Delivering the Message

I’ve spent some time lately listening to a WLS aircheck recorded on April 26 and 27, 1977, just another average day in a golden era, with Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, Bob Sirott, John Landecker, Steve King, and Yvonne Daniels. Each jock’s personality is distinct—sardonic Uncle Lar, affable Tommy, Sirott the choirboy who makes trouble when nobody’s looking, Landecker creating his carefully constructed anarchy, Daniels the utter professional any jock would do well to imitate. What was up with King on that particular night, I don’t know. He rambles through an interminable bit on the cancellation of The Bionic Woman that’s not remotely entertaining, and he sounds generally ragged and disorganized, which is not the way I remember him. In any event, that 1977 lineup is as solid as any station anywhere ever had. WLS ’77 is hot, fun, and irresistible, and the log is crowded with commercials.

Commercial copy read live by the person on the air has gone out like high-button shoes in our heavily automated era, where there’s no jock in the studio a lot of the time. Now, practically everything that’s paid for is recorded. You’ll frequently hear jocks doing endorsement ads, in which they talk in the first person about a particular advertiser, but that’s a different animal. In days of yore, the live copy book was a fixture in every radio studio, and jocks dipped into it frequently. On WLS in the spring of 1977, the jocks were reading live copy constantly.

There are a couple of different kinds of live copy. One is the live tag added at the end of a commercial: “opens Friday at a theater near you” following a movie ad, for example, or “sale ends Sunday.” In a major market, the live tag for a clothing store might list the store’s locations: “Hillside, Harlem-Irving, Randhurst, and Scottsdale Shopping Centers” was a frequently heard live tag on Chicago radio back in the day. A live tag allowed speedy customization of an ad without having to change the whole thing. Sometimes the jock would have to read an entire commercial live. The WLS aircheck is full of these. Sometimes they’re over music beds, often a sponsor jingle. (I could just about hum along with the True Value Hardware jingle heard on the aircheck, it was so familiar.) Sometimes the jingle is what’s known as a donut, with singers at the front and back and a space in the middle for the jock to read the copy. Doing this live on the air can be a high-wire act—those singers are coming back in whether you’re done reading or not—but when done right, it’s a blast.

Live copy comes with risks for both advertiser and jock. Lujack was famous for butchering live copy. Such butchery could be funny, but it also ran the risk of watering down the advertiser’s message. As for the risk to the jock, WGN’s Bob Collins famously cracked up while reading a spot for a place called Rex’s Cork and Fork—but any place with that name is asking for it. A more common problem for jocks involved poorly written copy. In Dubuque, one local company insisted on writing its own copy, which would without exception make me sound like an idiot. Just because you sell “quality Union 76 gasolines, oils, and greases” does not mean you should refer to “quality Union 76 gasolines, oils, and greases” five times in a 60-second spot.

When I was a little baby disc jockey, I had an aircheck critique session with my boss, and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “When you’re reading live copy, it shouldn’t sound like the weather forecast.” The advertiser bought the ad to sell a product to the audience, and it’s the jock’s job to help sell it. So a commercial read, live or recorded, is its own unique task.

Back when you had live jocks on every shift, live copy made sense. Once automation took over, it began to disappear. You’ll still hear a little bit of it from time to time, especially on nationally syndicated shows where having the host read the spot is presumed to add value to it. But on your average local station on an average day, the random live :30 and the live tag have been gone for years, and they ain’t coming back.

3 thoughts on “Delivering the Message

  1. I used to love live copy; man, those were the days. Often, in my earlier years, I would go on the sales call and reinforce the idea that live copy’s principal benefit was its unpredictability. The sales person would assure the client that their main “mission statement”, “benefit assertion”, (or whatever jargon was current) would be a part of every live ad, along with a reason to visit the client, and where to find them, but beyond that, they were paying extra for the live read because their message could be made topical, current, memorable, and – yes, even humorous. If they didn’t understand the concept, they were sold a different kind of ad – the kind that some jock or production voice records. The challenge, it seems, was to deliver the extra value to the sponsor to live up to the promise; and to earn the extra money it meant for the jock. It took a good client to understand the premise and appreciate the elan of a “live, ad-lib ad”; and, it took halfway decent talent to deliver on the promise. It amazes me that we still have so much of that talent around, but today, they’re voice-tracking everything. There may still be a few of these (dinosaur) ads left today on morning shows, but by and large, it’s a pleasant memory of bygone days.

  2. To me, live copy was always like getting a script. How well could you sell it without coming across as a cheesy whore for the client was the challenge. I loved seeing a full copy book back in the day. It meant that the clients liked what I did. It was also an opportunity to raise the game and the bar and stand out amongst the competition. I have to quit reading your stuff, it makes me yearn and reminisce about a time that will never be again. Good work as always, sir.

  3. Yah Shure

    I was always a color-coding kind of guy. No continuity department in my experience ever came up with the idea of using brightly-colored cart labels or highlighters to scream “don’t forget the live tag, you moron!” without having to put in into actual words. Like on the program log, Where I would too-often overlook it. And sound like the consummate WDUM jock.

    Oh, great. Now the Missed The Live Tag dream will be back in rotation at WZ-Z-Z.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.