By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
Much has been written over the years (rightfully so) about how difficult and under-appreciated radio production is as a craft. We have a decent body of journalism about how to produce better spots, how to get voiceover gigs, how to use equipment more efficiently. We have learned how to deal with stupid salespeople, malevolent managers and uncaring engineers.
But it seems that we have missed out on a review of where radio production is really at – in terms of the style and substance of what is actually airing in 2003.
That is the premise on which this article is based. With every good intention to be objective, that is not entirely possible by a passionate professional. Bear that in mind as we take a journey into reality.
Bombast. This style of production has long been a staple of radio. At its best, it can be very powerful and effective. It is characterized by deep voices, fast pacing, a tendency to exaggeration. Good bombast has high-intensity, layered production with plenty of effects. Most bombast is lacking in substance. The style is the message.
Recently, bombast has received increasing criticism. It has been accused of talking “at” listeners. Deep voices are less in evidence in radio production than at any time in history. Some production factions are against anything “unnatural,” including effects and fast-paced design.
Faux sincerity. This is where many of those who decry bombast have chosen to go. The style is based on doing everything from a “listener’s” standpoint. Voiceovers tend to be softer and more “natural.” Production intensity is much lower. Advocates of this style say it is drawn from the sensibilities of top advertising campaigns. The message that comes across is “You’re in us. We’re in you.” To which my reaction is “coo-coo-catchoo.”
The reason that the sincerity is false is that the production attempts to manipulate the listener every bit as much as bombast. By utilizing the voices of listeners or pretending to be the listener’s best friend, this style of radio production proves to be cloying and, most often, boring. If bombast attempts to bully you into listening to the station, faux sincerity tries to be your ersatz buddy who just wants to snuggle. It is quite possible that listeners are too smart for either of these approaches.
Vapor. This is radio production formulated almost entirely on style. Its best feature tends to be excellent mixing and some very nice techniques. But it seems to draw its roots from dance, pop and alternative heritages, where filtered voices, world-beat rhythms and empty clichés are substituted for any sense of substance. More often than not, a listener cannot recall a vapor promo three minutes after hearing it. Those who produce it place a premium on being cool. Unfortunately, that means a lot less to a listener than to a producer.
Grinder. This is the style born entirely out of quantity. The formula is the star because there is not enough time to put any real thought or effort into the production. Grinding turns radio into newspapers. Both style and substance are sacrificed at the altar of expediency. The career path for grinders is not particularly bright.
Mood. This can be a highly effective style of production because it creates a fantasy for the listener. From the diabolical to the comedic — when mood is done carefully it can be very entertaining, rich in textures and different than the material that surrounds it. Here is the opportunity to be dramatic without relying solely on bombast. Mood pieces are more of a dessert than an entrée when it comes to radio meals. But they push producers to think of innovative uses of music, effects and voices.
Stories. Some of the best pieces in the history of radio imaging have told stories. Unlike virtually every other style, they have a beginning, middle and end. They can be heartbreaking and tragic, funny, clever or just plain wacky. Nothing draws in listeners or is more memorable than a well-told story. It can utilize the entire arsenal of a producer’s savvy (including the oft-overlooked point/counterpoint), but it is rooted in excellent writing. With excellent writing in such short supply and time at a premium, it is no wonder that stories are less in evidence now than ever before. They’ve gone the way of big voices.
The caveat here is that stories not only take extra time to write and produce, but they also take more airtime than the typical 20 second promo. Yet in a world where radio sells airtime by units, thus encouraging 60-second spots over 30’s, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to take 60 seconds of your own airtime to tell a terrific story?
A few years ago, while delivering a seminar in Australia to a group of perhaps 15 producers, I asked how many producers had ever created a story-based promo. Only one fellow answered affirmatively. He had done it years earlier in Tasmania, largely utilizing children to tell the story of a local tragedy. “I never thought of this before,” he said. “But it was probably the best piece I ever did.”
Comedy and satire. This is another often-effective style that suffers from a writing talent drought. While it is not overly taxing to be clever in an eight second liner by using some great drops, creating a full-blooded promo that is funny on repeated airings is quite a challenge. Voice characterizations, loony sounds and the unexpected are welcome in comedy and satire. Listeners tend to respond very positively to good comedy. But when attempts at this genre fail, the results can be embarrassing. Unlike listeners, radio has a tendency to classify bad taste as comedic or satirical.
Radio imaging has fallen prey to many of the same myths evident in radio programming, thus dragging down the overall quality and diversity of the product.
Myth 1 – The Format. By adhering to format purity, programmers restrict song variety. Much in the same way, producers get locked into aural tunnel vision. Why should promos contain only the type of music that the station has on its playlist? Why has the creative use of inherently non-formatic sound effects all but disappeared?
Indeed, the more narrowly focused the format, the more predictable its production generally is. Before hearing certain stations, you can accurately forecast how many of them will be produced. Some formats are victims of seeming taboos. Oldies stations are generally wary of using filtered voices. You don’t hear many stories or mood pieces on alternative or rhythmic stations. AC stations ten to avoid anything with much drama. Formats should have far less influence on production styles than they do.
Myth 2 — Gender. Men like harder-edged pieces, and women can’t stand them. If this were true, only men would watch television programs like 24 or Alias. And we would see virtually no male demos in sitcoms like Friends or Everyone Loves Raymond. The fact is that listeners are neither format purists nor gender-restricted to the extent that programmers and producers believe they are. There is no proof that electric guitars cause damage to pregnant women.
Myth 3 – Quantity. A big part of the dilution of creative radio production is based on the notion that quantity is paramount. The turnover of liners and promos is at record levels. Many pieces air two or three times before the boss is tired of them. Sadly, good pieces that bear repeating die an early death, while their replacements have nothing to recommend them except that they are “new.” An advertiser that changed its spots this often would be considered crazy. How hypocritical does that make the people who would tell the advertiser not do it and then do it themselves?
That being said, quantity requirements are not a sufficient excuse for producers to bypass creativity. Many programmers are simply too busy to restrict your creations. If only five percent of your work can be considered for the masterpiece category, that is still enough to provide you with some measure of pride.
Myth 4 – Entertainment. Somewhere along the line, radio became convinced that it was either a deity (bombast) or your friend (faux sincerity). In truth, it is no more a deity than drywall, no more your friend than an aluminum siding salesperson. Radio is information, escape, entertainment. When you’re not informing your listeners (in a creative manner), making them laugh or cry or just tweaking their curiosity, you’re part of the group responsible for lowering radio listening almost daily.
There are surely more styles and more myths than are presented above. Just as reliably, there will be notable exceptions and readers who vehemently disagree with much of this content.
That would be a wonderful thing. Because until we get past the blandly offered, blindly accepted norms, radio production is going to be stuck in the same rut that radio stations themselves are. A healthy, even heated dialogue is much in order before we all go to sleep at the wheel.