One of the things I enjoy most in my role as creative director at The Goat Farm is directing radio ads. I guess I’ve done a few hundred over the years, ranging from “bang-em-out” station-produced retail spots to the more considered and carefully produced ads we’re lucky enough to be making these days.

In case you can’t picture just what directing a radio ad entails, imagine this: in the voice booth, behind glass, a voice artist (usually an actor or radio host) stands in front of a very expensive-looking microphone holding a script. She’s wearing headphones, and can hear our feedback from the control room, plus any music and sound effects we want to include.

On our side of the soundproof window, the main feature is the mixing desk and the engineer driving it. The desk takes a feed from the microphone, captures the read digitally and mixes it with the other components of the ad. All the audio components appear as coloured waveforms on the desktop, which can be clipped, moved, stretched and manipulated to make up the final ad. (Once upon a time, this would have involved actual clipping and gluing of tape.)

Also in the room will usually be a client, a suit from the agency, and me. Audio sessions can be long, so we’ll inevitably be sprawled on comfortable couches, snacking on lollies and drinking coffee.

Put that all together, mix for an hour or so, and a radio ad should come out the other end… here’s what I’ve learnt from the good ones (and the not so good):

One voice to listen to. While there are three are four people in the room, all with valid and often different opinions on the way the artist is reading the script, it makes her life much easier to only have one voice to listen to. So while I will always chat with the client, the engineer and the suit, it’s my direction the talent works to.

One thing at a time. Often, especially in the early takes, there might be a bunch of things we’d like changed in the read. As the director, I decide which one to do first. Then, when we’ve nailed that, we move on. So if we’re looking for a quicker, more serious read, with emphasis on the product name, we’d first work on the pace, then the tone, then the emphasis.

Ask for the what, not the how. Let’s say I want the final line to sound friendlier. One way to do that would be to read the line myself in a more friendly way, and ask the voice artist to do it that way. Or I could ask for it to be friendlier and let her draw on her experience and talent to come up with a solution. Guess which way works best?

Be open to change. A script on paper isn’t the same as an ad on the radio. So I try and be open to ad-libs, changes and additions from the voice artist. (Having the client in the room to approve things on the spot helps too.)

Know what it’s like on the other side. My first advertising job was as a radio station copywriter, and as part of that we’d be asked to voice some of our own ads. That experience gave me an understanding of what it’s like to read a script, and what it’s like to be directed.

Give everyone a say. Everyone in the session has given an hour or more of their time to be there, and everyone brings years of experience. So before I approve a take I’ll always ask everyone in the room what they think, and whether they’d change anything. That includes the talent – they’ve seen hundreds of scripts too, so their input is gold.


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