Confessions of a radio commercial copywriter

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

Quite a long time ago now, I wrote radio ads for a living. I wrote them for seven years, all in: mainly for local clients. Smartly-dressed sales executives used to take a scruffy creative along with them to take a brief, or to read a script. The dress code was on purpose, of course.

As any period of listening to the radio will tell you, quite a few radio commercials are… well, they’re not the best part of the output.

There’s one I heard recently which seems to consist of two old ladies talking to one another about pain relief, and one of the old ladies seems suspiciously knowledgeable about a particular tablet that she takes. I’ve also heard the cliched “we only have thirty seconds to tell you about all the features in this new car”, and the “no, that can’t be right” producer on talkback to the voiceover, expressing amazement about some deal or other.

Here’s the thing.

1. Local ad agencies mainly have little experience of radio, and because it isn’t seen as glamorous, they give it to the most junior member of the team. The ad agencies rarely see the radio station’s creative team as being the specialists (even though, most certainly, they are). The most awful ads that make it to the air are, oddly, put there by the people who should know most about advertising.

2. Award-winning ads (I wrote my fair share) often don’t work very well for clients. Some of the least creative work (whisper it) worked the best. “VO1: A family of four can swim for just five pounds? VO2: Yes, a family of four can swim for just five pounds! Announcer: It’s true – a family of four can swim for just five pounds at your participating (county) swimming pool. VO3: Wait – a family of four can swim for five pounds? Announcer: A family of four can swim for just five pounds. It’s such a good offer, everyone’s talking about it.” I wrote this a long time ago, it certainly won’t win any awards, but my goodness, it worked.

3. There’s very little data out there about what works and what doesn’t, from a local advertiser point of view. (There’s lots of research about national brand-building ads; much less for local). So there’s virtually no continuous improvement or learning from your mistakes. If there is data, it’s often hidden behind a smokescreen of negotiation. “Aye, lad, your ads didn’t work. We’ll rebook, but we want a big discount.” – so they did work, of course, but he’s not going to tell me how well they actually did because he wants money off.

4. And this is, I think, the most curious. In seven years, I only ever had one bit of feedback from a programme director. Once. Congratulations to you, programme director for Ram FM, for pulling off one of my ads because the announcer had managed to mispronounce the name of a large local town. But literally that was the only time. Given that radio commercials are more than 20% of the broadcast hour these days, it’s odd that programme directors seem powerless to give feedback on a fifth of their station’s output. I’m told that in the UK, the classical music station Classic FM was a bit fiercer at launch – but they’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Commercial radio works – and works amazingly well. But it surprises me that after 30 years we’re no better at writing these things, and programme directors still feel powerless to insist on better copy.

About The Author

James Cridland, the radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at