Friday morning, Harrison Hill Elementary, Mr. Wolfe’s 6th-grade math class: We had a big test, and I didn’t know the answers. I glanced to my right, I glanced to my left — and copied as many answers as I could. All three of us failed that test. Later, I was paddled in front of the class for copying. The humiliation, the F, and a glowing red behind taught me never to copy again.

Mr. Wolfe is needed desperately at the Radio Advertising Bureau. A recent headline in the RAB daily e-mail reads: “2000 Radio Scripts Now Online.” I cringed when I saw that announcement. Copying other people’s scripts is lazy. Encouraging it is bad for radio. Facilitating it is shameful. (I could almost agree with publishing successful radio scripts if RAB placed a bright-red warning that people should NOT copy the ads, but use them only to stimulate new ideas.)

The spot you copied may be creative, but it probably won’t solve your clients’ marketing challenges. Worse, it probably won’t work for them. For too long, copywriters or AEs have grabbed a spot, changed only the name of the client, put it on the air and watched it fail. How many more advertisers have to say, “I tried radio and it didn’t work,” before Radio finally teaches its people to write?

Today’s busy account executive rushes in on Friday afternoon, bangs out a spot in 10 minutes (or copies one from the RAB database), gives it to Production and then begins planning Monday morning’s explanation to the client of what went wrong. We are fools to think our average account executive is prepared to write radio copy.

We are in the business of words, but we do not study them. Functional illiteracy is the disease that’s killing radio.

Radio groups are spending fortunes on research to refine their programming, yet they spend nothing to learn how to make ads work. Commercials are the life-blood of our business. Doesn’t it make sense for us to study them? The answers are available, but most broadcasters don’t realize the nature of the problem: Closing the sale isn’t the finish line; it’s the start of the race.

Because of pressure to hit goals, today’s account executives sell schedules they know won’t work. In addition, illiteracy is not just a problem with AEs. Most sales managers, GMs, market managers, regional VPs and group heads don’t know how to write ads, either. We hide behind the idea that it’s Someone Else’s job. Hey, maybe when we locate the mysterious Mr. Someone Else, we can have him explain to Wall Street why we’re not hitting our numbers.

Mr. Wolfe slammed my backside with a paddle when he caught me copying because he knew that I would be less effective in life if I were a copycat. Likewise, Radio is getting its behind paddled, and its glowing red rear is its pathetic share of ad dollars in the marketplace. The difference between us is that I knew my beating came as the result of copying, but radio has never quite figured out why it’s being paddled.

9/06/04 Radio Ink Magazine. By B. Eric Rhoads