Bob Prince was into it. He had my radio script in one hand, a Pall Mall in the other and the stopwatch on the table in front of him. “Iron City Beer has that clean, crisp taste …” he intoned. Then, almost imperceptibly, he glanced at the stopwatch on the table in front of him, concluded that there was not enough copy to fill the sixty seconds, and began to ad lib, “… that’s right fans, a really clean, crisp taste …”There would be no second takes; he had ten more scripts to read. Actually, there were over a hundred more.
In 1974, one of the main sponsors of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ radio broadcasts was the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, makers of Iron City Beer. I was a young copywriter recently arrived from Philadelphia. The brewery sponsored three innings every game, about 4 commercials a game, 162 games a year. Or about 648 commercial airings a season. To fill all that airtime, they needed about 150 different scripts. As the low man on the totem pole, the job of writing these scripts was assigned to me. It meant writing at least fifteen :60-second scripts a week. They had a very specific structure. The first thirty seconds or so was a conjuring up of some baseball-related action that reminded listeners what it was like to work up a thirst. Then the script would segue into the delicious, refreshing, clean, crisp, thirst-quenching taste of an ice-cold Iron City Beer. They were called “live reads” meant to sound as though this idea of thirst and Iron City beer had just popped into Bob Prince’s head and he decided to share this with his listeners. Of course, there was nothing “live” about them. They were all pre-recorded at the radio station, KDKA, which was across Gateway Center from the ad agency, Ketchum MacLeod & Grove.
In the mid-70’s, Ketchum in Pittsburgh seemed a fairly magical place for a young copywriter to be. They were the biggest agency in the market and had most of the biggest accounts such as PPG, Heinz, Dow Corning, Westinghouse, Rubbermaid, Iron City Beer, and many others. The creative department was filled to overflowing with talented people who would go on to found their own agencies, become creative superstars, or become successful commercial directors. Everybody was good; some were truly brilliant. Plus, what I didn’t realize at the time was that the local commercial director, who shot virtually every TV spot for agency, was some big, loud guy named Joe Pytka,, who of course, would go on to become arguably the greatest TV commercial director of all time. But that’s another story.
Back at KDKA, watching Bob Prince ad lib to fill a few seconds, gave me an idea. What would happen, I thought, if I wrote the scripts intentionally short? And how much shorter could I write them before he would notice? Five seconds? Seven? Certainly ten was too obvious. To camouflage that I was doing this intentionally, I also had to write some scripts that were a second or two long, so when he glanced at his stopwatch, he would have to hurry up in some cases. It was some of the most fun I ever had as a copywriter. The challenge of coming up with all those openings to segue into the copy about the beer, and my little, private game of seeing how he would ad lib. If he ever realized what I was doing, he never said anything.
Bob Prince died in 1985 and was posthumously awarded the Ford C. Frick Award by the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1986. The next season I got to do television. With Joe Pytka.