Sunday, March 1, 2015

Would you like A or B?




You might be surprised to learn that the correct answer is not a choice between A or B. I'll elaborate in a little bit. Back in the 1970s a man by the name of Jim Graham entered my life. Jim was a former executive with the defunct Dumont Television Network in New York City. In the mid 60s he and some associates in NY purchased AM radio stations WALY in Herkimer, NY and WOTT in Watertown.

WOTT - RCA 77 - Pin
I worked at WOTT, or as we called it “watt,” before I entered the U.S. Air Force and when I returned to the area after my discharge I had the opportunity to work there again, this time with Jim Graham as the owner/general manager. He was a rather rotund man who sat in his office most of the day behind a big round table. His office actually was the conference room. He was a likable character and if he liked you, your life there was much more pleasant. If not, he was “on your case” all the time. I managed to be on his good side most of the time.

I learned a lot from Jim. He was a stickler on diction and was a bit of a legalist when it came to the English language. It wasn't but a couple of weeks into the job, second time around, that I made the mistake of asking him a question similar to the headline above. I think it went something like this. “Would you like me or Mark to record these spots?” To which he answered “yes.” You can imagine the puzzled look I had on my face. But, he was correct in answering yes or no. You see if I had constructed the question a little differently, Jim might have given me a decision. Perhaps I should have said: “Which person would you like to record these spots, Mark or me?” He also was not a fan of pronouns and passive text and tried unsuccessfully to get all his “on air” staff to stop using them improperly. Lost cause. So, today I think I can write a pretty good piece of commercial copy. Since we all had to write commercials for the small station. Jim's goal was to get his staff to write better copy.

Speaking of copy, we weren't allowed to say things like, “Come on over to Joe's. Buy one widget, you'll get one free.” You see, Jim believed that if you had to make a purchase to get something free, then it wasn't free. You could say “Buy one and we'll give you a second at no additional cost.” The only time you could say it was free was when the listener could walk into a merchant and get one for free without having to buy something. Jim's rules, and he had many, made us better copy writers as we had to make sure nothing was misleading or unclear.

Now I'm not someone that you should point to as an example of a good writer. I'm far from it. But I can say that my experiences with Jim Graham made me more aware and a more careful writer. I still can't spell without the help of “spell check.” At this point in my life, I don't think anyone can fix that flaw.
So my answer to the headline above is “yes."

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