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Last week’s piece about the Michigan radio station that got caught illegally using a Meghan Trainor song in a commercial generated quite a bit of interest and response.

A few days before it appeared, Tim Edwards wrote to me:

“We all know you can’t use a popular song in a commercial — unless you secure all the necessary rights. And of course you couldn’t use clips from a TV show in a commercial as well, but this question was raised to me this morning:

“Why is it legal to use TV and movie clips within a radio show? My answer is ‘fair use.’

“But why then is it legal to use them in station promos and imaging? Darn near every station I’ve ever listened to has TV and movie clips in show promos, montages, and other imaging pieces. How many times have you heard that woman yell ‘Wow, it sure doesn’t taste like tomato juice’ from the old V-8 commercials? How many morning shows rely on random TV and movie clips?

“I’ve got one guy who insists that’s exactly the same as using a popular song in a commercial. I told him no, but I don’t know why.

“What’s the difference and what’s the law?”

I told Tim I’d address his questions here but that “every instance you cited is illegal; ‘Fair Use’ doesn’t apply to any of them.”

I’d estimate that 90% of the time I hear someone defend their unauthorized use of someone else’s intellectual property as “Fair Use,” they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

“Fair Use” doesn’t apply simply because someone declares it does.

I wrote an entire book about what’s legal and what’s illegal when broadcasting copyrighted material. The book isn’t lengthy. It’s not difficult to read. But many radio people prefer to believe that what they want to be true is true rather than to do even a tiny bit of research.   

Technically, one cannot accurately state, “This isn’t copyright infringement due to Fair Use.”

As the I.P. attorney I interviewed for the book says, “If you’ve gotten yourself into a situation where you’re saying, ‘Oh, but it was Fair Use,’ then you’ve really dug a hole for yourself. Any good intellectual property or copyright attorney would try to keep it so you wouldn’t have to fall back on that.”

The guy who told Tim that using pieces from copyrighted commercials, TV shows, movies, etc. is “the same as using a popular song in a commercial” isn’t that far off…but in the wrong direction.

Using a popular song in a commercial without obtaining a license to do so is a copyright violation. Using drop-ins, wild tracks and musical themes from TV shows, films and commercials is, too — unless you’ve obtained a license to do so.

If your station pays BMI/ASCAP fees and you play a TV theme song from an album of TV theme songs whose copyrights are administered by BMI or ASCAP, you don’t have a problem…unless you use it in a commercial. Your station pays those fees for the right to use the material in its programming, not in its advertising.

If that V-8 commercial still is copyright protected and you haven’t somehow obtained permission to use it, you’re violating the copyright. Just as you are when you play Clara Peller demanding, “Where’s the beef?”

“Somehow obtaining permission” can include collections assembled specifically for broadcast use, for which the collection’s publisher has secured the necessary permissions.

If someone obtains permission to provide radio stations with drop-ins from TV shows, licensed for airplay, you’re in the clear.

But if you record Homer Simpson directly from a broadcast of The Simpsons and use it as a drop-in, you’re courting two types of trouble:
1) Copyright violation
2) Violation (for U.S. stations) of the FCC’s prohibition on rebroadcasting other broadcast stations.

Tim responded:

“So you’re saying that when ABC Radio sent us a three hour feed of holiday themed clips from various TV shows (certainly not all ABC shows) to hundreds of radio stations, with holiday themed clips for Christmas, Halloween, 4th of July, etc., this was illegal? And they sent hundreds of clips, drops, TV themes, etc, with no holiday theme, all of which are illegal for their stations to use?”

If the person in charge of that 3-hour feed was smart, ABC obtained any necessary licenses for rights they didn’t already own.

If ABC Radio provided stations with hundreds of clips from movies, TV shows and music which are under copyright and those copyrights aren’t owned by ABC, for it to be legal that would’ve had to obtain the appropriate licenses.

Cartoon Medley - Cartoon Network

When the Cartoon Network published, via Rhino Records, a “Cartoon Medley” of theme songs from 36 programs that aired on their network, they owned the copyrights to many of them (“The Powerpuff Girls,” “Dexter’s Laboratory,” etc.).

Other songs on the CD, however, were “used by permission” or “courtesy of” the outside copyright holders. “Underdog,” for example, was used by permission of Loramu Music.

On the other hand, “Tom and Jerry” was licensed from Turner Records and “Animaniacs” was licensed from Warner Brothers. “Licensed from” suggests that payment of some kind was made.

Whoever produced that CD for the Cartoon Network understood the necessity of obtaining permission from the copyright holders.

Hopefully ABC Radio (which, remember, is quite different from and has fewer resources than ABC Television) understood it, too.

“I listened during the mid day today, to about 8 different FM stations and every one of them were using bits and pieces from TV, movies, news, TV commercials, etc. and they’re all illegal?”

I have no way of knowing what percentage is illegal. Perhaps some are obtained from show prep services that obtain the appropriate licenses before providing them to radio stations for airplay.

This is the First E-Book I Ever Published.

Using copyrighted songs in radio commercials

I published THE ULTIMATE, NON-LAWYER’S GUIDE TO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT IN RADIO COMMERCIALS…And How To Avoid It because I couldn’t go a week without receiving a phone call from someone at some radio station who would begin the conversation with, “I wonder if you can settle an argument here…” 

It’s sold pretty well since then, people seem to find it helpful…and now I respond to those phone calls and emails by saying, “Here. I wrote this book for you…”


Meghan Trainor Slams Michigan Radio Station

radio station copyright infrigement Meghan Trainor

The wheels of justice grind slowly, but recently they reached a Michigan radio station that thought, “So what if we’re breaking the law? They’ll never know.”

An advertiser wanted them to run a commercial for a local burger joint, complete with their own rewrite of a Meghan Trainor song.  

The station management either didn’t realize that by running that spot they’d be violating the song’s copyright
…or they knew and didn’t care. After all, someone was offering to pay them.

And who would know?

One of the market’s radio stations (“Station A”) refused to air the radio advertisement, explaining to the client, “Sorry, but that would be illegal. You can’t use a copyrighted song in a commercial that way.”

Station B, on the other hand, didn’t hesitate to accept the advertiser’s money.

Recently Station B received a Cease and Desist order from Sony Music.

Station B Was Lucky.

Sony could’ve sued them for damages, rather than just tell the radio station to stop.

Here’s How Station B Probably Reacted to the C&D Order.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Powers That Be at Station B said, “Hey, we got paid. The money we made was worth more than a lousy C&D order.”

Here’s How Station A Could React.

Account Exec: I’m sorry, but using that song in your commercial would be illegal. It would violate the owner’s copyright.

Client: But Station B played that commercial with the Meghan Trainor song…

Account Exec: Yes, they did. And they were lucky. When Sony Music found out, they fired off a Cease and Desist order to Station B.

But Sony could just as easily have sued both the radio station and the advertiser for copyright infringement.

Because that commercial unquestionably constituted an illegal infringement, they each could have ended up paying 5-figure settlements.

Having to write a 5-figure penalty check probably would hurt a local small business, don’t you think?

In addition to causing financial damage to Station B — which obviously needs the money in the first place, or they wouldn’t have agreed to help the advertiser break the law — it also might raise an eyebrow with the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC considers “the citizenship, character, and financial, technical and other qualifications…to operate the station” when license renewal time rolls around.

Here at Station A, we’re dedicated to helping our advertisers accomplish their goals. But we won’t break the law for them, because it could hurt us, it could hurt them, it violates our own principles…and we don’t need to cheat in order to succeed.


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How Do You Write a 30-Second Radio Ad?

There is no formula for writing a 30-second radio ad. There is no one “right” way.

Here is a bare bones, 7-step structure that will enable you write a serviceable radio commercial quickly…assuming you have adequate knowledge of the product or service being advertised.

Step 1: Identify the Call to Action.

The Call to Action is the one action you want the targeted listener to take as a result of hearing your ad.

Because the Call to Action almost always belongs at the end of the spot, with this method you’re beginning by writing your ad’s ending.

In fact, when writing radio copy, I almost always begin with the Call to Action and then work backward.

Step 2: Determine Your Approach.

My favorite approach is Robert Collier’s copywriting dictum that successful advertising enters a conversation the targeted consumer already is having.

Why is it my favorite?

Because it’s easier to quickly establish rapport by going where the consumer is, rather than trying to coax the consumer to come to you.

With certain campaigns, you need to start the conversation. This most frequently occurs when introducing a new product or service…which may require you to make the listener aware of a problem they didn’t know existed.

Step 3: Establish Empathy.

Radio advertising solves problems.

Those problems are the consumers’.

Make it clear that you really do feel their pain, that you understand the problem and its ramifications.

Step 4: Amplify the Pain.

After you’ve identified the targeted listener’s pain point, don’t move on to your sales pitch. Instead, build upon that pain.

It’s not enough simply to identify the problem.

Remind the consumer how serious that problem is to them.

Step 5: Offer the Solution.

There’s no point in highlighting the problem without making it clear that you have the solution for them.

Step 6: Write an Opening Line that Reflects Your Approach.

Most copywriters begin with the first line of the commercial.

Step 7: Make Sure Your Story Flows Naturally and Easily.

Even a 30-second, single-voice radio spot that speaks directly to the consumer needs to be a story.

If you were to break up your copy into paragraphs (as you’ll see in the example below), each paragraph is the equivalent of a chapter in a book or a scene in a story.

The story isn’t stitched together. Instead, it flows easiily and naturally.

Let’s Put This All Together.

Here’s a sample commercial script that took me 10 minutes to write.

It took me twice as long just to describe the process for you.

Can you spot each of the 7 copywriting steps?

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Radio Remote Broadcasts guidelinesOur theme this week appears to be “Lessons Radio Stations Can Learn from Sloppy Real Estate People.”

On Sunday I looked at a few “Open Houses” in the Los Angeles area.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, Investopedia defines “open house” as “a scheduled period of time in which a house or other dwelling is designated to be open for viewing for potential buyers.”

At one of the houses I visited, when I walked in a smartly dressed woman separated herself from the man and woman (apparently prospects) she was speaking with, introduced herself as the real estate agent, and handed me a flyer that described the property for sale.

Then she returned to her conversation with the couple.

The house wasn’t occupied. No furniture. Hardwood floors.

With nothing to absorb sound, the resulting acoustics made it so a normal speaking voice could be heard throughout the house.

The agent and the couple were talking and laughing so loudly that, with those acoustics, I literally couldn’t hear anything the person who accompanied me said to me.

We wandered around the house for a couple of minutes and then gave up; the noise was unbearable.

As we headed for the door, the trio turned to me and the man jovially said, “We accept cash, y’know!”

It was then I understood:

They weren’t a real estate agent and two prospects.

They were three real estate agents. Colleagues. Co-workers.

When I realized I was being driven away by the overbearing sounds of 3 representatives of the same agency, my astonishment quickly was followed by anger.

It was only with great restraint that I refrained from saying, “The three of you are here because you’re representing the seller of this house and instead of speaking to prospects, you’re talking only to each other? In voices so loud that potential buyers can’t hear themselves think??”

Instead, I just started at the 3 of them and left, shaking my head.

I won’t identify the real estate company. Let’s just say those 3 agents didn’t represent the pinnacle of professionalism.

What Does That Have to Do with Radio?

How many radio station remotes (aka “Outside Broadcasts”) have you seen where the station’s promotional staff (yes, some may be interns) stick together in a tight cluster — a closed circle that excludes the listeners, the fans, the P1s who cared enough to come to that live event?

Each time you’ve witnessed that, you’ve seen the results of a promotions director not doing his/her job.

If you’re in charge of promotions at your radio station (Promotions Director, Program Director, etc.), it’s your responsibility to make sure that all onsite representatives of your station understand that they are doing just that: representing your radio station.


During my daily 20-mile run….


During my several times per week 0.9 mile stroll to the public mailbox, for months now I’ve passed the sign you see below, in front of a house.

Around here, those signs advertise either “House for Rent” or “House for Sale.”

Take a look at the sign and tell me what’s missing. (No, not the identifying info I blocked out.)

Real Estate Sign Lesson for Radio Commercials

Did you spot key piece of information that’s missing from that sign?

If not, take another look.

They’ve got that big, two-sided sign.

Alongside the sign is plastic holder which at one time, presumably, contained flyers describing the property. The plastic holder has been empty every time I’ve passed it.

So the real estate agent is going all out to attract prospects.

Here’s What’s Missing from that Real Estate Sign

What’s the offer?

Is the house for sale?

Or is it for rent/lease?

Nowhere do the signs indicate why you should call or email that agent or go to the company’s website.

The agent neglected to tell passersby whether the house is for sale or for rent.

That sign has been there for months.

And months.

I wonder why.

How many radio commercials is your station airing right now that may be entertaining, that may be “well produced,” that may be “memorable…”

…but that your audience can’t figure out what the heck the spots are offering?

The Formula for Successful Radio Commercials

1.  A strong offer

2.  Clearly delivered

3.  To the right audience

4.  Repeatedly