Ushering in the Theater of the Mind

Posted: August 5, 2011 in deejay, humor, Life, Radio, storytelling, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I voiced my first radio commercial at 19 for Marlene’s Intimate Apparel. They sold lingerie (surprise). The script was heavy with Fredericks of Hollywood terms and I sounded like a 12-year-old asthmatic reading it – high-pitched, breathy and impossibly young. I doubt I helped Marlene sell out of garter belts and bustiers.

I was an intern that summer in the station newsroom. I worked early mornings reading news on-air and evenings covering meetings, interviewing, writing, and editing in the hours in-between. It was interesting, sometimes exciting, and good writing practice, and I must have liked it because later I became a radio news director and a news editor for United Press International.

One morning as I was perched on my little stool in the corner of the newsroom, I noticed that across the office there seemed to be an area where the lights glowed a little brighter and people looked a little happier and every once in awhile, you caught the sound of laughter in the air.

“What’s over there?” I asked Fritts, the news director.

He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray by the microphone, rolled his eyes and sneered, “Production department. Ad copy writers. Bah!”

Hmmm, ad copy. How do you get to write that? I wondered. For the next few days, I watched and waited, looking for an opportunity to casually stroll over to the production director and say, “I’m a writer, you know. Got anything you want me to, uh, WRITE?”

Then came Marlene and her amazing underwear, my golden ticket to the Shangri-la across the office. Gwen in the production department needed a new female voice for the ad and I was it. That one commercial, bad as it was, led to others. Though nobody told me I could, I began making small edits to the scripts I was recording, just a little tweak here and there. When they finally noticed, Gwen said, “Wanna just write one?” The lights overhead blazed with intensity and a chorus of angels (or custodians, whatever) began to sing and I answered, “Well, YEAH!”

Twenty-six years later, I still write and record commercials. I have no idea how many I’ve done over the years, easily thousands, I suspect. And it remains to be one of the sweetest writing gigs I’ve ever had because it’s the best of all writing worlds. It’s fact and fiction, drama and comedy, simplicity and complexity. And to quote the great Manfred Mann: “Mama, that’s where the fun is.”

Writing commercials is all about the hook and the promise. We hook you with a little tidbit about what makes this the most amazing product EVER. Then we reel you in the rest of the way with the promise of how you’ll be happier, richer, skinnier, more satisfied, less stressed, funnier, faster, smarter, BETTER, because you’ve made the decision not to live without it. The formula is the same no matter what you’re selling. People who listen to my radio show would say my favorite commercials to do are the funny ones and I do so love to do those (my God, there have been some great ones over the years!) but they’re not my favorites. That spot is reserved for the ads that make you think and feel.

Theater of the mind. That’s what radio is. The medium that makes your ears your eyes. Where the sounds of rushing water conjure the image of a peaceful stream or a destructive flood. The right song surrounds you in a carnival or a rock concert or a revival meeting. And the announcer’s voice moves you to save a couple dollars on your next purchase or spend a couple more on a worthy cause. THOSE are the best commercials to write.

I’m just an usher in the theater of the mind. I shine my flashlight down the aisle of possibility, lead you to your seat, quiet the riff-raff in the row behind you, and when you’re moved by the snack bar song to head to the lobby to get a little something, I’m there to open the door. Hoping you’ll pick up something sweet, salty or refreshing. Or maybe something more personal. I hear Marlene’s is having a big sale.

  1. I’ve always envied those of you who get to write and produce tv and radio ads. It’s got to be very rewarding to follow a project through to completion. I enjoyed reading this post and love the humor of it. Your obvious creativity has served you well in all areas of your careers. I imagine it’s got to be a very demanding job to continually come up with ads that satisfy the customer and sell a product or service. That’s probably where you do your best work, when you have a deadline and have to come up with something great.

    • You would do well writing and shooting TV commercials, Rita. You’re a very expressive writer and an amazing photographer; I think you could put together a concept and follow it through to fruition with no problem. Sometimes it’s hard to come up with new ideas all the time, especially if you’ve worked with the same client for years and years and have covered their business from every angle. I look for new ideas everywhere. And yep, I’m an adrenalin freak when it comes to a deadline – I do some of my best writing when my back’s to the wall.

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