NYF Radio Programs & Promos Awards Spotlight Interview: Terry O’Reilly, Pirate Radio Co-Founder & Host of CBC Radio

This month the New York Festivals® International Radio Programs & Promos Awards shines the spotlight on award-winning Terry O’Reilly, Pirate Radio Co-Founder & Host of CBC Radio’s Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence.

Terry O’Reilly, Pirate Radio Co-Founder & Host of CBC Radio’s Age of Persuasion and Under the Influence

Terry O’Reilly and Pirate Group Inc., Canada earned a Grand Trophy in 2012’s competition for “The Happy Homemaker: How Advertising Invented The House Wife.” The award-winning two-part episode examines how Madison Avenue created the archetype of the Happy Homemaker in an effort to create a market for all the household products it was advertising. NYF had the pleasure of interviewing Terry and learning more about his creative style both in front of and away from the microphone.

NYF: The Age of Persuasion explores the countless ways marketers permeate your life, from media, art, and language, to politics, religion, and fashion. What was the inspiration to create this show?

TO: For many years, I hosted an annual, all-day Creative Radio Workshop for young writers. Over lunch one day, a friend said, “You know, your seminar would make a great radio show.” When I asked what station would possibly air a show on advertising, he paused, and said, “The CBC.” I replied, “You mean the advertising-free CBC?” So we laughed, finished our lunch and went back to work. But the idea wouldn’t go away. So Mike Tennant and I decided to approach the CBC with the idea. They bought it on the spot.

NYF:You were honored in 2011 and 2012 with the New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards Grand Trophy two years in a row.  What did achieving this award mean to the team to you and the Age of Persuasion team?

TO: It was a huge honour to win it once. To win it two years in a row was unbelievable. We work so hard on this show, make a lot of sacrifices to produce it, and the CBC (Bless them) leaves us completely alone. So it is our show to live by or die by. To get this kind of recognition, from a sterling international judging panel, meant everything. It was validation from the highest level.


NYF: Your new radio show, “Under the Influence,” explores the critical shift that the marketing world has made from a century of overt one-way messaging to a new world order of two-way dialogue; leaving the age of persuasion and entering the era of influence. What program topics can listeners look forward to hearing for 2013?

TO: Age of Persuasion was more advertising-oriented. Under The Influence is more marketing-oriented. The older I get, the more fascinated I become with strategy. This series really is an exploration of strategy. So I’m tackling topics like the use of Shame as a marketing strategy. The power of Loss Leaders. The art of the movie trailer. Great tales of customer service. Billion dollar brands. And how colours influence what we buy. (Full list here: www.cbc.ca/undertheinfluence)

NYF: Is there a particular program that you created which had a defining moment for you? And what inspires you about your radio show?

TO: It’s interesting. While writing and producing the show, you never know which episodes will be the most popular. I did one called, “It’s The Little Things” last season which explored the small, tiny ways companies treat their customers well. I call it “going the extra inch.” They weren’t big stories, they were small, intimate examples for the most part. This episode was, without a doubt, the most talked about, listened to and most downloaded show of the season. It just resonated with listeners. Who knew? But it showed me how starved people are for good service. It was a real lesson. As for inspiration, I’m simply an advertising/marketing junkie. Always have been. I knew, in my heart, that the general public could be equally as fascinated with a radio program that revealed the incredible and creative thinking that goes on in our industry (as crazy as that sounds). They are just great stories.

NYF: You are considered the ‘voice of advertising’, and your radio programs examine the influence and impact of advertising on modern life. What prompted you to write your book “The Age of Persuasion, How Marketing Ate Our Culture” and how did you find the time to create the best seller while hosting the award-winning CBC/Sirius/WBEZ Chicago radio series, The Age of Persuasion?

TO: Well, a huge credit has to go to my Age of Persuasion partner, Mike Tennant. He drove the book writing, and never let us miss a deadline. Writing and producing the show, writing a book, and (in my case) running a business at the same time was not easy. Even though Mike left the show a few years ago, he was a great part of making that happen. But I have to tell you a funny story. We asked our publisher when would be the best time to launch the book, from a marketing point-of-view. She said October, in time for Christmas. That was less then eight months away at the time. We said, fine, we’ll deliver in eight months. She said, “All writers say that, and none ever deliver on time.” We delivered exactly on time. Why? Because we’re ad guys, we’ve lived with impossible deadline our entire careers.

NYF: The Age of Persuasion had close to a million listeners a week in Canada alone, to what do you attribute your success?

TO: That’s true. Under the Influence has an even bigger audience. It’s also the most downloaded podcast on iTunes in Canada during the run of the show. I truly believe it is all about the storytelling. Storytelling makes people care – even about advertising. And the real secret to the show, I believe, is that it is less about marketing than it is about the human condition. It’s a show about what makes us tick as a species.

NYF: Away from the radio microphone, you co-founded Pirate Radio and Television, in New York and Toronto, which specializes in audio production for radio and television commercials. Could you tell us about the beginnings of that company?

TO: I was a copywriter for 10 years in the 80s, and worked for highly creative shops like DDB and Chiat/Day. My first love was radio, which made me rare in the copywriting world. Most writers are afraid of radio. As a friend of mine says, writing radio is like trying to hide on a squash court. In other words, you are so exposed as a writer on radio. You can’t hide behind sets, or wardrobe, or fancy camera shots, or locations. It’s just you and your idea, front and center. As a copywriter, I would hire various production companies, and found myself fighting to save my work FROM the director, instead of the director enhancing the work. I knew in my heart most writers felt the same way. So in 1990, I co-founded the company I could not find: Pirate Radio. It was an audio production company that directed spots from a writer’s point of view. In a few short years, we found ourselves working on as much television as radio, so it became Pirate Radio & Television.

NYF: I read in Marketing Magazine that you were stepping away from the day to day operations of Pirate, what new projects are on the horizon?

TO: First, to continue with my radio show, which is in its eighth season. I guest-host other programs on CBC, which I love doing. I’m in the planning stages of writing another book. My speaking career is in high gear, which I thoroughly enjoy. I sit on the board of an organization that helps children get adopted. I’m helping some very smart advertisers with their marketing, and I’m spending more time with my wonderful wife.

NYF: You were chosen as one of Canada’s “Most Influential” marketing people by Marketing Magazine; received won a few hundred awards for writing and directing; awarded two lifetime achievement awards, one from the Advertising & Design Club, the other from the Television Advertising Bureau of Canada; earned the New York Festivals Production Company of the Year Award in 2011, what is your first love, Radio or Advertising?

TO: Advertising. Radio is just an expression of that. I have loved this business for over 30 years, and it’s no less fascinating to me today than it was when I was a green copywriter. I am the perennial student, the more I learn, the hungrier I get.

NYF: How has new technology – including social media – changed your job and do you have any advice for someone starting in today’s radio industry?

TO: To me, social media is a great place to listen. It’s a great place to take the pulse of your audience, to find out what people care about, how they feel, and what they find interesting. People speak so freely in social media. It’s honest and unvarnished. Plus, I have to say that listeners constantly send me episode ideas or incredible articles or ads they find. Before social media, I would never have received that quality of feedback. Or got it so quick. As for advice, I would say be a sponge. Absorb everything. Listen to the best work. Analyze it. Break it down. Ask questions. Learn. Make your own opportunities, don’t wait for them to happen. And above all, never give up. Those rules have served me well.

The New York Festivals International Radio Programs & Promos Awards® is open for entries. Entry Deadline is March 18th, 2013.


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