Radio Ad – Behind the Scenes of #SmallBusinessEveryDay

A screenshot of the 30-second Adobe Audition multitrack project file with 7 tracks, layered on top of each other.

Radio Ad Introduction and Context

Getting a peek behind the curtains of content creation has always been one of my favourite bits of online content. So, this is a peek behind the scenes look at the process of making a relatively quickly put-together radio ad. It was done for the NCRA while I was working with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (aka CFIB).

For your reference, below are the final products, in both English (my voice) and French (Amelie, Marketing Director’s voice).

☝🔊 English radio ad (voice-over: Ben Durham)
☝🔊 French radio ad (voice-over: Amélie Desrosiers)

Brainstorming radio ad ideas

The NCRA contacted CFIB’s marketing department and asked if we had any great 30-second radio ad ideas. With small businesses being hammered across the globe by the 2020 pandemic, Richard (content writer) and I had a quick 15-minute breakout meeting to see what we could come up with. We bounced ideas back-and-forth non-stop. There are no stupid ideas in brainstorming sessions! We were getting some great ideas together… but we really struck gold in the final 3 minutes.

“what if we built a soundscape?!”

BEN DURHAM

Although I had typically been doing video work in my position, I really wanted to use what audio had to offer. After all, the NCRA is a radio broadcaster. So I excitedly piped up “what if we built a soundscape”?! For those of you who are unaware, a soundscape is “the acoustic environment as perceived by humans, in context.” Another way of thinking about it is “constructing an environment using sounds, so as to make the listener feel as though they were there.”

Richard ran with this idea and we quickly came up with a top-3 list of diverse heavily-impacted businesses. These were SMEs that had been suffering through this once-in-a-100-years illness and were very recognizable to the general public.

  • Independent cafes (large ones were often allowed to stay open for some reason)
  • Gyms of all shapes and sizes
  • Cozy, family-owned corner stores

Writing the script

The next day, we sat down and created a rough draft that included queues for sound effects and music. Although it was strong, later on in the process, it would go through numerous small changes because of all the fingers in the project pie. Oh, bureaucracy, how art thy always so prevalent and annoying.

Recording “temporary” radio ad voice-over audio

We didn’t have a sound or recording booth set up at the time, so I brought in my personal AT2020 condenser microphone into the office and recorded there. With just one other person other than myself in an office built for over 200 people, chatter noise wasn’t an issue. But the ambient hum of the recently installed “white noise makers” was.

I asked Dave, the building attendant working there for over 30 years, to turn these silly white noise makers off. What a difference that made! He also “accidentally” forgot to turn them back on permanently after this too because of all the positive comments from other office workers. Everyone preferred not having constant noise jammed into their earholes throughout the day (what a surprise)!

With the noise-makers off, the only hum left was the hum from HVAC system. Not the worst thing but still noisy. So I made sure to get at least 60 seconds of room noise (aka “presence”) so that I could cancel it out when editing in post-production.

The actual voice-over recording went pretty smoothly. So much so that I actually ended up using the first part of this “temporary” recording in the final product. The latter half of the soundscape had to be recorded a few times because of script changes.

Constructing the soundscape

A screenshot of the 30-second Adobe Audition multitrack project file with 7 tracks, layered on top of each other.
A screenshot of the 30-second Adobe Audition multitrack project file with 7 tracks, layered on top of each other.

This is where it got incredibly fun! I used our unlimited-asset Envato Elements account to sift through hundreds of audio recordings and effects. Although I could have recorded a few myself, the timeline of this project didn’t allow for that unless absolutely necessary.

I needed to figure out the timing, so I started jamming clips in. We knew that after three soundscapes, we wanted to have a “dramatic silence”. As anyone in film and audio production knows, there’s no such thing as “absolute silence”… because that doesn’t exist in the real world, so it shouldn’t in a production that aims to replicate reality.

A breakdown of the audio mixing for a radio ad

At this point, I had a pretty good idea of what the final production would sound like:

  1. A rapid 3-second introduction
  2. 1-2 seconds of “cafe” sounds, with a transitioning bridge to the next soundscape…
  3. “gym” sounds for another 1-2 seconds, with another bridge to the next soundscape…
  4. “corner store” sounds for another 1-2 seconds.
  5. A gradual fade from “what those sounded like” to the “new norm”, brought on by the pandemic: “silence”.
  6. A whole 5 seconds devoted to making a deep impact on the listener. I added a few clatters of the clatter of “dishes being put away” in an empty room.
  7. At exactly 15 seconds (after the first jam-packed 15-second audio journey), the explanation of the initiative begins and segues to the Call To Action (CTA) at the end of this 29.5-second radio ad.

Throwing a wrench in the works

Thanks to the creative freedom that Richard and I were given, all of the above took no more than two days to come to fruition. But we still had over a week of small tweaks and changes to come.

Bureaucracy slowing things down

When we passed the first draft of this audio production by our Director of Marketing, we got two big thumbs up after one tiny tweak. I then rendered out what was probably version #5 at the time and sent it off to our hire-ups, hoping –finally– that this would be a quick “good to go! project. That, unfortunately, was a pipe dream.

With the deadline fast approaching in two days and us still needing to record and mix the French version of this production (for Canada-wide distribution), we got bad news:

  1. Because of the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants nature of the #SmallBusinessEveryDay campaign, executives still didn’t actually know what the contest would be called.
  2. We needed to emphasize the importance of “buying local” as much as “saying thank you” – which makes sense. At the start of this, it was supposed to be a purely “say thank you” campaign.
  3. Along with that, the entire ending needed to be changed because Richard and I hadn’t been told all of the details of the campaign… even though this was a fairly important project.
  4. And most importantly, any changes needed to keep the final runtime of the radio ad within 29-30 seconds.

Working within technical constraints

#4 was the hardest thing to do because many people in the decision-making process wanted to include ALL OF THE DETAILS, without making any cuts. Clearly, we had to cut and condense all of the new inclusions… but deciding what to cut was difficult – mostly because we didn’t have the decision-making power in this project.

After a day of back-and-forth’ing, we settled on the final script, I re-recorded in my bedroom closet while working from home, and mixed everything together. Just like a wizard stirring a gigantic cauldron full of scripts, sounds, effects, and dramatic timings.

Remotely coordinating a microphone purchase in Montreal

While all of the above was happening, I was working closely with my French-speaking colleagues in Montreal. Down to the wire, we needed to get a “good enough” microphone setup in the hands of our very busy Director of Marketing ASAP. This involved searching first for any small businesses in the area that had any of the microphones that we needed in stock. After finding that, I reserved that Yeti mic online and found another colleague who had a car and an hour to spare of their time to rush over to the store and deliver it to the Director’s home.

Fewph! Ralph got to Amelie’s door within five minutes of us starting our “setup the mic” meeting. We set up the recording software that she needed (just went with a free program, Audacity, for simplicity’s sake).

Recording the French version of the radio ad

Once I had sent off the next English version and finally gotten approval for the English Production, it was time for the French version. We had sent off the final English script to translations during all of this but still made a few tweaks right before recording the French version.

Amelie went to her own closet and recorded a bunch of takes, which she then sent to me via OneDrive.

Wrapping up

More back-and-forths happened, but at long last, it was done. Done! I exported .mp3 multitrack mixdowns for English and French. I double quadruple checked with English and French-speaking colleagues about the final versions and BAM! DONE, DONE!

And that’s that — that is how this radio ad was made right on time. Talk about a lot of creativity and coordination!

Thanks for reading!

I hope this brought you through the entire radio ad creation journey as clearly as mud. Because things happen and we -as creatives- find solutions to get things done! If you like audio, why not start with reading a post on how to get premium bose headphones for cheap? Or maybe watch the video for that?

If you’ve read this far, I’ll let you know that I don’t only write about radio ads on my blog.

Check out the main page and you might find something that interests you! If you like watching videos more than reading, you might like the videos that I make even more!

With this content, comes a lot of questions from readers/viewers and I try to get back to every single comment that people leave – especially questions! Sometimes I even make posts and/or video responses to comments, so if you want to hear back from me, hit up the comments section!

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Ben Durham

Professional storyteller

Just an average person on a bike who’s focused on getting more people out of their cars and on to bicycles or electric last-mile micro-mobility solutions!

That, and rooting for active transportation infrastructure upgrades in North America (we need to catch up)!

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