I'm delighted to have Paul Burke guest-writing this one.

Paul is a part-time DJ, multi-award winning copywriter, and author of four successful novels... but his primary credentials here are that he is the all-time most awarded radio writer in the UK. Earlier this year he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Radio Advertising Bureau.


TIPS FOR WRITING RADIO, by Paul Burke

Don’t.

Seriously, don’t. You won’t like doing radio. Not if you went to art college. If you were visually trained, why on earth would you want to work in a medium with absolutely no visual content?

Radio will not boost your career prospects. British advertising is still in thrall to the visual. So, even an award winning radio campaign will bring you neither a giant pay rise nor a slew of creative directors beating a path to your door. Your work will be invisible. Literally. Its merits will go unreported in Private View and unrewarded as Pick of the Week.

Still reading? Good. Because if you’re a real writer, as opposed to one indistinct half of a “creative team”, these drawbacks won’t bother you. You’ll find radio the purest and most satisfying medium of all.

Not every ad you make will be brilliant but the following tips should help you make each one as good as it possibly can be.

At the risk of stating the obvious, nothing exists on radio until you write it. With no visual short-cuts, everything has to be said. Someone, somewhere in the script will have to say it so who’s that someone going to be?

If you’ve chosen to create a mini-piece of comedy or drama, start with the characters and the first thing to do is give them names. Can you imagine writing a book and calling all the characters MVO and FVO?

Let’s call your MVO and FVO Nick and Helen. Immediately they’ve taken on lives of their own. So what do they look like? How old are they? What’s their relationship? Do they like each other? Before they open their mouths, you should know everything about them. Once you do, just write down what you think they’d say in the situation you’ve created. If Nick and Helen are good characters, they will help write the script for you.

When they have, look at the script. It needs to answer the following questions:


Who are these people?

Where are they?

What are they doing?

How do we know?

If the answer to any of them is unclear, go back in and tweak. It may only require a single word or sound effect to fix the problem. Nick and Helen have got to sound convincing. Yes, of course they’re selling a product but it’s not enough for them to just present the facts. If Helen were trying to persuade Nick to her point of view in real life, she’d put some guile and emotion into it. Make sure she does the same in your script.

Likewise, if Nick thinks his new Ford Focus handles well, make sure he says it handles well rather than talking about its “class leading road feedback”.

Not all scripts have characters playing parts. Sometimes, what’s required is a straight read from one voice. This is when you’re allowed to call the voice MVO or FVO and casting and attitude are even more important. Decide exactly what sort of person you want to convey your message. “Hear” that voice in your head, and search until you find it.

If you’re advertising Newcastle Brown Ale or the Scottish Tourist Board, or your commercial is only running in a particular region, it makes sense to use the appropriate accent. Otherwise, regional accents are best avoided. It’s completely untrue and, actually, rather offensive to suggest that some accents are less trustworthy than others. It’s the voice and the character behind that voice that’s either trustworthy or untrustworthy.

If you feel that your idea would benefit from a particular accent, that’s fine, as long as you steer clear of “Mr Versatile”. We’re all depressingly familiar with Southerners adopting Northern accents, posh people pretending to be common and white people pretending to be black. In every case, with the genuine article easily accessible, don’t let the voice (and therefore the whole idea) sound phoney.

Casting is crucial so try not to fall lazily back on to the “usual suspects”, whose voices are heard in practically every ad break. It’s not that these actors are bad, they’re extremely good. Which is why they’re so popular. Which is why, if you use them, your ad will sound like everyone else’s. Try to be a little more original. Keep your ears open, listen to the radio, watch TV, go to the theatre and find good people.

The same applies to inspiration for your ideas. There are far fewer aural than visual cupboards to raid. but the same two maxims apply.

1. No output without input.
2. The important thing isn’t where you find your ideas it’s where you take them.

There will always be obstacles between you and the awards podium; you just have to make sure you overcome them. You’ll always encounter greedy clients who try to cram too much into 30 seconds. Be good enough to tell them that they’re wasting their money because end up remembering nothing. Re-iterate your point by saying “I throw one ball at you, you’ll catch it. If I throw ten at once, what do you think will happen?”

Then of course, there the legals. On TV and press you can set them in barely legible type at the bottom of the screen or page but you’ll have no such luck with radio.

Certain terms and conditions may have to be added but always question exactly what needs to be said. The RACC can be prescriptive enough, but the clients’ own compliance departments are often far worse. Encourage those clients to stand up to the enemy within and only put in what the RACC have deemed absolutely necessary.

Having written your script and cast your voices perfectly, all you have to do now is make the commercial Pick your engineer as carefully as you’d pick a director for a TV commercial. Find out who’s particularly good with actors, or music or effects and get the right one to bring your creation to life by suggesting things you wouldn’t have thought of. You don’t want one who just sits there pressing the buttons. Good engineers will have opinions on all aspects of the production. They do this for a living, so make sure your commercial benefits from their knowledge, skill and experience.

Scripts tend to expand in performance so never think that yours is set in stone. Be ready to edit stuff out. Cut and cut again. You brought these words into the world, so let them breathe. Also, certain words that look fine when written can sound odd when spoken, so keep adapting, keep amending, and keep improving until the engineer’s next client is knocking on the studio door.

Follow these tips your next piece of radio might just be fabulous. The sort of commercial that goes in one ear. And stays there.

Despite his God-like status in the industry, Paul would like to point out that he is very approachable - indeed actually available, for freelance radio writing and production. Feel free to email him at paul_burke@btinternet.com


Tip No.34 - How To Do Press
Tip No.33 - How To Do TV
Tip No.32 - How To Do Digital
Tip No.31 - How To Do Posters
Tip No.30 - Look At Weird Shit
Tip No.29 - Presenting To The Client
Tip No.28 - Presenting To The Team
Tip No.27 - Presenting To The Creative Director
Tip No.26 - How To Deal With Rejection
Tip No.25 - Look Creative
Tip No.24 - Don't Be Afraid To Ask
Tip No.23 - Your Idea Has To Be 120%
Tip No.22 - Read Iain's Tips
Tip No.21 - Don't Behave
Tip No.20 - How To Discuss Ideas
Tip No.19 - Read Hugh's Tips
Tip No.18 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job
Tip No.17 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7)
Tip No.16 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together
Tip No. 15 - How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ
Tip No. 14 - Make Friends With Traffic
Tip No. 13 - Get Reference
Tip No. 12 - Don't Stop Too Soon
Tip No.11 - Be Very
Tip No.10 - Breaking Up
Tip No.9 - Working Well With Your Partner
Tip No.8 - Finding The Right Partner
Tip No.7 - How To Approach Agencies
Tip No.6 - Never-Seen-Before Footage
Tip No.5 - Dicketts' Finger
Tip No.4 - Two Blokes In The Pub
Tip No.3 - Play Family Fortunes
Tip No.2 - Should You Take A Bad Job?
Tip No.1 - Don't Overpolish

13 Comments