Ray Norman

How to write creative radio imaging

06.12.21 03:50 PM By Ray Norman

You can write great radio imaging sweepers––if you remember why people listen.

The radio sweeper below has always been a favorite of mine. Long ago, near the beginning of time, I was a radio production director, and my PD asked me to write morning show liners.  He advised me to think about why people listened to the morning show before I wrote. Well, I came up with a lot of crap in a short time––and decided I really didn't know how to write radio imaging. So I gave up... and in my frustrated attempt to demonstrate that I was the wrong man for the job of writing radio imaging––made one last bitter attempt. You can listen below:

Morning Show Radio Imaging for Dex in the Morning

  • Dex in the Morning

Instead of being relieved of my liner-writing duty (that was my plan), the PD wanted more... just like that one. Within a short time, I realized that writing anything creates a lot of waste and frustration, but that's just part of the job. I learned not to try too hard, to write what was entertaining to me, and to forget about how traditional radio imaging sounds. Instead of worrying about how everything else sounds, I worried about the PD's question: WHY SHOULD PEOPLE LISTEN.

That one sweeper became a meme in the days before memes––a thing listeners referred to, talked and laughed about. Listeners wanted to know "who is that guy that says that thing about a monkey named Billy". Listeners wanted to meet Billy the monkey. The PD wanted to print T-shirts with Billy the monkey. I probably don't need to tell you that the morning guy didn't have a monkey named Billy––it was just nonsense that surprised me when it popped in my head. But that one liner set the tone for the projection of personality the radio station needed, or so I was told. And it's more or less how I began voicing radio imaging––because the station's imaging voice could not read it in less than 45 seconds, owing to his self-image as a golden-voiced radio "announcer". While he remained as the station's voice, it was up to me to voice the branding for the morning show. I didn't even attempt to deliver it with the stereotypical "deep pipes" approach––because I couldn't and still impart the personality necessary for it to pop. Sometimes you need an UN-nouncer, not an announcer. And you always need to remember why your audience is listening: to be entertained.

(Radio) personality goes a long way. Your imaging should have personality.

Traditional broadcast radio has always had an intimate relationship with its listeners. Radio's goal has always been to engage, enlighten and relate. It's the difference between active listeners and passive listeners. Active listeners feel a connection to their radio station––and its personalities. Because, as Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) said in Pulp Fiction "..personality goes a long way". Which brings us to radio imaging, and the difference between forgettable imaging and memorable branding. Ask yourself this: If you take away your on-air personalities, is there any personality left in your radio station? With entertaining imaging, your answer can indeed be "yes!".

Write radio imaging as if it's for the on-air talent, not a nameless voice actor

This mindset is a great way to keep from writing stiff, lifeless liners. Sure, radio imaging drop-ins should be short and quick and to the point. But writing for the spoken word means writing naturally––and in any entertainment medium––writing with a touch of whimsy. Most of all, adding uniqueness to things mundane creates an element of attention-grabbing surprise. If you worry that your imaging voice sounds too stiff, consider that your sweepers and liners may be too stiff. That's often hard to avoid with generic "We're your Christmas station" liners, but you can always add a little spice to even those. How about: "We're your Christmas station... until we're your New Years station! (SFX party horn)".  It's that element of surprise in the second part that can snap your audience to attention, not to mention you've now got a plug for your New Years programming!  With that one additional line, you'll drop the hint to your imaging voice that you want a little extra personality in the voice delivery. It's much easier to deliver natural voice inflection if the material is written naturally.

The element of surprise in radio imaging

The goal with radio imaging is always to make your brand more memorable. So yeah, you wring your hands listening to 200 voices to find someone who's not on every station across America. You carefully construct sound design elements––even jingles––to be as unique as possible. But if you're writing is locked in a box, and you're always thinking "this has to be written a certain way", you're missing the opportunity to surprise your audience with something new. The element of surprise has been used as the key trick in all forms of storytelling and entertainment since the dawn of man. Writing radio imaging with elements of surprise means you have a chance for your brand to stick in the audience's mind, and most importantly: to make your brand more memorable. Considering that most radio station liners sound almost the same, town-to-town, up and down the dial, but with a slightly different voice, it's easy to see how the audience can become bored. A bored audience is not engaged or entertained, and may as well pull up that zombie playlist on Spotify and just eat their troubles.

Let's start at the top (of the hour ID)

Everybody knows how the top-of-the-hour station ID is supposed to sound, right? Or do they? "WXYZ-FM Philadelphia. A Cumulus station."  You gotta say it, 'cause it's the law, right? But it ain't doing a damn thing for your branding, 'cause it's written by lawyers. But wait––instead of trying to hide it from your audience, nestled in the middle of a stop set, why not have some fun, and make it a little different. 

Let's go with: "WXYZ-FM Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, sisterly affection and the hottest hip hop south of the North Pole."  Now you've covered your butt legally, and you've plugged your format with a little unexpected attitude. Because, yeah, your audience is all too familiar with (and tired of) the top-of-the-hour ID. The station ID does nothing for the audience, so... make it do something!

Be sure to communicate to your imaging voice guy or gal that you want your liners delivered with meaning, and not "announced". In fact, why not ask your imaging voice to give you several takes. Trust me, this can mean the difference between any radio IDs and sweepers sounding fun and engaging vs old school and lifeless. Consider that many radio imaging voices are not people who can be considered "voice actors". Many voices are hired for their tone, and not their ability to bring meaning and believabiltiy to the content they record. Probably most started out like me, simply imitating what exists in order to "sound like what successful radio imaging voices sound like."

Which of course is why it's often so hard to pick a new imaging voice––everybody tends to sound alike.

In a sea of penguins, wear that red hat!

About Ray Norman

Ray has over 2 decades of experience creating radio station imaging. Having started out as a production director, he learned how to create under pressure. You can hear examples here.

Ray Norman