By this point in December, Ebenezer Scrooge has got nothin’ on your average radio person. Jocks and sales reps have been drowning in Christmas projects since early October at least. One year when I was a jock and The Mrs. was in sales, we seriously considered exchanging gifts on Thanksgiving, when we still felt a little holiday spirit, instead of waiting until December 25, by which we would be good and truly sick of the entire enterprise.
All across the country, radio stations will launch a promotion in the next day or two (if they haven’t done so already) that many of them will call “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The details will differ but generally, this major holiday promotion has two goals in mind: A) capturing as many holiday advertising dollars as possible and B) plying the listeners with swag. Of course, the definition of “swag” is up for grabs. The best holiday prizes my radio stations ever gave away were Christmas trees decorated with dollar bills, $50 to a tree. (Research has shown that listeners would rather win cash than anything else.) The worst were probably certificates for free tanning. If there’s a worse prize to have to give away than free tanning certificates, I’m not sure what it is. I’d rather give away cigarettes. Although years ago, I worked at a station where one of our sponsors gave us movie passes, but insisted we give them away one at a time, presumably because nobody goes to the movies alone and the theater would sell at least one ticket that way. That may have been worse, but not by much.
At small-town stations (and some of the bigger ones, too), the holiday season brings out a particular sort of advertiser–the kind who hasn’t been on since last Christmas, and who won’t be on again until next Christmas, or until his going-out-of-business sale. A subset of this group consists of clients for whom the amount of aggravation they intend to put you through is inversely proportional to the amount of money they intend to spend. It’s one of Bartlett’s Laws of Radio that the more money a client has to spend, the less they care–generally, these clients know how advertising works, and they trust the station and its people to get things right with minimal oversight. People who think they’re livin’ large by spending $100, however, will pester you until it’s like being pecked to death by a duck. Plan on at least two spec scripts and two revisions of the one they finally choose before they’ll sign on the dotted line. And then, when you finally get them to approve the ad, that’s when the fun is sometimes just beginning.
I once developed a spot for a hot-tub dealer who had been the subject of a long and difficult seduction by one of our sales reps. We put in hours of work, doing several revisions, including the time we burned down the whole damn thing and started over, but we got the buy, five ads a day for five days starting Monday–not a big buy, but a start. On Monday afternoon, the studio intercom blinked. It was the receptionist, who said, “Andrew [the sales rep] is out of the building. Can you talk to the hot-tub guy? He needs to talk to somebody right now.” It seems the guy wanted to cancel his advertising. “It’s not working,” he told me. “Nobody’s come into the store who says they’ve heard it.”
It had been on twice. I gently explained the concept of frequency, and promised that I’d have Andrew call him just as soon as he got back–because Andrew got paid for that sort of advertiser triage, and I didn’t.
Toward the end of the holiday season, small-town stations start selling holiday greetings. Stations put together inexpensive packages in which advertisers can thank their many friends and customers for their patronage during the past year, and say that they look forward to serving them in the new year. There are a limited number of ways to say this, and the most commonly used version is the one in the preceding sentence. But some poor Christmas-abused copywriter will have to come up with a few variations, because the station will likely be running little else on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Sponsor greetings are the tanning certificates of advertising–good enough when they’re all you’ve got.
All that said, however, there were scattered moments during the holiday season when it would all seem worthwhile. You’d be on the air, and you’d play a spot on which you’d done good work and for which the client had paid a bundle, then you’d segue into a really good Christmas tune (the Ronettes’ “Sleigh Ride,” for instance) and do a nice little talkover, hitting the post perfectly, then look out the window to see snowflakes dusting the station parking lot. And you’d think, “Damn, I love my job.” Tanning-certificate giveaways and all.
(Buy the Ronettes, on the insanely great A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector, here. Seriously, if you do not have this album, go buy it now. I mean it. It’s too good not to have in your collection.)