(or How I Learned to Love the Brickwall Compressor)

I’m not entirely sure how the radio imaging obsession got started.  One day I was listening to some voiceover demos and analyzing the production levels of different genres.  It’s worth noting here that not all voiceover demos are created equal.  This is by design. I’ll elaborate a little bit here:

Explainer and eLearning demos are extremely smooth in their delivery.  Sometimes they contain humor, more often than not they are demonstrations of the kind of voice you would expect to hear for hours on end while learning how to insert widget A into socket B.  Piece of cake.

Corporate and Medical Narration (categories that I spend most of my time in) are a bit more on the “stuffy” side.  Where an explainer video has some room for a bit of humor, medical narration as an example is very strictly business.  There isn’t much call for comedy in the realm of double-blind ovarian cancer medication studies or the proper application of dressings on an open surgical flap.

Things get a bit more exciting when it’s time for Commercial demos.  The music and the voice are both “louder” both in terms of actual volume and presence.  The volume is as easy as using a knob to make it louder.  The presence is by use of devices that squish the audio so that their peaks and valleys are closer to the center and the end result feels more “dense.”  These devices are called Compressors.  They work as labeled: they compress audio.

I’ll save the technical explanation of the compressor for another post as that could drag on for a while.  These louder tendencies are built to reflect the type of listening experience you would have on the radio or television.  Or YouTube preload.  Or un-skippable Hulu break.  They are designed to get your attention by use of louder and more bombastic techniques than the previous types because it works.  The brain is funny that way: Louder = Better.

And then there’s Radio Imaging.  Here we go down the the obsessive rabbit hole.

What is Radio Imaging?

I’m glad you asked.  Or I asked.  Someone asked.  The hypothetical you.  Radio Imaging is what you hear when you’re at the top of the hour on a radio station and they are required by law to announce their frequency and call sign.  “You’re listening to 99.9 FM, KISW.  The Rock of Seattle.”  There it is in its simplest form.

Frequency and Call Sign letters.  The branded nickname is a bonus. That is one example of the many components of Radio Imaging.  “Be caller number 10 and win ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS!”  Also Radio Imaging.  “Catch BARRY MANILOW Live in Concert! This Saturday at the Climate Pledge Arena! Tickets are on sale now.”  Radio Imaging!  We’re starting to get into the realm of Promo so we’ll reign it in a bit and stick to the more traditional imaging.  Side note: Seeing Barry Manilow Live at the Climate Pledge Arena would not be awful.  He puts on a great show!

Why are these their own category?  Wouldn’t they get the same loudness treatment that commercials get?  You would think so.  I sure did and I was staggeringly incorrect in my assumption.  If Commercial audio is “Loud,” then Radio Imaging is “REALLY Loud.”  For lack of a better description.  Radio Imaging is super hyped out in a way that grabs attention even more than the standard commercial.

Part of it is legalistic; Radio Stations absolutely must do a Station Identification once every hour.  Part of it is brand recognition.  If there is a requirement to do something a minimum of 24 times a day – assuming 24 hour play –  without fail, may as well do it in a way that is worth listening to, right?  Taking it a step further, no reason to not promote the station brand multiple times an hour to remind people who they are listening to in a way that gets them to stick around.  Hopefully.

Terrestrial radio hit a significant boom during pandemic life.  In spite of reports of its demise, it’s still here.  More listeners means more advertisement sponsorship.  More advertisement sponsorship means opportunities to increase listener engagement.  Increasing listener engagement requires something to get and keep their attention.  Entertaining Imaging spots, contests, interviews, giveaways, all a tiny component of the machine that drives radio to continue to exist.  While away from the era of Radio Drama – The Shadow really does know – the radio still maintains a captive audience of those who cannot be entertained by other means or choose not to.

Back to Imaging.  Not every station is going to have loud bombastic in-your-face imaging.  The Classical Music station would be out of place with the attention-grabbing techniques used on Rock and Alternative radio.  Easy Listening doesn’t need Top 40-style sweepers.  They’re still all required to announce once per hour.

Rock/Alternative and Top 40 (which is now apparently referred to as Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR)) are more flamboyant with their techniques to get you to listen.  Sound effects, multiple voices, edgy content, sometimes even things bordering on what the FCC allows to be aired, and all of it LOUD.  Compressed to within an inch of its life.

Why so obsessed?

I wasn’t sure at first.  Part of it was the loudness, I will admit.  The brain thinks something is better when it’s louder.  Easy trick. It’s deeper than that though. HOW they got it that loud without distorting is the rabbit hole.  Then the EFFECTS.  Flangers, Choruses, Doublers, Stereo Widening, Filter usage, Pitch Shift; virtually every effect trick in the book is crushing in a way to make the reads stand out.  I wanted to know how they did it, why they did it, and that meant I had to DO it.  Watching a YouTube video of someone else flowing through their production templates only gets my brain so far; I have to try it myself.

It turns out that having a background in audio engineering came in super handy.  Listening to examples and mimicking their content turned out to be surprisingly easy.  The writing part?  Not nearly as simple.  Basic IDs are easier.  More creative content requires a level a higher degree of copywriter capability.  Which took me even further down the rabbit hole of learning about and analyzing some of the great names in Radio Imaging.

John Frost is a legend and deserves that title.  I downloaded every single piece of content I could find that he had his hands in and listened to it in the car for weeks; first to get through the HILARIOUS writing, and then later to analyze pacing, sound effect usage, dialogue timing, and structure.  This meandered to listening to content created by Miles Hlivko, Malcolm Ryker, Net Spindle, and imaging houses like VooDoo Sound in Australia.  There’s an entire industry around this medium.

Radio Imaging scratches every single itch that I have where audio is concerned: Voice over, creating/using sound effects, editing audio, chopping things up, using effects, writing custom music, writing scripts.  Then combining it all together and making it ultra hyped without distorting.  It’s an entire checklist of all the things that fascinate me and give me the goosepimples every time a test project is complete.

What now?

Not sure!  I don’t have any delusions of being the next John Frost.  It IS unnervingly fun to come up with wacky things that I will eventually dump onto Soundcloud; this series of shorts sprang from the obsession.  There will be more.  Is there a career in this?  Not likely.  Mostly at this point it’s going to be flexing the creative muscle, sharing it out, and hopefully making two or three people laugh.  What more can we ask?

That’s all for this installment!  Thanks for getting this far.  Hugs and squeezes.

-= george =-