R.A.P. Interview: Tom Barnes

Tom Barnes, Consultant, Joint Communications Corp., Atlanta, GA

by Jerry Vigil

Tom's start in the business was at age sixteen in the late seventies with Broadcast Automation Associates in Florida where he performed maintenance on tape decks and automation systems. He had his first airshift by the time he was seventeen. From high school, it was on to Babson College in Boston for an education in management and marketing. While there, he worked for WBCN and WFNX, assisting the stations in their call-out research programs and music departments.

From Boston, it was back to Florida for a production gig at WOVV, then to Atlanta and a long stay with Southern Surveys, a consumer research firm for many Fortune 500 companies which also did radio research.

After gaining a great deal of knowledge and experience in research methodologies, marketing strategies, and the integration of the two, Tom decided to apply his skills exclusively to his first love, the radio industry. He is presently a consultant for Joint Communications Corporation (Atlanta, GA) and an avid proponent of quality creative production as a must for a successful station. Some of Joint's client stations include KISW-FM, Seattle; KZAP-FM, Sacramento; WROQ-FM, Charlotte; WRQN-FM, Toledo; and WKHK-FM, Richmond.

Tom: Radio, up until the past few years, really hasn't been at the cutting edge of marketing technology, at least that's the way I saw it in the late seventies and early eighties. That was one of the reasons I decided to pursue a business career and explore marketing and entrepreneurial studies. I wanted to bring that kind of thinking from academics and large corporations into radio so radio could use the technology effectively where it hadn't in the past.

R.A.P.: How much of your time in radio was spent producing?
Tom: The entire early part. Production to me was the first thing that really got me going. As soon as I got off the air, I immediately went into the production room. I've been a musician since I was eight years old. I've been playing the drums for nineteen years and the guitar for twelve. It was always very attractive to me, from the musician's side of things, to have a studio at my disposal.

I was really lucky when I was getting started. I had very indulgent Program Directors who would say, "Yea? Give it a try and let me hear what you can do [in production]." I think it is very important for somebody who is getting started to play in the production room. I would go in there for hours building feedback loops with my guitar and pretending I was Robert Fripp. I would play with the EQ's, play with white noise, play with anything just to see what it would do. When it was finally time to be a Production Director, I had a chance to utilize those skills I had gained as a musician and utilize my marketing knowledge as well.

R.A.P.: What memory sticks in your mind from your experience as a Production Director?
Tom: It's just amazing to me how many advertising experts there are in smaller markets. I don't know how many times advertisers said to me, "I was in marketing before you were a sparkle in your daddy's eyes. I've been in advertising for twenty-five years," as they would come in and cut their own spots dry, with their own voices and their own speech impediments.

R.A.P.: How did you apply your musical skills in production?
Tom: Well, it's really a function of understanding the way the sonic landscape works, understanding how things fit, and understanding audio symbolism. I think those are the keys to great production. I'd try to bring that into the production room by looking at spots almost like pieces of music in the sense that music and audio production for radio are pieces of audio art and understanding the basics of art in that you need tension and resolve. You need to use meaningful symbolism, and you need to communicate clearly what your message is using those tools. If you're writing a song, you have an emotional message to get across, i.e. love, hate, anger, fear. The same is true when you're producing a spot except that you're producing a buying impulse on the part of your listener instead of an emotional response. But I see them as very similar things in terms of basic human psychology. They're different ends, but you're basically getting there the same way. It's manipulation, and in whatever level you choose to approach it at, you're still either trying to manipulate someone emotionally or manipulate someone to buy something; and the degree to which you're successful is the degree to which you're successful.

The analogy is so clear. People that are missing it, I think, are really missing the boat, and I would encourage anyone involved in production to get involved in making music as well because the two really trade off immensely. Most of the successful Production Directors I've met have been involved in a musical process of some sort and have been very musically sensitive.

R.A.P.: Elaborate more on the "audio symbolism" you mentioned.
Tom: Audio symbolism is sparking people's emotional memory with a particular sound that they can respond to. Symbolism is very important in our society, whether it's visual or sonic. There are all kinds of symbols in our lives. Mostly, we think of symbolism as a cross representing Jesus Christ, or we think of a swastika as representing Adolph Hitler or the Nazis. The same is true for sound as well -- the tight EQ of a voice in an airport, or the bell that a bell captain uses in a hotel to get somebody's attention, or an electronic phone ring that sounds like an office phone versus one that sounds like the phone in your home. These are all symbols, and as we get more involved in technology in our lives, sound is going to have even more meaning.

On my Macintosh on my desk I have the sound of Hal when it boots up. It says, "I'm fully functional and all my circuits are working normally." The way that it is said, the way that it was sampled, and the way that it comes out of my Macintosh mean something beyond the words that are said, A) because the movie was so emotional for me, and B) because now, it's saying it on my Macintosh! What has happened in this world? What's going on? This is beyond just some neat little trick that a Macintosh can do. This means more. This goes to humanity, and that is what symbolism is about, touching that common thread of humanity. That's what you've got to do when you create good production, touch that common thread that people have.

There's a great little saying about art that I once heard that says, "All our secrets are the same, and the degree to which you are willing to reach deep down inside yourself and tell your secret is the degree to which you touch other people in that same manner." Sounds can do that, just like hearing Hal on my computer. It conjures up thoughts about how Arthur C. Clarke had really explored the limits of what computing was going to do, and it touched on artificial intelligence and the boundaries of where our consciousness is. You don't think about that consciously. Your brain doesn't go through that whole process every time you hear Hal, but it does in a sense. It just kind of whisks right through, and it has meaning in everyday life. So there's a new symbol. Hal the computer is a new symbol all of a sudden.

People that do production need to reach in themselves, in their own memories, and find those sounds, no matter how subtle they think they may be. Time will make them more adept at using that symbolism, but they need to look for symbolism in their everyday life. When they watch movies and when they consume any kind of media, they need to be aware of symbolism so they can bring that in the studio and touch people with their own production.

Symbols are something we use every day to understand things more deeply rather than in just the upper part of our cortex. This is something that goes all the way down the hypothalamus. This is your strength. This is something that carries all the way back to your ancestors. Sounds are the same way. That's why music touches us so deeply.