Goodyear retailers ran a radio commercial not long ago. An announcer bellowed details of a tire sale over what I originally thought was a particularly obnoxious percussion soundtrack. But the sound wasn’t drums. It was the repeated “Wheep! Wheep!” of power wrenches tightening lug nuts, surely one of the world’s ugliest sounds. And loud.
Car dealers love to create commercials with screaming, dueling announcers, as though zero percent financing were some sporting event coming to a climax. A local auto glass replacement outfit introduces its radio spots with a veritable Stentor roaring, “New England…is Giant country!” You can’t escape Giant Glass; they sponsor the Red Sox.
They’re loud, too.
Verizon DSL spots employ a woman and a man who play at emergency room intensity and try to out-yell each other: “This system is on life support!” “We have major dial-up problems!” “Connectivity is critical!”
If anything kills talk radio, it will be the commercials and station promos: Too many of them going on too long, sometimes seven or eight or nine at a clip.
And definitely too loud.
WHY ARE COMMERCIALS SO LOUD? It isn’t a new question. The Canadian Radio and Television Commission got so many complaints some years back about obnoxiously loud commercials that they printed their own answer to the question, a nicey-nice pooh-pooh, titled “It’s a Blast! Sound Levels and Loudness of Commercials.” Basically, the Canadians said commercials weren’t loud, they just seemed that way.
Commercials are loud because advertising clients, who pay for them, want them loud. It starts there. Clients, advertising agencies, and commercial production houses probably don’t say, “Let’s make this one really loud.” But they do talk about “cutting through the clutter” and “making the message stand out.” As the Canadians point out, the recording engineers have two main tools to make that happen.
One is called compression. Visualize a jumpy, all-over-the-place audio wave, representing a normal, varying sound conversation, a back-and-forth bit of jazz banter between instruments. Now draw two horizontal lines, one above the median of that wave and one below, clipping off the peaks and the valleys. The overall volume will be decreased, because of cutting off the tops and bottoms of the amplitude waves. Now increase the volume to the original level. What’s left won’t be any “louder” than what came before, but it will seem so because the volume has become uniform throughout.
The other tool, “sound re-shaping,” emphasizes irritating, attention-getting frequencies. Thus the common use of bombastic percussion behind a voiceover, ringing slap echo on the voices themselves, and the employment of bleating surfer-boy announcers (“Sell your time-share for KYAASSHHH!”). Compress and clip the whole thing to a fare-thee-well and you’ve got your modern commercial.
Station promos are even worse.
I LIKE ADVERTISING. I WORKED in advertising for years. But advertising can cut its own throat. Surely a great many radio commercials are doing just that. If you create a commercial that immediately makes listeners turn down the volume or, worse, turn the radio off, what good does that do?
So enough, already. Give me good old soothing George Zimmer telling me I’m going to like the way I look, or David Oreck offering me a 30-day money back guarantee, or Neil Clark Warren crooning about “troo luhhv.” But advertisers in the irritation business can forget about my business.