By Craig Jackman
The strap on my watch broke the other week. As it’s a nice watch, a 15th anniversary present from my wife as well, I decided to order up a new strap to get it fixed... of course nobody had what I needed in stock. As I use my watch constantly and feel naked without one, I had to go out and buy a cheap watch while I waited for my new strap to come in, and the new watch is pretty interesting for $20. Not only do you set the time, but the difference to GMT, and the longitude to the nearest arc minute. Why? Well it does the expected time, stopwatch, and alarm, but it also displays the phases of the moon and high and low tide. It will display the sun’s azimuth, resulting in a more-or-less accurate electronic compass. Now please recall that at the end of the ‘60s, NASA sent men to the moon and back with less computer power than you’d find in a fancy pocket calculator. In the ‘70s you could get a pocket calculator built into your watch. Now you can get a watch that will control your I-Pod while monitoring your heart-rate and calculating the amount of calories burned in your workout. The next big thing will be building a cell phone into your watch.
It’s all overkill, and it’s getting away from the real reason of something, in this case my watch. You know what I really want? I want my watch to tell me the time. Being a very long day’s drive from the ocean, having a tidal display is useless in a city on a river. I don’t need a bunch of doo-dads; I really need the exact time please. I had a Timex I bought for $10 when I was in college that would lose 3 seconds a year. It was great until I dropped it.
I wonder if the same situation isn’t happening today in our world of Radio Production, with a bunch of stuff that’s getting away from what we really need.
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love manipulating audio on my zippy new computer. It’s a tool that makes my expressions of creativity so much easier, not to mention how much easier it is to get things to the exact correct length, or to make revisions to something. Do we really need to continue the search for the magic compressor that will implant post-hypnotic suggestions to the listeners, sending them in zombie-like waves to the client’s business? Is there really a prize for who has the largest selection of plug-ins? Are your listeners going to notice the difference between any one of a handful of compressor or EQ plug-ins? I’m not asking if YOU notice the difference, I’m asking if your listeners will.
Digital manipulation of audio is a wonderful, exciting thing. We can clean up even the most minute of flaws before anyone else will notice them, and do it in just a couple of clicks with the mouse. Some of the flaws we are surgically cleaning out will drive us nuts, but will anyone else really hear it? However, because we can be so exact, so precise, so clean, are we losing some of the individuality of our work? I know we’ve lost a lot of individuality by leasing the same Production services. I really admire John Fox and Eric Chase, as examples, but ‘fess up... when you’re really busy, you just plug the call letters into the first mix. Everyone’s done it, I know I have, yet you know you’re more pleased by taking things apart and putting them back together in ways unexpected by the originating service.
Are we doing a disservice to our clients? We send them an interesting thoughtful spot that would stand out as different from their competitors; they send it back because it doesn’t have a drop from the Simpson’s in it. In an effort to generate false excitement, the announcer has to be yelling until they are hoarse, then drowned in chorus, echo, reverb, and lo-fi EQ, all in a last ditch effort to sell 10mpg SUV’s. I’ve never been a big believer in the phrase “If you’re not yellin’, you’re not sellin’”! You know what, our listeners aren’t that stupid. They’re pretty smart, and not just because they listen religiously to our stations. You can’t browbeat the listener into going somewhere or by yelling at them. They can tell the difference between false hype and genuine excitement. There is an element that will buy something because it’s cool or in fashion. Most will weigh a number of factors and do their research before making up their own minds. In all things, today’s consumer is an educated consumer, and in a lot of cases, we’re not giving them the credit they deserve.
The area where we can make the most difference to our stations is in station imaging -- stingers, sweepers, promos and such. Entertainment is an important part of that, more or less depending on the format and direction that you’re given from your PD. Is it time yet to focus on the next generation of how we get that entertainment in there yet? Can we finally get back to focusing on better writing and better performances yet? Can we finally get away from pirated drops scattered hither and yon? It’s time for the next big thing, so let’s go beyond adding mid-peak EQ for phrase emphasis. I don’t mind “borrowing” an idea from another station I might hear in another market, but it’s a lot better when I take that idea as inspiration and modify it for my needs, not just reproducing it for my market.
Radio production is getting stagnant right now, dressing up the same old in fancy new packaging, and forgetting the reason of what we do. It’s time to stop, take a breath, and look at what’s at the heart of the task. We need to get back to creating commercials that speak to the consumer and make them feel something/anything. We can’t make them do anything, we can only influence and inform. While we need to entertain in station imaging, we need to remember that its real reason is to remind them of what station they are listening to and keep them excited and interested in the music or programming. What we do is important, to us, to the station, and eventually to the listener. We should take the time to reinforce the core, to rebuild the strength of the spine so that we can build it taller again.