Creatives pick up radio directing tips

The Aerials Foundation recently ran a one-day workshop for creatives at the Soho Theatre on how to direct radio actors.

Will 2005 be remembered as the year in which radio became the runt of the mass-media litter? According to the Advertising Association's latest forecasts for 2005, internet adspend will continue to balloon, while outdoor, cinema and TV will enjoy more modest increases. But radio adspend will decline by 1.5 per cent.

Anyone who regularly listens to commercial radio will not be hunting for reasons why either: most of the ads make your ears bleed. The hallmarks of wretched radio ads - poor acting, unconvincing scripts and garbled information machine-gunned at listeners - all give the medium a bad name.

One of the Radio Advertising Bureau's remits is to improve creative quality, to which end it launched The Aerials Foundation in 2003. The foundation runs regular courses for creatives to help them produce better radio work, including a half-day seminar on directing actors.

The latest seminar, which took place on 10 November at the Soho Theatre, was introduced by Nick Bell, the executive creative director of JWT. Bell commented: "We make an awful lot of crap radio commercials and, as with any medium, the bad ads dramatically outweigh the good ones."

The logic behind the seminar was that, if creatives can improve their understanding of the fundamentals of radio drama and direction, the end product will be slicker. Martin Sims, the radio director at Eardrum, articulated the challenge: "With TV ads, you can use a beautiful Thai beach or special effects. Radio does not have that luxury; the cast can make or break a radio ad."

Sue Perkins, a comedian and regular voiceover artist, lamented the lack of good direction. She shared some of the howlers that she'd received over the years, which included: "Can you be more German?", "Do it like your head's coming off" and "Can you be John Cleese?"

Perkins was in no doubt that more focused direction is required: "This is the sharp end of business and we are there to help you sell something. If we're not given good direction, we tend to lapse into 'Received Pronunciation'. We need to be told what to do in a way we can understand."

Suggestions regarding what form these instructions could take came from the theatre director Marina Caldarone. "Don't ever say 'Do it like this'; it has to be realistic and act-able. Don't say: 'You're a dinner lady from 15 years ago.'"

Caldarone advised giving context to actors to assist them. As well as having a clear idea of who and where they are and who they're talking to, they should also know what's just happened and, crucially, what they want. "Giving the actors an objective encourages them to 'do' rather than emote," she said.

Caldarone also recommended identifying a verb that can be associated with the character's speech - for instance, an angry speech is equivalent to "threatening" the other character. "You can't act a mood or a colour, you need motivation or a story," she said.

Gordon House, the former head of BBC radio drama, re-emphasised many of Caldarone's points and advised against writers directing ads themselves.

He compared directing actors to managing a football team: "Involve everyone when you're giving feedback; treat everyone the same; don't have favourites and don't pander to celebrities." He added: "Use praise and encouragement but don't give out praise for specific lines because then the actors will over-perform them."

Describing radio as "an impoverished medium", he said that actors can often double up as two characters, a tip that creatives on a tight budget might bear in mind. The actor needs be able to do clearly distinctive voices, however, House counselled. A vocal resemblance between two actors playing siblings on TV would be a bonus; on radio it's simply confusing.

Above all, House said, radio has to be convincing: "It's tosh that you need a lovely voice to do radio. You need people who can get to the truth of the role. The audience has got to believe they are eavesdropping on a real situation, despite the artificiality of actors speaking into a microphone."

With more radio ads relying on humour to connect with audiences, the seminar included advice from Matt Lipsey, who directed the last series of Little Britain. Lipsey recommended: "Ask yourself what works in the script and what needs changing. What's funny about it? Is it close to the truth, or an exaggeration of it?"

Sims added that comedians can't be expected to work magic on a lame script: "It should be funny to start with and the comedian should make it funnier."

Sims also recommended a healthy turnover of actors, to prevent voices becoming over-exposed.

"Matt Lucas and David Walliams have been everywhere, and now it's Simon Pegg and the Peep Show guys. Explore new actors."

Creatives have nothing to lose in improving their understanding of how actors and directors contribute to radio ads. In turn, Perkins demonstrated some insight into the process involved with creating ads: "It's a difficult job to marry up selling something with being creative, but it's worth investing in the final performance. Sitting in a booth and doing silly voices is fun, but it's better when it's bang on the money."