Update, June 23, 2011: CBC Radio’s Age of Persuasion, a weekly program exploring the world of advertising, has won five awards, including a Grand Prize at the 2011 New York Festivals International Radio Awards.
How does a boy who grew up in Northern Ontario when TV and radio airwaves were mostly empty spaces become a nationally recognized broadcaster and award-winning advertising and marketing guru? Perhaps necessity is the mother of invention.
“I loved growing up in Sudbury,” says Terry O’Reilly, author, broadcaster and adman. But admittedly, “It was very isolated. You could get CHNO and CKSO and a couple of TV channels, so the amount of stimulation and exposure to popular culture was limited. I think that had a big influence. We had to rely on our own imagination.”
He is most identified for his wildly popular CBC Radio series, The Age of Persuasion, which boasts nearly 600,000 listeners across the country and is now in its fourth season. Co-produced with long-time friend and collaborator Michael Tenant, the show takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of marketing and advertising. O’Reilly and Tenant are also co-authors of a book, The Age of Persuasion: How Advertising Ate Our Culture.
Ironically, the show about advertising is one of the advertising-free CBC’s most popular programs. Narrated by O’Reilly, fans can’t get enough of its quirky humour, entertaining anecdotes and interesting factoids about the ad business.
In fact, The Age of Persuasion is a sideline for O’Reilly, like a pet project, a passionate hobby, or a second job he works on evenings and on weekends. In his day job, he is an award-winning adman, co-owner of Pirate Radio, a company he co-founded in 1990 with a total of eight production studios in Toronto and New York and 40 employees.
Sitting in his Pirate Radio office, located in an expansive, hip downtown converted warehouse in Toronto, O’Reilly is small, puckish and relaxed. The person fits the name, with his Irish gift of gab and easy manner.
Visitors to the office feel as though they’ve been shipwrecked on a balmy south sea island, with azure/green walls, warm wood, aquarium and giant plants, but Terry assures me that the decor is intended to mimic cottage life. The window sills along the industrial windows are lined with some of his awards, including three Clios–the Oscars of radio. He’s engaged and attentive as he ruminates about media and advertising, his youth and first claims to media fame at the ripe age of four.
In 1963, O’Reilly made an appearance on the popular CKSO TV kids’ show Romper Room, leading to a role in a TV commercial for Cecutti’s Bakery. His job was to eat a sandwich while standing on the set under the studio lights. Before finishing, he looked up at veteran Sudbury broadcaster Mike Connors and asked, “Do I have to eat the crust?” The appealing kid humour made the cut. “They ran it for years,” he remembers.
The next pivotal contribution to the development of his career occurred during his high school years at Sudbury Secondary School. “We had a full film and television studio to ourselves. We had lights, cameras, all the equipment, under the direction and guidance of Sterling Campbell. When I arrived at Ryerson (University), I already had five years of TV experience in my life. I had a portfolio,” says O’Reilly.
After graduating from Ryerson’s radio and television arts program, O’Reilly had no interest in the radio industry and was determined to make it in advertising. He applied to more than 60 agencies and was rejected by all. His break finally came when he was hired as copy chief by FN108 in Hamilton.
Today, his love of radio exudes from him like perfume. “TV advertising is like the sermon from the mount,” says O’Reilly. “Radio is like a whisper in your ear.” With the launch of his book, O’Reilly has been travelling the country, and speaking at every opportunity. People approach him like an old friend. “That’s the difference between TV and radio,” he says. “When you meet a TV personality, you stand back. When you meet someone from radio, you step forward to greet them.”
He willingly admits that the “contract” between advertising and consumers has been broken. The implicit understanding when advertising originated in the early golden age of radio was clear. “We’ll bring you great entertainment, we want your time…advertising’s not giving back,” he says.
Love it, or hate it, advertising is as “pervasive as architecture,” and here to stay, says O’Reilly. “One of two emails we get quite often, is ‘I love your show, but I still hate advertising’.”
He’s not immune to the mass-media invasion that defines our culture. One of his CBC radio episodes is called, Twenty-three reasons why I hate this business.
At the same time, it’s an industry of creativity, innovation and fun. “When I produce an ad for a client, I try to persuade someone to consider that product if they are in the market to buy something. I want to dramatize the truth about it,” says O’Reilly. “Advertising is about selling. It’s the most transparent business there is.”
“The best advertising is just an interruption,” says O’Reilly. “A polite knock on the door instead of a brick at the wall.”
He and his wife live in Creemore, less than two hour’s drive from Toronto. A typical day for him starts at 6 am and winds up about midnight. He spends a couple of nights in the city each week at his condo. Those are “Persuasion” nights for him. Somehow, he has found time to sit in as occasional guest host for Jian Giomeshi’s Q on CBC Radio One. Clearly enjoying this gig, he has interviewed the likes of Kenny Rogers, and, a personal highlight, the creative team for the current award-winning viral advertising campaign for Old Spice.
His parents and in-laws still live in Sudbury, so family visits are regular. He speaks about the city with intimate familiarity and a hint of nostalgia. The family home was near the “old iron bridge,” “not on a lake,” but close enough to “jump the tracks” to be there. With his gang of friends, they’d cycle to Lake Ramsey to adventure seek. He remembers playing on the rocks.
“We were all so excited when NASA sent up the astronauts for their training to go to the moon. We didn’t realize it was going to kill tourism,” he says with a laugh.
Teresa Pagnutti lives in Toronto. She started her writing career as a reporter at Northern Life.