Tony Schwartz — for the Next Generation

tony schwartzTony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the old “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of West Side Manhattan. Hunched over his turntables, wrapped in earphones and cables in a room lined on every wall with Tony’s 40 years of sound recordings, he’d remind you of the Wizard of Oz with his bumbling air of magic, but also of Orson Welles with his grasp of theatrical effects, and also his friend Marshall McLuhan with his flair for multi-media theory and his experience with how message systems really work, in and out of your body. I’d first entered this little high church of sound covering George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.


I went back in 1974 to write this Times piece, Packaging Voters for Candidates, TV-Style on Tony, the “best in the business” of media consulting. And I went back and back for ever after to absorb Tony’s coaching. He was gently instructive when I took him my first television stand-ups after leaving the Times. “You’re trying to do what Times training impels you to do — push ‘facts’ through the camera lens at the viewer. But listen to me, Chris: television is not a medium of information; it’s a medium of effects…” I learned on my own, when I came back from vacation to the TV desk with a mustache, that television viewers are looking mainly at their presenters’ hair, and not hearing much of what they say. Tony observed that television is mainly an auditory medium, and would be more effective if your picture tube was out of commission. He beleived that for many evolutionary and anatomical reasons — not least because “people are born without ear-lids” — the ear and audio deliver more of the signals that form our thinking than the eye does. And many of the trademark Tony Schwartz spots on television were commercials that deliberately slowed down the eye input with still photos, for example, or neutralized the eye with a shot of just an office clock and a second hand, while an actor’s plummy voice was asking: “Would you give me sixty seconds to tell you why Bob Abrams should be Attorney General of New York?”

tony and mike

Tony adored the babble of babies and the outdoor sounds of his block of New York. Above all he loved what Studs Terkel calls “that fabulous instrument, vox humana.” The blossoming of Tony’s reputation in the Seventies and the soundness of his books — The Responsive Chord and Media: the Second God — ran nicely parallel with the rebirth of radio at NPR. I was late taking the cue to radio myself, but I knew from Tony that radio was God’s own medium, and by the time I got there I knew from Tony why it felt like home. It is wonderful to realize, in the responses on Tony’s death two weeks ago, that the pied pipers of the rising radio generation — people like Jay Allison and Ira Glass— are devoted practitioners of Tony Schwartz’s ideas.

So maybe the next question is how many more of the podcasters and other newbies enabled by the inexpensive tools of Internet radio will get the blessing of Tony’s techniques and wise encouragement. I engage the brilliant and prolific TV documentarian David Hoffman — of “Sputnik Mania” in theaters this summer and the comprehensive film Guerrilla Media about Tony — in the conversation here not only to remember the master of sound and his signature pieces, but to introduce the wisdom of Tony Schwartz to the podcast generation. With your help, it might be just the start of our appreciation of Tony.

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  • hurley

    Wonderful, evocative tribute. Few things more gratifying than to hear people speak warmly and reflectively of a mutual friend. I’d heard some of Schwartz’s spots as a child, and of course never forgot them — “Close the door” now added to the rest — but had no idea of the idea, the ethos behind them. Something almost Beckettian in the the spareness, the insistence on the primacy of voice, and on its corollary, the imperative to LISTEN. Gratifying also to hear two Schwartzian adepts listening to one another, keenly, intently, with great concern — David Hoffman paid Chris a rare and deserved courtesy there. I’ve sent this show out to friends, and it’s already making waves, the left ones.

  • Jay Allison

    Fabulous hour. Full of concrete stuff and the philosophy behind it. And a lovely curve to the conversation too… following the paths of manipulated truths.

    Maybe it’s the sign of a good teacher, but over the years I think I’ve actually absorbed some of Tony’s ideas to the point that I now believe they were mine to begin with.

    I wish I had good Tony stories but I never met him. My cohorts The Kitchen Sisters spent time with him and made this piece for our Lost and Found Sound series:

    In a way, that series was an homage to Tony’s work. He was the bona fide “sound hound,” the man possessed by recorded sound. I think his example–one guy sitting in the middle of a ton of gear, totally absorbed with his mission–helped me feel less odd in my own enthusiasms. We are led by people at the extremes.

    One thing you didn’t cover was his careful examination of his own zipcode (NY 19), a function of his agoraphobia. In the early 80s, we had a group of producers in New York, informed by Tony’s work, and we did a kind of homage in a piece called “New York City: 24 Hours in Public Places.” You can hear it here:

    and our friends at Hearing Voices ( ) will be including it an upcoming hour they’re dedicating to Tony.

    anyway, thanks again for this affectionate, informative tribute.


  • Zeke

    This was another one of your surprising hours–shows which don’t look promising and turn out to be enlightening. I’d never heard of Tony Schwartz (though of course I knew about the “daisy spot”) until this show. The discussion of how the visuals impede the message was also knew to me and fascinating; I’ll never again watch a newscast without chuckling about the “talent’s” hair. I’m wondering how this works (or is different) in movies. The spots you played were tremendous. I wish there had been time for more discussion of the implications of Schwartz’s ideas for the internet.

  • I am tickled to share this note from Tony Schwartz’s daughter Kayla. She is (appropriately enough) a speech and presentation coach in New York. Thank you, Kayla Schwartz. She writes:

    “I listened to the podcast of your conversation yesterday while at the gym (FYI, Both my husband and myself had a hard time downloading it from the website but got it easily on iTunes.)

    “I want to tell you that I laughed out loud so many times that people were staring at me. I also so relished the explanations and descriptions of him… his environment, his work. Growing up with this man as a father, I was of course not as attuned to his professional accomplishments as to his personality, his creative talents, his idiosyncracies, his sense of humor, his emotional side. Between the two of you, I heard many of the ideas I had known in passing, but described clearly, with fitting examples, and described in relation to Tony as a person. I cherished hearing his voice, hearing some of the familiar spots, and being brought back into that world of the Carter campaign (I was age 14), the Nixon-Coke parody and others.

    “I especially love hearing some descriptions of my dad’s theories, words which I have never specifically heard him say, but which I find myself uttering with my clients as I coach them on presenting!

    “Thank you so much for bringing my Dad “back to life” for me.”

  • Zeke

    Lessons learned. From the NY Times magazine profile of Rush Limbaugh:

    Limbaugh is being uncharacteristically modest when he attributes his wealth to simple salesmanship. First, you have to draw — and keep — a crowd. “Rush is just an amazing radio performer,” says Ira Glass, a star of the younger generation of public-radio personalities. “Years ago, I used to listen in the car on my way to reporting gigs, and I’d notice that I disagreed with everything he was saying, yet I not only wanted to keep listening, I actually liked him. That is some chops. You can count on two hands the number of public figures in America who can pull that trick off.”

    Glass compares Limbaugh to another exceptional free-form radio monologist, Howard Stern. “A lot of people dismiss them both as pandering and proselytizing and playing to the lowest common denominator, but I think that misses everything important about their shows,” he says. “They both think through their ideas in real time on the air, they both have a lot more warmth than they’re generally given credit for, they both created an entire radio aesthetic.”

  • The spots you played were tremendous. I wish there had been time for more discussion of the implications of Schwartz’s ideas for the internet.

  • cetinyan

    Just listened to it in the car as a podcast. What a treat! I too thought this was an eye-opening (ear-opening?) hour. Thanks. Among other things, it makes me think there should be an aural equivalent of “enlightening.” The before and after clips of jimmy carter were just amazing, as was Bill Clinton’s masterful use of the TS technique. Of course,what made the interview especially delightful was the awareness that it was itself very much a perfect illustration of its own subject matter. Lovely!

    I happened by luck to listen to this right after Chris’ July conversation with John Maeda about visual “stickiness”. The two together make a potent and provocative coctail.

    Having now seen/heard examples of and anecdotes about of stickiness of soungs/voices/images, I woul like to know more about the theory. What about our brains make them so receptive to certain aural and visual signals? What’s the evolutionary tie-in?

  • Nicholas

    Coming from the UK, I had never heard of Chris nor any of those he interviewed. It is now one of the pleasures of my life to have discovered this treasure chest of thoughts and ideas. This episode only added to the my happiness and I now eagerly await each new episode. Thank you!