Spotlight: Radio

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Despite the recession and the post-attack ad downturn, things are going pretty well at New York radio haven McHale Barone. In fact, the principals just "duplexed" their studio. "The space was available, and we took it," shrugs Chris McHale. "Business is good right now. Sometimes we're really busy, sometimes we're not, but there are four separate ideas here, and as a result of that, something's going on all the time." Besides the radio creative company, there's a music company (McBone Music) a recording studio (Irving's Place) and a voice casting company (Union Square Casting). "We can write, produce, direct, do the music or just mix to picture," McHale notes. "And, ironically, the tighter the business gets, the more people agencies have to lay off, the better we do. They need help."

Moreover, the principals believe the radio market may well benefit from the current crisis: "I think there'll be more radio in the post-September 11 economy," McHale avers. "Media money goes so much further in radio, I just don't think it will suffer." "You can really brand on radio and get very market-specific," adds Joe Barone. "You can pinpoint cities and age brackets for half as much as it costs on TV."

But what about comedy? Since opening in '93, McHale and Barone have amassed what must be several thousand funny spots, for clients like Anheuser-Busch, the New York Lottery and a host of others. This is, in a sense, the company's bread and butter. "There will still be plenty of comedy in post-attack advertising, but it may not have as much attitude," says a not-too-concerned Barone. "There are a lot of different ways to be funny. The comedy may be a little milder, but entertainment will always remain a big portion of the game in advertising." "And we'll lose some of the cynicism," adds McHale, "but we were never into cynical slacker humor in the first place. We're into having fun, not making fun of. We both write comedy and we both write music, but Joe is also a man of thousand voices. He has all these characters, like Deli Man and Taxi Man. We get a lot of ideas just riffing off each other, with him in character."

"We rarely write comedy on paper," says Barone. "We just go into the studio, then translate it back and see what we have." "The best ideas pop right out of your head," adds McHale. "If you have to sit down and work it out, it's not there. We like to bump into concepts, and we try to make all our creative calls on how it sounds, not how it reads."

The two native New Yorkers met at DDB in the late '80s, where McHale was a radio producer and Barone was a mixer. They started volunteering for radio creative assignments, which weren't that hard to come by at a big agency. "But we were making lateral progress in the agency," says Barone, and the time came to consider opening their own shop. "There was no radio creative company in New York, they were all in L.A.," McHale explains. "Everyone said there was no need for one in New York; the agencies do their own radio. After our experience at DDB, we didn't buy that for a minute." But getting started can be tough. "We opened, and we were sitting in our new office with two folding chairs and a glass table," recalls McHale. "We said, 'OK, now what?' A week later, Keith Reinhard gave us the Bud Light campaign. It took off from there, and what we found was there's a tremendous need for creative radio production in New York."

McHale and Barone are also positioning themselves these days as radio directors, and this is no joke. "We've been up against this bias our whole careers," says McHale. "We'll put in director's fees and the agencies don't get it. 'What's radio directing?' they ask. It's just like TV directing. We use our directing skills to elicit the best performances possible and to create the best radio possible. We're skilled voice directors, and we're not intimidated by A-list celebrities. The fact is, they want and need direction. In a sense, we do more than a TV director, because we also edit and mix the spots. It's a legitimate thing, and we're looking to push it in other directions - like animation."

"There are so many ways to deliver a line," adds Barone. "Consider the subtleties of a word like 'Oh.' Inflection, pacing, rhythm - these can mean the world. And unlike TV, you don't have that picture that's worth a thousand words. You have to cram those thousand words into 60 seconds. It can be difficult." But at the same time, it's genuine fun. "I believe radio is the most creative medium for a writer," Barone concludes. "You can go in the studio and play."

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