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Ideas and technique to help you promote and image radio

Five creative perils

Steve Martin

This is a summary of a presentation I was asked to give at Next Radio. That (above) is me giving it.

I wanted to do something useful for delegates. Not the strategic management stuff that I get asked about in consultancy sessions but some of the pesky on-the-ground issues that stop talented creatives from getting their best work to air and which production folk can actually do something about themselves.

Time and again, brilliant ideas are diluted or crippled before they hit the air. Perhaps you’ve seen it for yourself: what starts as a moment of genius ends up as mediocre radio. The producer’s early enthusiasm turns to disappointment, their idea is wasted and the listener’s experience is sub-optimal.

Why does that happen? What is getting in the way? And how can we stop it?

Well, here are five “creative perils” I’ve identified and some thoughts on how to neutralise them. They’re ranked in reverse order for added excitement.


5. Formula

Radio producers know better than most the power of formula in creating companionship radio. Format, repetition and policed consistency are what make our stations familiar.

But you might want to build up your uniquely consistent behaviour and then, just occasionally, subvert it. Sometimes you may break from the norm and never go back.

Television news graphics were once largely blue, the colour of authority. It took the brains of graphic designer Martin Lambie-Nairn and the guts of the BBC to challenge that formula. In 1999 they introduced the colour of excitement, red, to the BBC’s news branding. Today there’s red in news channel graphics the world over.

Breaking formula might mean dropping the station voice, running an ad-free sponsored weekend (as Absolute Radio has done), letting listeners choose the news (Metro, CFM) or, best of all, doing something nobody has yet thought up.

You won’t break formula every day, but you’ll get recognised as a creative leader if you can make that judgement and get it right.


4. Irrelevance

Irrelevance is giving the wrong message to the wrong people at the wrong time. I rather enjoyed the dance tunes on Capital FM last Saturday night until a British Gas ad interrupted, declaring:

“Now’s the time to think about changing your boiler.”

No it’s not. It’s Saturday night and I’m dancing.

The BBC broadcast a brilliant campaign for Dr Who earlier this year. You can hear it discussed by James Stodd in this edition of the Earshot Creative Review.

In the campaign, the Doctor’s Tardis would appear unannounced in the middle of your favourite radio programme. The promos had incredible cut through because they interrupted your listening and broke formula (see point 5).

Such a device would be gratuitous and annoying were it not for the relevance of the idea. After all, that’s what the Tardis does – turns up unexpectedly.

When you have a good idea but not a relevant way to deploy it, bank it for later. Never send a good idea on a bad mission.


3. Vanity.

Vanity is, of course, the advertising client who insists on voicing the ad himself. It’s always a man. But it’s also all of us when we write a line of promotional copy but fail to ask “but how does that actually help anybody.”

The British radio advertising copywriter Simon Rushton, now running a big radio advertising house in Kenya, gives the example of an advertiser who likes to say that they’ve been in business 25 years. They’re very proud of that but does it really make you more likely to buy a mattress from them?

The answer to this is a good brief against which you can test your creative, firm account management and a consumer benefit for every feature you promote.

This applies to radio station promotional trails too. They can be the worst.


2. Unsubstantiated and subjective claims.

Here’s an ad I spotted on my boarding pass. The Russian Tea Room claims it’s the world’s most famous restaurant. Well, that’s pretty hard to substantiate and I don’t believe it. Neither does Jeeves.

Many consumers are highly attuned to this kind of toss. Ben Goldacre’s excellent book Bad Science explains how to spot even sophisticated toss a mile off. I recommend reading it, not just to be more highly attuned to the toss of others, but to help you write less of your own.

One way to be believable is to tell the truth. The Russian Tea Room does this brilliantly in my estimation with this line on its website:

“We’re six minutes and twenty three seconds from the Lincoln Center and just to the left of Carnegie Hall.”

Factual, funny and useful. Shame about the ad.


1. Fear

It is, in my experience, the big one. Fear of failure, fear of upsetting somebody, fear that it’s just too difficult. But it’s not. You never have to risk your life to save your idea. You just need to do a few things to protect it.

For example, you might want to limit the number of people who have to sign-off your idea. Somebody somewhere will hate your work and the more people you ask, the more likely you are to find them.

If you do have to go through a risky sign-off procedure always have an acceptable plan B ready.

It’s worth weighing up the relative benefits and risks of breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. Children understand that. Somehow we unlearn it in adulthood.



This aide memoire sums up the main points. In colour.

That’s what I think anyway. What about you?

Top photograph by – used under CC licence.