Sunday, February 5, 2017

Radio Promotions

It is that time of year! Last Thursday, a pair of groundhogs were hauled out of their nice warm dens into the early morning cold to predict the end of the winter. They came out with a split decision under decidedly suspicious circumstances. Up in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow under cloudy skies and predicted six more weeks of winter while down in Georgia, General Beauregard Lee did not see his under sunny skies and predicted an early spring. How did that happen? Well, they are rodents, not meteorologists. But they had the attention of the whole world and for a while, the Facebook and Twitter universes argued about something other than politics for a change.

Thinking about groundhogs, top hats and burrows reminded me of some of the radio and television promotions that used to pop up this time of year. “This is radio station WXYZ, home of the most accurate groundhog in the country!” and “Our groundhog can out-predict yours any day!” were just two that come to mind. The whole radio promotion idea can be found on the “I Thought Turkeys Could Fly” episode on the WKRP in Cincinnati TV sitcom. But just where did all of this craziness come from.

The answer was simple, after busiest time of the year; the Christmas Season, the station sales always ramp down with the after Christmas Sales then the President’s Day sales to the lowest point in the year. Instead of running 18 minutes of commercials per hour, then the limit placed on the stations by the FCC, sales would drop off to five or six total commercial minutes per hour. Most of these were the sponsors of the shows who bought packages that ran year round. The station copywriters began to twiddle their thumbs and get cabin fever.

Copywriters, by their nature were creative people who worked closely with the Sales Team, and now both of these groups had time on their hands. Ideas began to be bounced around as they sat in bull sessions and the radio and television promotions were the result. Besides there was a lot of surplus air time floating around.

These boredom – driven meetings resulted in some of the most creative local spot and promotional activity ever. A good example of this is the creation of “ChickenMan” a series of 60 to 90 second vignettes started at WCFL in Chicago that wound up being syndicated on many of the stations in larger markets in the county. This was something that the sales department could sink their teeth into. Sponsorship of “ChickenMan” the earnest, bumbling super hero spiked late winter, early spring sales figures for a couple of years. “ChickenMan” can still be heard daily on a couple of radio stations. Here is a link to a ChickenMan episode.

Medium and smaller markets could not afford the syndicated “Chicken Man” show resulting in many “Turkey Man” knockoffs. WCOS was one of those stations that did this. I can tell you that it was so much fun to produce. Woody, our program director was the genius behind our “Turkey Man” episodes that ran in 1969. Once a week, the entire on air staff would gather into the production room and surround the microphone in the middle of the floor. Woody would hand out the script and we would then roll tape and let it roll. Let it roll is a good euphemism for what happened next. The script was not complete but a loose story line. We would all then ad-lib our assigned character’s lines for the next minute and a half. The DJ with the deepest voice was always assigned the narrator’s role because at some point during the bit, he would always say “Weeelllllll, Turkey Man is in yet another fix!”

That same year, 1969, I was in Atlanta for a couple of months and got to hear one of the best “Turkey Man” promotions ever on WQXI, the big Quixie in Dixie. For months and months, they promoted that “Turkey Man was coming to WQXI.” There were lots of plot inserts and funny pieces inserted into these announcements. I noticed that these announcements carried a sponsorship. I thought that was a pretty cool way of extending sales on the series, so I made a note to share that with the sales team when I got back.

As it turns out, there was a reason that these pre series announcements were sponsored. I was fortunate enough to be back in Atlanta the Friday that WQXI finally ran the first episode of “Turkey Man” Luckily, it was in the morning drive time and I was able to listen to it live. The episode started off normally, the imbedded commercial ran, and then Turkey Man took off after the baddest of the bad guys. The biggest of fights ever on the radio ensued and at the end of it, Turkey Man lay unconscious on the floor. The deep voiced announcer came on and said “Weeeelllll, is this the end of Turkey Man?” A long pause ensued and then he said “Yes! This is end of Turkey Man, presented by the sponsor!” I was on the I-75/I-85 corridor near Georgia Tech just about to turn off at The Varsity on North Avenue, when all I could see was a sea of red brake lights in reaction to what everybody just heard. After the initial shock, I laughed all the way to my destination, the FCC Atlanta Field office where I was going to sit for my First Class Radiotelephone License. I smiled all the way through that exam. Now, that was local radio creativity at its best. By the way, I passed the exam on my first and only try. Oh MY!

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