Long-time listener here, but I’m the first to admit to some gaps in my knowledge of radio history. Oh, sure, I knew that US radio and TV call letters begin with “W” for stations east of the Mississippi and “K” for stations west of the Mississippi*, and that Canadian stations’ call signs begin with “C.” I recognized many call letters as representing the networks that owned or operated them: KABC, WCBS, KPBS. I knew that the call signs of many public-radio stations include the initials of the colleges and universities that house their studios: KFJC (Foothill Junior College), KCSM (College of San Mateo), KPCC (Pasadena City College), WBUR (Boston University Radio). And I appreciated the Bay Area references in many local stations’ call letters: KABL, KFOG, KOIT (for Coit Tower, one of the city’s quirkier landmarks).
I also knew one call sign whose initials stood for a phrase: Chicago’s WGN, for “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” aka the Chicago Tribune. But it wasn’t until I started watching Ken Burns’s excellent eight-episode Country Music on PBS (that’s Public Broadcasting System, in case you didn’t already know) that I learned how many other early call signals—though randomly assigned—took on extra character as initialisms for slogans and phrases used as commercial gimmicks or mnemonics.
Undated ad for WSM, which began broadcasting from Nashville on October 5, 1925.
“If you believe, wherever you are, clap your hands, and she’ll hear you. Clap! Clap! Don’t let Tink die! Clap!”
If you’ve seen any version of Peter Pan, or read the original J.M. Barrie book, you know that this exhortation yields a happy ending. Fervent belief, accompanied by vigorous clapping, brings a dying fairy called Tinker Bell back to life.
Disneyfied Tinker Bell, via Disneyclips. In stage productions of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell is represented by a darting light and a tinkling bell. The character’s name is spelled with two words, Tinker Bell: “Tinker” because she has tinkering skills, such as mending pots and pans; and “Bell” because of the sound of her speech, understandable only to other fairies.
The term was coined by a Swarthmore College psychology professor, Frank H. Durgin, in a 2002 paper about “the illusory perception of coherent motion in dynamic noise,” published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies. He titled the paper “The Tinkerbell Effect,” and gave this explanation:
In the spring of 1955, the first Totsuko transistor radio, the size of a large pack of cigarettes, rolled off the production line in Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. It never went on sale – its grille bent and peeled off in hot weather – but it was promising enough that the Bulova Watch Company, in New York, placed an order for 100,000 of them. Bulova wanted to rebrand the radios with its own corporate name, but Akio Morita, the owner of the company that made the radio, refused. Professional pride was one reason. But another, writes Simon Winchester in Pacific* (2015), was that “just a few days prior to receiving the order, he and his colleagues had decided to rename their company, to call it Sony.”
Stan Freberg, a man of myriad talents who was often called “the father of funny advertising,” died Tuesday in Santa Monica. He was 88.
Freberg was born in Pasadena and grew up in Los Angeles; he turned down scholarships to Stanford University and the University of Redlands in order to pursue a career in radio. He became a successful comedian and a voice actor in cartoons—his was the voice of the beaver in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp—but it’s as rule-breaking advertising copywriter that I choose to remember him.
According to the New York Times obituary, Freberg went into advertising “because he considered most commercials moronic.” In 1957, after the CBS Radio Network canceled “The Stan Freberg Show” after just 15 weeks, Freberg formed his own ad-production company, which he called Freberg Ltd. (but not very). His motto, according tothe Los Angeles Times obituary, was Ars gratia pecuniae: “Art for money’s sake.” He “set the standard for humor in advertising,” according to a tribute in Advertising Age: his work included campaigns for Chun King, Jeno’s Pizza, Sunsweet prunes (one of his prune ads starred Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer), Contadina tomato paste (“Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who. You know who. You know who”), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Freberg’s copy wasn’t just funny; it was subversive. He “used humor to declare war on postwar advertising,” writes the New York Times’s Douglas Martin: “Mr. Freberg even committed, eagerly, the ad industry’s greatest heresy: lampooning the deficiencies of a paying client’s own products.”
When he couldn’t get a paying client to underwrite his heresies, he went indie. His 1958 comedy single, “Green Chri$tma$” hardly seems dated today, nearly half a century later:
Deck the halls with advertising! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! ’Tis the time for merchandising! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! Profit never needs a reason! Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! Get the money, it’s the season! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!
I’m back at the Strong Language blog today with a post about “Schitt’s Creek,” a new sitcom that makes its U.S. debut tonight on cable TV’s Pop channel. The title was too taboo for NPR’s television critic to utter aloud, so he spelled it out, provided a rhyming mnemonic, and subsequently truncated the offensive name to “Creek.”
There’s a second naming story hidden in that one, although it’s not as racy: Pop (as in pop culture) was formerly known as the TV Guide Network; it rebranded last year as “a multi-platform destination dedicated to celebrating the fun of being a fan” where “fans don’t sit at the outskirts of pop culture making snarky comments, they live right smack in the middle of it.” Pop is targeting “modern grownups” age 35 to 40 (a rather narrow demo, don’t you think?) “who have a lot of disposable income and still go to the gym, want to look good and want to watch the show everyone is talking about,” according to the channel’s president of entertainment and media, Brad Schwartz.
Speaking of specialized lexicons, check out The D.C. Manual of Style and Usage, Washington City Paper’s entertainingly written and copiously illustrated guide. One of my favorite entries: “Blelvis: A portmanteau of ‘black’ and ‘Elvis.’ Refers exclusively to D.C.’s mostly elusive, semifamous busker; he likely never uses the words ‘portmanteau’ and ‘busker,’ but he can sing every song in the Elvis Presley catalog.” Also: “Hipster. A term that is somehow both loaded and meaningless. If you feel compelled to use it, talk to an editor.”
The new first-person-shooter game Destiny, released in September, features a huge arsenal of weapons, and I can only imagine the brainstorming sessions that produced names like Praedyth’s Revenge, Pocket Infinity, Strange Suspect, and the excellent Doctor Nope. The Australian game-review site Kotaku provides a ranking of all 74 names. (Via Our Bold Hero.) IGN lists the weapons by category(pulse rifles, fusion rifles, rocket launchers, etc.).
An “ally” is what British soldiers in Afghanistan call “a battlefield fashionista--desirables include having a beard, using a different rifle, carrying vast amounts of ammunition, being dusty and having obscene amounts of tattoos and hair.” A “crow” is a new soldier recently out of training. From a guide to Afghanistan battlefield slang published by BBC News. (Via Language Hat.)
If you’re curious about the origins of Toyota model names, this CarScoops explainer is a reasonable starting point. The Camry got its name from Japanese kanmuri, meaning “crown”; the Supra is a direct borrowing from Latin (“above”). But this story about the Yaris made me wonder: “Yaris is an amalgamation of words from Greek mythology and German. In Greek mythology, ‘Charis’ was a symbol of beauty and elegance. Toyota swapped the ‘Ch’ with ‘Ya’ – German for ‘yes’ – to symbolise the perceived reaction of European markets to the car’s styling.”
Tom Magliozzi, co-host of NPR’s long-running “Car Talk,” died November 3 at 77. In his honor, here’s a link to one of my favorite features of the show: the punny staff credits, from sculling coach Rose Dior to assistant disciplinarian Joaquin D’Planque. (Via Henry Fuhrmann.)
And speaking of novels: “Can’t get a deal for that novel manuscript? Try ad agencies. Young & Rubicam commissioned Booker award-nominated novelist William Boyd to tell any story he wanted as long as it featured a Land Rover vehicle.” By Ad Broad, who calls herself “the oldest working writer in advertising.”
From veteran name developer David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, some tips to help startups avoid making naming mistakes. First piece of advice: The name “doesn’t have to be clever. It just has to communicate.” And, adds Placek, stop it already with the -ly names. Yep.
Twenty-four-hour classical-music radio stations are a dwindling breed, hit hard by competition from online music-streaming services like Pandora and by the stark realities of a graying audience. All the more reason to cheer a healthy and good-humored survivor.
“Sanity Now!” KDFC outdoor ad, San Francisco. Love the script typeface.
Perhaps your first association, like mine, was the Seinfeldian rallying cry, “Serenity now!”
But KDFC has an independent claim on the slogan. The station, which was founded in 1946 and has stuck to classical programming ever since, has had five owners during the last 20 years. Before the station went nonprofitin 2011, it was owned by the Mormon-controlled Bonneville International Corporation, which promoted middle-of-the-road programming, refused to sell ads for a gay dating service, and pulled an ad for a book critical of the Christian Right. During the Bonneville era, KDFC produced a series of CDs called “Islands of Sanity,” with Classics Top 40 tracks like “Clair de Lune” and “Moonlight Sonata.”
Today, in addition to regular San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera broadcasts, the station broadcasts a daily “Island of Sanity” program hosted by Rik Malone. If you need a more immediate sanity fix, try the on-demand “instant island of sanity”: click the button, turn up your speakers, and bathe your ears in soothing strains.
Many thanks to Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, co-hosts of public radio’s “A Way With Words,” for mentioning my blog in their September 21 program! The segment is called “How Products Got Their Names,” and if you missed the broadcast you can listen online.
The rest of the episode—“Good Juju”—is entertaining and informative, too. It includes segments on M&Ms, Hallmark Cards, restaurant lingo, aspirin (the name), and, of course, juju.