A Conversation with Nick Michaels

| November 6, 2012

Miami Beach, Florida-based broadcaster Nick Michaels has been one of the most successful and respected “imaging” specialists in the radio business for years.  He is a writer, narrator, and broadcaster whose voice has appeared on over a billion dollars of paid advertising for clients like Bristol-Myers, General Motors, Kellogg’s, P&G, Gillette, Kodak, Coca-Cola, and many others.  As a narrator, Nick can be heard on over a dozen National Geographic Explorers and on the Bud Greenspan feature documentary “Barcelona ’92: Sixteen Days of Glory.”  His writing, voice, and television commercials have helped or are helping to shape the image of some of the most influential radio stations in the country including KSWD-FM in Los Angeles, WDRV-FM in Chicago, and KCBS AM/FM in San Francisco among others. His syndicated weekend radio program, “The Deep End with Nick Michaels,” can be heard across the country on more than 30 classic rock and classic hits stations.  Let’s begin by re-publishing a powerful piece written by Nick Michaels which captures the essence of his approach to radio:

The RadioInfo Interview with Nick Michaels was conducted by Michael Harrison.

RADIOINFO: What does the term “imaging” mean as a component of a radio station’s overall production efforts?

NICK MICHAELS:  Imaging is actually a misnomer; the better term is image advertising. We live in an over-communicated world. In this environment, the most effective advertising detaches from selling and becomes about engagement. The question to ask yourself when creating your imaging is, “Am I engaging my audience or am I trying to sell them something?” It’s been my experience that a better connection is made when the imaging is not about the station itself, but rather, about the audience’s reason for coming to the station.

RI:  Give us an example of why the audience would come to a station and how you specifically address that.

NM:  We had great success with our “Artist Ownership” series on many stations including The Drive in Chicago. Those spots are about the artists. We tell stories about the artists in a way that brings the audience closer to them. First, we told a story that proved we had a deep understanding of that artist and their music, usually ending with a line related to the artist’s particular understanding of something, followed by “and no radio station understands John Lennon, like 97-1 FM The Drive.” We are the radio station that understands the music best.  This is where the audience wants to be. That is a claim that matters to the audience because it directly affects how they’re going to enjoy listening to their music. The audience started requesting the spots because they are not about the station, they are just brought to you by the station but they are about someone the audience loves and cares about deeply. They love the artists and their music, anything that helps them understand it better and love it more, is something they want and stick to.

RI:  So you’re basically saying even self-promotion should offer the listener desirable content.

NM:  Exactly.  Messages that are an explanation of the playlist – such as “the best of the 80s, 90s and today” or “the best rock” – cannot be taken to heart by the audience. In this over-communicated environment there are only two kinds of messages, those which are taken to heart or annoying spam. One of the best ways to make sure your message is taken to heart, is to make it about the needs, wants and fears of the audience. In the case of a music station, a message like “closer to the music” is a direct reflection of one of the audience’s wants.

RI:  Does this work for spoken word radio as well as music radio?

NM:  Interestingly, the very same campaign is successful with all-news KCBS in San Francisco where our position for breaking news is “We can get you closer.”  In both cases we are helping the listener get closer to the content. The content they came for in the first place. These principles work in any format as long as there is a human being on the listening end. The trick is to take the camera off the radio station and turn it around so it is facing the audience.

RI:  What is the state of the average music or talk station’s production department today when compared to five, 10, 15, or even 20 years ago?

NM:  Understaffed and overworked. One of the biggest problems in production departments today is the lack of resources for writing. All of the power of the message is vested in its writing and that’s true whether we’re talking about a promo, a commercial, or a news bulletin. Trying to make a message more powerful by having a powerful voice read it is like trying to make coffee stronger by pouring it in a different cup.  Good writing takes time… and time is money. If you have the talent in house, you need to give them the time to write. If you don’t have the talent in-house, you can outsource it to someone like me but in either case there is a cost involved, however, that cost, looked at a different way, is an investment in your relationship with the listener.

RI:  You mentioned The Drive in Chicago.  I personally enjoy listening to it.  Tell us a bit more about what seems to make that station special.

NM:  The richness of the programming.  John Parikhal’s brilliant research.  The vision and courage and programming genius of Greg Solk and Patty Martin and the entire team.  Special features that always keep it interesting for the audience. Imaging that tells stories about the artists and the music, instead of boasting. An on-air presentation based on respect for the audience’s time and feelings. That respect manifests itself in everything from the tone of our voices to the stories we tell. It turns listening into a relationship with a friend. The Drive signed on 11 years ago with a promise that “you found a new way to listen to the radio.”  We kept our promise.

RI:  I also enjoy your syndicated show, “The Deep End.”  It reminds me of the good old days of album rock radio – yet, it sounds as modern and pertinent as anything focused on today or the future.  Tell us more about this program.

NM:  The most powerful thing you can do on the radio is tell a good story. The Deep End takes full advantage of that. It strives for one thing, to be the richest possible listening experience for our audience. At a time when many radio stations are taking things out of the listening experience and diluting it, The Deep End is putting things in and making it richer. The classic rock /classic hits audience has a different relationship with the music. This powerful and evocative music is more than mere entertainment. It changed society. We tell the stories behind the songs, the artists, the venues and the people that made this music. You will hear the voices of the artists themselves explaining their music along with extremely high production values that we call “audio cinema.” It’s a trip to a time when music mattered. The audience’s desire can be summed up in three words, “take me there.” That’s what we do in The Deep End, we take them there, which is why we get so many e-mails from the audience telling us that it is appointment listening for them.

RI:  What do you think of one of RadioInfo’s core philosophies that music radio is in need of revitalizing the role of the DJ? If you agree, what do you think needs to be done in terms of air personalities performing optimally in today’s competitive music radio environment?

NM:  I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly. In my opinion, it’s what is between the music that gives a radio station its personality. Today, you can get the music from many different sources. You can walk around with hundreds or even thousands of your favorite songs on you at all times. It’s the human element that makes people stick to the content. The answer to the second part of your question is, tell better stories and use the medium’s two most important and powerful weapons in your presentation — intimacy and emotion. Radio is the most intimate and emotional of all mass media, not taking full advantage of that, every time you turn on the microphone, is leaving radio’s most powerful weapons out of your arsenal. One of the main reasons people come to the radio is to connect with a personality.  That is the magic word right there…connect. When you think about it, it’s been that way since the dawn of radio. It doesn’t matter whether that personality is Arthur Godfrey or Howard Stern, nothing has really changed except the haircuts and the technology.  In the end, it’s not whether you listen on a phone or from a satellite or in a car, it’s how engaged you are by what you are listening to that matters.

RI:  Clearly you bring both philosophical and psychological components to your approach to radio programming…

NM:  “For me, connecting to the audience, whether that is in a TV commercial, a radio program or a film narration, is the most important thing.  That connection is what my work is all about.  The first step in making that connection is understanding that we live in an over-communicated world. The message has to be created and delivered with that environment in mind. In that environment I try to write powerfully and read humbly. ”

Nick Michaels can be emailed at nickmichaels@bellsouth.net. Samples of his work can be heard at www.NickMichaels.com

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Category: Interviews