Juggling Radio The Soundscapes Way

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Brent Walker throws things. Specifically, he gets on stage during his ad club presentations, singles out an audience member and tosses five multicolored balls at the unsuspecting target, who will likely catch just one. Similarly, he says, "Radio listeners are capable of taking away only one major idea from a radio spot." Point made, Walker provides swag: A toy package of five "Balls for AEs," the very people alleged to reassure clients that, yes, radio is a good place to fit copy points that writers couldn't squeeze in elsewhere. Four different 800 numbers? No problem.

But they are a problem, and Walker, owner of Arkansas radio production and sound design company Soundscapes, knows first hand. Since launching in 1982, Little Rock-based Soundscapes has produced commercials for more than 2,000 mid-sized agencies in medium-sized markets, for clients ranging from the Alaska Railroad to the Florida Turnpike. Along the way, Walker has become an advocate for what he calls the "most misused medium in advertising." Forget the public's infamously short attention span. Radio listeners don't pay attention at all, he says-at least not really. "Clients make the mistake of thinking that radio listeners actively listen," Walker says, "and they don't. Radio listeners passively listen."

Walker's "Five Tenets of Great Radio," published along with a bevy of tools and resources for radio writers on www.soundscapes.com, focus on snagging the passive listener's active attention. According to the "tenets," radio commercials should entertain first and sell second; tell a story with conflict and resolution; break standard radio conventions in a homogenized radioscape; leave the listener with an image; and focus on a single message. The latter causes concern among clients with more than one offer to make, but that's the beauty of multispot campaigns, says Walker, which drive home several points by way of a consistent brand voice. His advice seems blindingly commonsensical. But if you turn on the radio-you still have one somewhere-you'll find that the tenets are also grossly underutilized.

Radio production may never be as glamorous as a TV shoot-"You don't get the trip or the per diem or the craft services table," Walker attests-but he's not out for that. He'd rather activate the theater of the mind. "The best radio lets listeners do some of the work-fill in the blank, get the subtle joke, create their own mental image." A television spot might be beautiful, sexy and compelling, but ultimately "it's someone else's image," he says, and it's wrapped in a tidy package for immediate and easy consumption with little room for visual interpretation. That's where radio has the upper hand. "I can play one radio spot to five different people," says Walker, "and they'll get five different mental images. That's one of the reasons well-produced radio has such an impact."

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