Ray Norman

Is cookie-cutter radio imaging killing your image?

17.05.23 03:23 PM By Ray Norman

"Listen to this imaging reel! We need to sound like this!"

I learned how to produce radio imaging by the tried-and-true method of imitation. By listening to air-checks from top-25 stations. By straining my young vocal chords. By smoking and drinking and gambling and living the lifesty--- OK hold on, I'm getting off track. The point is, I got good at listening to what others were doing-- and nailing that - no more, no less. I was nothing more than a voice impersonator in those days. And sometimes, I wonder if I still am...

But there was that one time back in the day I did something original working out how to make our station's imaging sound unique. Because it seemed to young  Mr. Me that sounding unique was the whole point.

That batch of station imaging ran for... about a day.

I was praised for my effort--but told I didn't need to reinvent the wheel. The PD insisted I go back and listen to the same old imaging reel I'd I'd been given to start with--because this was how radio imaging should sound.  No more. No less.

Radio programmers seem hungry for something different- until they hear it and fear takes hold.

I worked hard in radio, as I do now as an indie producer of over 25 years. But I can't help notice that the radio imaging scenery doesn't change much, no matter how fast I drive.

I have archives full of my "creative" radio imaging efforts, and sometimes I still review those efforts. To me, a lot of my stuff sounds the same. You may listen to the demos I post, and feel that I'm "just another imaging guy". Truth is, I've taken down a lot of my more creative imaging efforts, and replaced them with content that's more familiar to program directors. Experience has taught me that if it sounds like what's already out there- I stand a better chance at getting a new imaging gig.

And I feel this might be a mistake. In fact, the reason I'm writing this article is I'm reviewing whether to incorporate more of the creative stuff in my reels. It's really got me over a barrel.

Radio programmers seem hungry for something different-- until they hear it and fear takes hold. This is similar to Hollywood, where rolling down the same beaten path as other films seems "safe".

So, on one hand, I can show you "different" and get praise––but not necessarily the gig: "We looove your creative stuff Ray, but- can you just stay in the lane of "radio imaging" that we know and love and insist on?"

The easy thing for me to do in a voice audition is to demo what you expect––and sink in the vast ocean of voices and styles that are so confusingly similar that you struggle to even keep track of it all, which makes it harder for me to get the gig you're offering.

In the age of streaming, having a unique and original approach to radio station imaging is paramount.

Isn't it?

Hello...? Anyone?

How streaming radio changed the landscape

The sheer number of radio stations and streaming channels available today is staggering, I don't need to tell you that. And it used to be listeners had to take a road trip to notice that most radio stations sounded pretty much the same from town to town. Now, you don't have to even leave your couch to notice the cookie-cutter sound of radio. This seems especially true with station imaging, since so many radio stations and radio groups default to "recognizable" imaging voices,"standard" production practices and imaging services with a "fast food" approach. Add to that the redundancy of voice talent styles, and you end up with an ocean of radio that sounds absolutely identical: A frightening scenario where brand loyalty is fragile and audience attention spans are  fragmented like pieces of a broken mirror.

I know you get where I'm headed. It's where I'm always headed: Imaging that sounds different. It's just that anytime I try "different", I feel I'm taking a risk. Guess that makes me part of the problem?

Radio imaging might be most effective if the audience doesn't even recognize it as "radio imaging"

How big radio fought the law (of change), and the law won

It's easier to just keep going in the direction you're headed- especially when you're trying to manage a lot of boats in the heaving ocean. Creativity - going a different way- can mean lack of control. It's scary, I get it. But even Hollywood, the masterclass for "How to keep things profitable by making more of the same until some streaming show beats you flat" is reckoning with new, intriguing, well-produced and creative serial shows. And just who are these writers and producers that dare to be creative? Many are rebels, who seek funding on their own, in order to make entertainment that is not just one more Marvel or Batman movie. To be honest, I've been blindsided by TV trailers that I didn't even RECOGNIZE as trailers- and got hooked on that show! So, there's that: the idea that radio imaging might be most effective if the audience doesn't even recognize it as "radio imaging".

I desperately want to refresh my radio imaging reels with content that's surprising, unique and ground breaking. But I don't get many liners that are really any different from what I've always done- mostly I am sent a version of "more music less talk".  And to tell you the truth, I have even cheated by re-wording stuff or changing it completely, only for the purpose of sticking that on my reel, instead of what I was sent.  Yeah, there are some of you out there that are writing and/or producing unique and surprising radio station imaging.  Let's all head in that direction!  I mean, our brains are wired to be surprised according to difference. It's when we perceive something different that our brains get excited!

Together, we can create radio imaging that will elevate the entire industry, and inspire on-air personalities to "live up" to the hype the station imaging promises.

Ray Norman is a long-time producer of radio imaging and sound design. You probably figured that out...

Hear Ray Norman's often predictable but sometime surprising radio imaging

Ray Norman