. had a thriving Equity Waiver (i.e., tiny theaters with little if any budget) scene, and I had subscribed to some service that offered half-price theatre tickets.

One day they offered tickets to something called Sills and Company. I had no idea what that might be, but it was half-price and I had nothing else to do.

Sills and Company was in East Hollywood. On or near Heliotrope Drive. It looked like a converted garage.

It turned out “Sills” was Paul Sills.  I’d never heard of him.

Soon I’d learn he was co-founder of Chicago’s Compass Theater and its successor, Second City.

The entire evening consisted of improvisational “theater games,” played by a company that included Valerie Harper, Dick Schaal, Richard Libertini (who was breathtakingly brilliant at improv), Severn Darden (considered by many to be the ultimate improv genius), Garry Goodrow and Avery Schreiber, among others.

Paul Sills would call two or more players onstage, tell them what game they were playing and then stand on the sidelines, waiting for magic to happen.

That night, I heard that music again, for the first time in more than a decade.

It wasn’t similar to what I had felt when listening to Nichols & May; it was the same feeling.

Only later did I learn that the team of Nichols & May was born in Chicago, as members of the Compass Theater, directed by Paul Sills.

In fact, it was Sills who introduced them to each other, saying, “‘I want you to meet the only other person on the campus of the University of Chicago who is as hostile as you are.’”

The Graduate kissing

Remember the scene in THE GRADUATE when Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Robinson) is smoking a cigarette and Dustin Hoffman summons the courage suddenly to kiss her…and when he finishes, she exhales a cloud of smoke?

That moment was directly lifted from a Nichols & May sketch created years earlier. No one ever accused the film’s director of plagiarism; the director was Mike Nichols.

If it weren’t for those Nichols & May records, I’m not sure I ever would have stopped trying to be a great DJ and, instead, begun writing and performing my own material on the radio.

Probably it’s not a coincidence that so much of my stuff was simple, two-voice dialogue.

In radio, time is compressed.

Unlike film or TV, you’re not allowed several minutes to establish a character or scene. From your very first words, your audience needs to know who and where you are.

By “who,” I don’t mean just the identity of your character. Your listeners quickly should understand the attitude of your character.

Occasionally I’ll illustrate this with the opening of one of Nichols & May’s most famous routines:

With that one line, Elaine told us volumes about her character. That was a woman guided by an obstructive nature, and she’d never voluntarily help a customer.

Here’s the entire routine:

Humor, like music, produces a subjective experience for those who consume it.

I can’t speak for you.

But for me, listening to that routine again today, more than 50 years after it was recorded, is just as exhilarating as it was the first time I heard it outside the broadcast studio in that little radio station in Florida.


Radio host topics As many radio personalities know, I’m a big believer in Show Prep.

Show Prep is not the same as “scripted.”

The more prepared you are before cracking the mic, the easier it is for you to act spontaneously according to the flow of the show and your audience response.

I devote an entire seminar to what I call Contextual Programming, which truly is the only way for a radio station to win the ratings battle in a competitive market.

In that seminar, I point out that sometimes you think you know what your listeners want to talk about (or hear about)…only to have your audience correct you.

How do you know for sure what your listeners are interested in?

They’ll tell you…If you listen.

On the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a British radio host commemorated the event by interviewing two experts on the “conspiracy theories” that surround that terrible moment in U.S. history.

The “experts” heartily disagreed with each other.

The host thanked them for their participation.

Then he opened up the phones:

“What do you think? Was JFK killed by a lone gunman, or was there a conspiracy behind it?”

And he gave the studio phone number several times so listeners could weigh in with their opinions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not one of the listeners in that town in England seemed to have much of an opinion about whether or not there was a conspiracy behind the death of an American president decades earlier.

No one called.

In desperation, the host started filling time.

He mentioned that he remembers exactly what he was doing when he learned that JFK had been shot: He was watching a TV program called Double Your Money.

And at that, the phones lit up.

You’re an experienced radio pro, right? Go ahead, guess what everyone was calling in about.

Oops. Sorry, you’re wrong

You made the mistake of “knowing” you can predict the radio audience reaction.

You immediately and confidently guessed, “They called in to say what they were doing when they heard about JFK’s death.”

That’s what I would have guessed, too. But that’s not what they called for.

They called to say, “It wasn’t Double Your Money. It was Harry Worth that was on the telly that night.’ ”

And for the rest of the hour listeners phoned called in to argue about what was on television when the news of Kennedy’s death was announced.

I don’t care how much preparation you’ve done for your show. If the audience tells you they’re interested in something else (and it fits your overall programming), you’re a fool if you don’t listen to them.

When you interview celebrities or politicians, how can you know beyond the shadow of a doubt what questions your listeners would most like to have answered?

Well, you could ask them.

But I don’t mean at the beginning of the show, begging for callers.

I mean the Tuesday before the interview, tell your listeners that you’ll be interviewing that person on your program on Thursday…and if there’s something they’d dearly love you to ask that person, they should e-mail or text you with their question.

Either you or a producer or an intern can quickly glance through the questions, and you’ll discover two things:

1.  A few really good questions you wouldn’t have thought of.

2.  An obvious demand by many listeners to hear the answers to one or two particular questions.

I am not saying that you should slavishly ask whatever questions are suggested by your listeners.

I am saying that if you give them a chance, they will help you program your show so that it’s more relevant and more interesting to them.

     CONTEXTUAL RADIO PROGRAMMING: The Only Way To Win in a Competitive Market



by Dan O'Day on November 17, 2014

Italian restaurant radio commercial
Jimmy Hill
of Bristol Broadcasting submitted two radio commercials for critiquing.

“I’ve produced a 5-unit campaign for this client. Although the client insists that these spots are effective for them, I have serious doubts that I’m hitting the mark with respect to what I’ve tried to follow after reviewing Dan O’Day instructional pieces.”

Here is one of the spots from the Italian restaurant’s radio campaign.

Before I begin this critique, let’s return to your statement that “the client insists that these spots are effective for them.”

If the client truly means “effective” — if it’s driving traffic to the restaurant and increasing his business — then keep on doing it.

I suspect, however, that what the client actually means is, “I like those radio ads, and people have told me how funny they are!”

If that’s the case, you still should keep doing it, because the client is happy.

But I doubt he’s actually making a positive return on his advertising investment.

The “lame imitation of The Godfather” is a trite, nonsensical approach to advertising an Italian restaurant.

Effective restaurant advertising sells the experience the guest will have when dining there. I suspect the real dining experience at Vito’s doesn’t include oddball mafiosos.

Much of the dialogue of the “Godfather” imitation is incomprehensible to the listener. 

A radio commercial for a restaurant should have a single Core Message — the one thing you want the targeted listener to hear, to understand and to remember.

Here are the potential core messages in this spot:

  • Private party & banquet room. (I think that’s what I heard on the fifth attempt.)
  • Pizza
  • Pasta
  • House salads
  • Some sort of special offer on Tuesdays…which I simply can’t decipher
  • Canoli
  • Monday is Something-or-Other Day; I can’t understand the special offer.
  • Daily house lunch special

Which of the above is the one thing you want to communicate? Whichever it is, why are all of the other elements there to compete for the listener’s attention?

I like the line, “Leave a tip, take the canoli.” Not as an effective selling tool but as a funny take-off on the line from the movie.

“Next to the train station on Main, downtown Kingsport” — That is exactly how you should identify the location of a retail establishment.

You didn’t include their street address or phone number — good!

But the biggest problem isn’t the lack of a Core Message. It’s this:

What The Radio Audience Pictures Is What The Audience Will Remember.

I pictured:

  • A big, thuggish actor imitating a movie mafioso
  • Someone doing a Marlon Brando imitation
  • The opening scene from THE GODFATHER, “the day of your daughter’s wedding”
  • A cannolo. (I pictured just one. You might have pictured two or more connoli.)
  • A fish wrapped in newspaper (from the “sleep with the fishes” line)

I didn’t picture any of the many things this advertisement attempted to sell.

Why not?

Because all of them were presented as dialogue (either by the characters or by the announcer).

In a radio commercial, you can’t rely on words to carry your sales message. The pictures you paint in the listener’s mind are what the listener will remember.

Like so many radio spots, this one left the listener with mental images that don’t include the product or service being advertised.

Radio Advertising for Restaurants


First, take a listen to the radio commercial:

The geniuses who created this radio spot for McDonald’s spend almost the entire 30 seconds of the ad helping listeners understand the concept of “missing” something.

The product name gets buried in the opening, because listeners aren’t expecting it and the copy doesn’t prepare them for it.

If people actively listen until the end of this advertisement, which is unlikely, then they’ll hear who the sponsor is and what product is being promoted.

“But Dan, what about the power of frequency, of listeners hearing that commercial repeatedly?”

Few will hear it repeatedly. Most will tune out repeatedly.

A radio commercial such as this is especially wasteful, because they have a well-defined target audience:

People who have eaten McDonalds’ McRibs…and who enjoyed it.

They’re not trying to introduce this product to the marketplace. The sole message of this campaign should be:

“Hey, you guys who like McDonalds’ McRibs! It’s back on the menu! Go get some!”

And the copywriting….Good grief.

“Like the Mojave Desert misses a tropical storm”?

Really? Precisely how can the Mojave Desert miss something it’s never experienced?

That first metaphor leaves the audience either puzzled or bored. That’s not a good thing to do at the beginning of a radio commercial.

Well, I guess the fresh-out-of-college intern who wrote that needs to learn radio copywriting somewhere. It’s quite generous of McDonald’s to underwrite that person’s on-the-job education.

{ 1 comment }

dentist radio advertisingA Loyal Reader — a radio station production director — writes:

“The account executive did a good job of providing me with the kind of information I needed to produce an effective radio commercial for a local dentist.

“But we’re not airing it. Why not? Because the dentist’s office manager says she hates it.

“The dentist, who is paying for the radio advertising, didn’t say that.

“But the office manager writes the check for the advertising, so she figures that gives her the final say over their what their commercials should say.

“When I tried to discuss the ad campaign with her, she said, ‘I’m not a commercial professional but I AM a consumer and I know what works!’

“It was only with tremendous self-restraint (and my wish not to lose my job) that I kept myself from saying, ‘You’re running Dr. (X)’s office all wrong. I’m not a dentist, but I DO have teeth…'”

Best Dentist Radio Commercial Ever


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