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The premise of director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is that with a ravaged Earth quickly dying, humanity’s only hope for survival is to leave it behind for a planet in another galaxy where the species can go on.

Consider this for a moment: Different characters, same premise, but instead of Earth being the hostile world, it’s advertising. Instead of the human race being in peril, it’s radio.

Recently, I put this question out there on Facebook: Why has radio become the advertising equivalent of Chernobyl? You know, the village in Russia that turned to radioactive toast when the nuclear reactor there went belly up.

Few creatives want to produce ads for radio anymore. To paraphrase one commenter, “Getting asked to do radio is like getting shipped off to some gulag in Siberia.” Chernobyl. Gulag. You see the pattern developing here?

The answers I got back were varied. Some expected. Some not. But all were consistent in their opinion that radio has fallen on tough times. And while you could argue that it’s never been high on anyone’s professional bucket list, things are pretty dire now.

Some point the finger at media planners. Freelancer Joe Berkeley: “In the search for efficiency, the marketers who still embraced radio abandoned the :60 spot in favor of the :30 spot. This started to kill the craft, as there’s less time in a :30 radio spot for a concept, a call to action and the always-present legal disclaimer. The thing that always has to give is the concept, so there’s about three to seven seconds of it.”

Well, yes, there’s that. Hard to do great work with the walls closing in.

But, some wondered, if red-hot storytelling platforms like Serial and Radiotopia podcasts can captivate listeners, why can’t radio? Droga5 chief creative officer, Ted Royer, had this to say: “Anyone who thinks radio is dead needs to listen to Serial. If programming can be that compelling, why can’t radio advertising?” Well, yes, but that might be a tall order for radio as we know it. The square peg in the round hole thing and all that.

And then there was this, from freelance creative director Rob Rich: “We live in a visual society that’s too impatient to listen and get sucked in. We want to look and move on. To stop people, you need to create an experience.” Chris Hale of Shanty Creek Resorts seconded that: “Eight-second attention spans? Even the best :60s have little chance to connect. And connecting with the audience has always been the key. The ever-shrinking attention span, not video, killed the radio star.”

No question about it—as a culture, we’ve developed a case of collective ADD, which would be amusing, I suppose, if it weren’t so troubling. Rich and Hale are right, of course. We have indeed outgrown our patience for anything that doesn’t come in, whack us across the face and get out all in a matter of seconds. Although, as Facebook responder David Simpson puts it, there might be hope yet. “As to the visually addled zombies we’re all becoming, my eleven- and thirteen-year-old boys are mesmerized by Serial, as am I, and listen without interruption.” There it is again. Serial.

Still others thought that our flagging interest in craftsmanship has something to do with it. Former Fallon creative director Bruce Bildsten was one of the creators of the groundbreaking BMW short-film series The Hire. “As a creative director, I always felt like I had one or two writers who could do radio, and I didn’t waste my time giving assignments to those who couldn’t. The writers who excelled at it were craftspeople who really sweated the details. I think there are fewer and fewer of those people out there. It’s like beautifully crafted print—not a lot of people out there who want to put in the work.”

And finally there was this from Edward Boches, former chief creative officer at Mullen and now professor of advertising at Boston University. “I teach all creative classes, and we don’t even cover radio. Posters, TV, video, apps, web, experiential, hacked media, social, other digital platforms—we invent across most. But not radio.” So here comes a new generation of creatives who see radio as about as relevant to digital society as a mastodon.

Myself, I think you have to know when it’s time to move on. And radio, as we’ve known it, might be approaching that point. As Ted Royer said, there’s no reason radio advertising can’t be as compelling as Serial. And he’s right. But just as a print ad could never hope to achieve the deep emotional impact of a novel, the radio spot as we’ve known it will never be as compelling as it needs to be in 30 or 60 seconds.

Which brings me back to Interstellar. Is the traditional radio spot dead? No. But it might just as well be. Maybe there’s a new home for radio, someplace far beyond the confines of 30 or 60 seconds. Just as television transformed itself into online long-form media, maybe what we once called radio will undergo a transformation. Like Matthew McConaughey, maybe it’s time to go through the wormhole. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
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