ONLY THE LONELY: RADIOLAND'S AUSTIN HOWE

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Former agency copywriter Austin Howe is passionate about radio. "There are the radio purists, like Dick Orkin, Bert Berdis and Joy Golden, and there are people who use radio as a springboard to TV and other things," he explains. "I'm a purist."

Howe, 40, actually used his agency career as a springboard to radio. He once ran a little shop called AKA Inc. Advertising & Sass, but now, befitting a purist, he runs a Portland, Ore.-based company called Radioland -- though there's still a lot of sass in his work. Consider a spot he co-wrote for Hornsby's pub draft cider (done direct for Gallo), which features a Brit in a pub explaining, in a Monty Pythonesque monologue, what it means when a cider is described as "sexy": "In a real genuine pub, when we refer to someone as sexy we mean something quite different than if we used the word in a bar . . . in a pub, sexy means attractive in an intellectual way. Which is rather refreshing compared to the usual dirty, dirty, nasty, dirty, wrong, wrong, bad, spank-me-because-it's-so-dirty wrong way."

At AKA, and earlier at Cole & Weber and Saatchi & Saatchi/Pacific, Howe was attracted to radio in an intellectual way, and then some. "I always went for the radio assignments, while everyone else wanted the TV and print stuff," he recalls. "This gave me an opportunity to pursue my passion." Howe, a Vancouver native, opened AKA in Portland in 1991, then sold the shop and opened Radioland in '96. AKA's accounts and staff were eventually absorbed into Portland's Cole & Weber. "Now they're our client," he laughs.

His AKA radio days are notable for work for Tillamook cheese and regional Honda dealers, both of which won plenty of awards. "We always tried to talk clients out of doing cheap TV so they could do expensive radio instead," he laughs, but he isn't really joking. "I had an opportunity to work with all my heroes in the radio business -- guys like Stan Freberg, Chuck Blore, Dick and Bert -- it was a great education, and the more I worked with them the more I realized this is where my heart is, this is what I want to do."

On collaborating with the legendary Freberg, Howe says, "More than anyone I ever worked with, I was nervous around him. He was pretty much my idol. It was a campaign for Junior Achievement. I hired him as the voice, but I wanted him to contribute creatively as well. I got to spend a day and a half with him, and I heard all the stories and he gave me a lot of advice, I think because he could tell I really cared. Here was someone in his 30s who really knew who he was. Did I hire him just so I could work with him? Well, yes. But I could always justify it artistically."

Howe started doing writing projects with Pirate Radio in Toronto while he still had the ad agency, and at one time he contemplated opening an American branch for Pirate, but he wisely, in retrospect, went with the Radioland idea instead. Shortly after launching it, he hooked up with his COO/executive producer Michael Niles, then an account guy with Chuck Blore. Things took off from there and Howe had no reason to look back. The company now works regularly with hot shops like Wieden & Kennedy, TBWA/Chiat/Day and Deutsch, has New York and L.A. outposts, a clutter of trophies on the shelf, and, best of all, Howe gets to pursue his spanking-good passion full-time. Which is a fairly lonely pursuit in the world of American advertising.

"In the U.S., radio is the dingleberry of advertising," he laments. "The little wad of toilet paper with poop on it that people think about at the last minute." This is in stark contrast to the U.K., where "radio is an elite medium," he says. "It's the younger teams at the better agencies that want to do it and make a name for themselves."

Awards have helped the domestic radio scene somewhat, Howe concedes. The big cash prize at the Mercury Awards surely gave the business a bit of a boost. "The Mercury Awards are important and the cash prize was ahead of its time," he says. "CA and the One Show are important too." Radioland has been a finalist three times at the Mercuries, and while he'd like to win the big prize, of course, "the Holy Grail for me is the D&AD Awards," he says. "It doesn't get in there unless it's way, way, way extremely good. And the Brits are so provincial in the way they judge it. We got in this year for Sierra Pacific Power. I always used to say, 'Get in D&AD and retire.' But I'm not retiring."

How could he? There's too much work coming in -- of varying quality, of course. "I take some pleasure in what I call 'missionary advertising' -- in which we take something really bad and make it into something better than it has any right to be," he says. "We do this practically on a weekly basis. But two or three times a year we try to do our own campaigns for our own clients; I may creative-direct it and bring in writers from anywhere." But what does he do when agencies bring in scripts that are really awful? "The first question is, 'Has the client approved it?' The second is, 'Did they love it?' The important thing is to have the freedom to play. Otherwise, you can end up with a very tightly crafted piece of poo."

In light of its unpopularity, has there been a general creative decline in the quality of American radio? "Yes and no," he says. "A few years ago Sam Pond won Best of Show at the One Show for a Prego [restaurant] radio spot. A radio spot. That never happened before. He, of course, went on to other things. To me, that's a shame, because it's another one bites the dust. Everyone wants to do film. But there's a little bit of a resurgence in the U.S. right now. When I speak at places like the Portfolio Center, there's a real interest in radio. It's almost the U.K. mentality. The students are saying, 'Hey, if I can get good at this -- since nobody else is -- maybe I can rise quicker.' I see a little of that."

Nevetheless, most ad people involved in radio have "big plans and dreams" that lie elsewhere, he realizes. "But my big plans and dreams are changing the way people view radio in the world."

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