by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
One of the great strengths of radio production over the years has been its awesome irreverence. No person or institution has escaped the satirical efforts of radio’s best producers. From the clever to the hilarious, this represents radio at its best.
While recently conducting production workshops and seminars in Australia and New Zealand, I compiled a lengthy series of radio promos and liners that were funny and memorable. They came from many different countries and formats. They used a myriad of techniques. And they consistently made the listener smile or laugh.
The only problem presented by this gathering of material was the realization that most of it was several years old. The new era of radio, with its tight deadlines and slavish devotion to quantity, may be sapping the humor right out of production at a time when it’s probably more important than ever.
In reviewing the work of Australian radio producers, there were tendencies that are true the world over. In general, the technical side was superbly done — from excellent mixes to superior audio quality. The t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted. But the soul of the production was not much in evidence.
After discussing the dearth of great humor and cleverness in the Aussie promos, several key trends emerged that are worthy of consideration by us all. Point number one. Writing is the first and foremost problem. In Australia, there are often separate people employed as writers versus producers. The product should improve from this separation of duties, but it seems to have had the opposite effect. In the rest of the world, where separate writers are a luxury, we have the problem of producers with little background, aptitude or desire to write. Unfortunately, their work is severely limited by that.
Good writing often has the power to transcend mediocre production values, but it is almost impossible for great production to save a poor script. Good writing is the product of intelligence, time, collaboration and a creative environment in which to work. Modern radio is certainly lacking the last three ingredients.
The recent influx of younger producers, in all candor, has been largely due to budgets and the desire of many experienced producers to leave the business. Younger producers represent both a great opportunity and a growing problem. As one of Australia’s best young producers said to me, “Our stuff is always hip. It sounds cool. If we go after the kind of humor you propose, we won’t be seen as cool.”
Touché. Great humor is not born of cool, dispassionate, all style-over-substance production. However, the purpose of great production is not to impress other producers, but to give the audience something entertaining and memorable. How memorable is the kind of cool production we often give listeners? How much more entertaining and memorable is something that is funny or wickedly clever?
Point number two. We cannot produce just for our peers. The audience is not nearly as cognizant of or impressed by techno tricks or slick mixes. These are merely tools, not the message itself. Even when the audience sees itself as cool, they are always susceptible to humor.
Point number three. Audiences are probably more into substance than producers or programmers think they are. What listener thinks or talks like, “The best hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s”? Liners of that nature are based more on corporate garbage-speak than on any empirical evidence that listeners respond to it.
Point number four. Great promos are not generally created in short time frames. Yes, it actually takes a bit of time to set up something very funny. In collecting some of the world’s greatest promos, it was evident that 30 seconds is sufficient less than half the time. Programmers are too rigid in reducing the length of promos; producers too willingly accept those restrictions.
Point number five. We have lost the desire and ability to tell stories. Most of the young producers I speak with have no concept of what it is to provide a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. They instead see the puzzle as a series of short scenes that are connected by nothing except production technique. My challenge to producers is to take the time to tell a story in 60 seconds. Why not start with something simple, like a boy and a ball?
Point number six. Stop trying to cram in every bullet point in every promo. If there are four reasons to play the contest or listen to the morning show, cramming them all into one promo will only serve to cancel each other out. Instead, concentrate on one point that you can adequately drive home in the time frame allotted. The more you cram into the promo, the harder it is to be clever or memorable.
Point number seven. Attack everything and everyone. You don’t have to be gross or tasteless, but nothing should be sacrosanct. Not politicians, religion, competitors, bosses or the station itself. One complaint often voiced by programmers/managers is that the material is too “inside.” But watch movies or television. What was once too “inside” is now often too tame.
Point number eight. Never give up. One thing the on-air stars and top producers of radio have in common is that they were all told by management along the way that their work was terrible and unappealing to listeners. If radio managers have an unholy pipeline to the thoughts and emotions of listeners, we should be told about it. If they are armed with such knowledge, why can’t they put out a better product or stem the tide of radio listeners vanishing into the mist?
There is nothing so wrong with radio production or producers that it can’t be fixed. But this will not happen by serendipity or blind luck. We must face the problems directly and work on enduring solutions. Otherwise, the next laugh we’re likely to have will be on us.