Last July, I purchased an Amazon Echo device for my home. It was one of those “Prime Day” deals where it was 50% off so I thought I’d take a chance. One of the things that I discovered is asking Alexa to "open the magic door". Making this request of your Echo sends you on a “Choose Your Own” adventure-style audio journey. I was fascinated by their use of sound effects and the magnitude of the undertaking by the Amazon programmers. At the same time, I was saddened at the realization that radio no longer emphasizes theater of the mind.
When I got started in this business 23 years ago, much of what I did was theater of the mind. Granted the days of :69 contest promos will never come back, but that doesn’t mean we can’t inject a little creativity and theater into the imaging and spots we create today. Subtle sound effects or inflections by voice-talents can go a long way to selling a scene in the listener’s minds-eye.
One of my favorite TOTM imaging examples was created by Ann DeWig when she was the creative services director at DC101. She had these simple “DC101” shotgun sweepers that were set in various environments. One was an airplane. You heard the engine whine of a twin prop jump plane followed by the door opening and a rush of air as Ann exclaimed, “DC 1-0-ooooooonnnnnnneeeee”! Finally, as her chute deployed, and the wind noise died down, she calmly said, “DC’s Rock Station.”
Another piece I remember was set in a boxing ring. There was crowd ambience and a round bell ding as Ann said, “DC”, followed by a series of punches. She then meekly squeaks out “101” as she hits the canvas.
When I heard these, they reminded me of old MTV interstitials where the MTV logo was doing something or created by something else. The one that sticks out in my memory is where they animated Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream”. As the camera flew into the mouth, we see the character’s uvula which is in the shape of the MTV logo.
Sound is an even more powerful medium. We can do this very easily in radio and create brand identity that resonates with our audience and leaves an impression that will last long after they’ve turned off the station.
Some simple ways to incorporate a little theater into your imaging is to dive into your real-world sound effects library. Find sounds that are in sync with your target listeners’ daily life experiences. For example, you might look for outdoor sounds for a country station. A fishing line being cast out into a pond with the tranquil ambiance of nature in the background. Augment that with a line like: “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Country everyday”.
Now take it a bit further with direction to your voice talent to really sell the scene.
Before I became the imaging voice for WDSY in Pittsburgh, I had the very talented Kelly Iris and the legendary John Willyard. I have them the direction of “pushing a very heavy object across a concrete floor”. They delivered with the line “Bustin’ our humps…(ugh) To get you more country…variety…all day…On the Job…” complete with grunts and huffs and puffs. Then Kelly threw in an ad lib of “oh my back” that inspired me to add a crackling sound.
My successor at WDSY has held up my tradition of including theater of the mind pieces between songs. Ron Ahern wrote a NASCAR themed piece where I was the race play-by-play announcer calling Y108 home to the checkered flag.
When you take the time to direct your talent and add the right effects, you can transport your listeners somewhere else, even if it’s only on for a few seconds between songs. By doing so, you’ll stand a good chance of burning your brand into their mind’s eye and their memory just like MTV did to me so many years ago!
While I don't have copies of Ann DeWig's samples from WWDC, I do have some things that I referenced in this article along with some of my favorite TOTM pieces I created in the Soundcloud link here below.