by Donna L. Halper, President, Halper & Associates
First, a confession: I am not a production wizard, at least not in the sense of being an expert at the latest electronic gadgetry. Back when I was taught how to do production, most studios had a reel-to-reel and a large supply of razor blades. So, I'm afraid I can't offer much insight into the technical end of production today. I leave that to others far more experienced than I. On the other hand, you and I both know that doing good production is a lot more than just being a master with multi-track. We also know that while the old methods are on their way to becoming obsolete, they are still being used in many small or entry-level stations where the economy doesn't yet permit Production Managers to have the newest, state-of-the-art equipment. And that's where I do have some expertise. My specialty, over the eleven years I've consulted, is training those novice Production Directors (and others at the station who have to do production sometimes) to do an effective job with limited resources.
I'd like to discuss a few things I hear in my travels -- common mistakes, common problems that can seriously effect a station's total sound. Unfortunately, some of them are not just found in small markets, and that can make them even more annoying. So, let's critique your production and see if any of these apply.
1. Don't overlook the basics. I saw a famous golfer on TV recently. He missed an incredibly easy putt, mainly because he hurried and didn't pay attention. How many of you occasionally record across the splice? Believe it or don't, I still hear it, even in major markets. How many of you take time to clean the heads? Oh, it's a boring, thankless job, but if people forget to do it for a long enough time, the results can be disastrous. And how many times have we all been told not to eat (or smoke) in the studio, yet how many studios have I wandered into that had pizza or sugar or cigarette ashes in close proximity to the equipment?
2. Commercial copywriting is an ART. As fancy as you may be with the technical end of things, some stations also require the production folks to help with the copy. I'm very aware that at some stations, sales and programming don't work as closely as they should, which at times means a piece of paper with one or two facts about the product (or sometimes not even one or two facts) is casually tossed at the Production Manager with a note saying the spots start tomorrow. Or, the client wants ninety seconds of copy in a thirty second commercial. I don't have the magic answer for getting along better with other departments, although I do offer motivational seminars that address these issues; but I do know that creating a positive channel of communication is essential if sales and programming are going to function well, and the better the communication, the better the commercials will be. I like to see the programming staff, or at least the PD and the Production Director, attending sales meetings and vice versa, so that everybody speaks the same language.
In most large markets today, the PD is generally treated with respect, as a manager should be. The Production Director deserves the same consideration. He or she should work to build a good relationship with the GM and GSM so there will be an ally rather than an adversary when a problem arises. This may sound obvious, yet at too many stations I've seen, the sales department assumes the Production Director knows what they need; and then, when the client isn't happy, you know who gets blamed. So, approach the writing of commercials with the importance this task deserves. Ask questions of the GSM or the account executive who dropped the note on your desk. Be perceived as someone who is interested in who the clients are. Put as much care into the creating of the commercial copy as you do in finding the cute special effects or the perfect music bed. The more information you have about the station's clients, the more you will be perceived as a team player who can be relied upon to produce a commercial that makes a difference.
3. Learn to write in English. Unless you are working for an ethnic station, your audience expects to be able to understand whatever is on the air in conversational English. Yet, what I hear far too often is a confusing blend of clichés and grammatical errors. Now, I know what some of you are thinking: "Hey Donna, I'm overworked, I'm busy, and this ain't school." Yes, but research shows that the typical listener perceives a favorite radio station as a FRIEND. Listeners trust and rely on their favorite station. They may at times find commercials irritating, but they also often find them informative, especially if a sale on some item they need is being discussed. Studies in a number of good magazines have told us that the average American today doesn't read as well as people did thirty years ago. It has been estimated, in fact, that one in eleven Americans is functionally illiterate, and as many as one in four may read at a fifth grade level. Thus, whether we want to admit it or not, our audience may be depending on us for information they can't get elsewhere, and that information needs to be presented clearly. I never advocate talking down to the listener; but I do advocate setting a good example of CLEAR communication. For example, when a commercial makes a really bad mistake in grammar, it gives the impression that the station is either careless or ignorant. The average listener may not notice, but I'll bet some advertiser will. I like stations to present a class image, even if they are in a small market with old equipment. So, permit me to point out one error I've even heard in large markets. The word "unique" is like the word pregnant -- either you are or you aren't. "Unique" means ONE OF A KIND. So how can a store be the MOST unique? Either it is unique or it isn't. Also, beware the dreaded cliché. If I've heard about one store's "friendly, courteous staff," I've heard about a million of them. Would a store have an unfriendly, uncourteous staff? And above all, beware of first person copy. That means if a client writes the copy as "our store" or "our staff," that's fine as long as that client is voicing the commercial. If Joe of Joe's Pizza wants to say "my store has the best pizza," he can do it. You, however, should not because your station isn't a pizzeria. Yet, I still hear the production person at some stations recording a spot that says "At Mary's Dress Shop, we have a great selection." In general, commercials not voiced by an official member of the store should be written in the THIRD PERSON: he, she, they, etc.; and NOT in the first: we or our. So, even if the copy you are given says "We...," most stations change it to "they" before recording the commercial. It saves the station from being held accountable if a customer didn't find what the commercial promised. If you say, "We have the best prices," you give the impression that your station stands behind those prices. If you say, "they have the best prices," then it's clear that the sponsor said that, not you, and it's their responsibility to live up to it.
4. Avoid being too clever. Not everybody can write a funny commercial; if comedy isn't your strong point, don't feel obligated to make every commercial amusing. Also, don't feel obligated to show off the latest piece of equipment you have if it doesn't fit the commercial. Some spots just lend themselves to a simple approach, yet I still hear echo, reverb, phasing, or whatever the newest high-tech sound effects are, superimposed onto commercials that don't need them. Sometimes simple really is better.
Also, selling isn't necessarily shouting. I know some clients want a high-energy spot, but it's usually more effective to project your voice rather than use a forced, hyped up delivery. Sound enthusiastic? Yes. Sound frantic? Not usually. I find that a sincere and conversational approach can have great impact, especially if it's voiced by someone who sounds as if they really do believe in the product.
As for music beds, some of my attorney friends are warning stations about potential copyright infringement for using current songs as beds for commercials. Not only does this potentially burn out the song, but it also might be illegal under some circumstances. (A concert spot obviously requires brief segments of the artist's work, but that's different from using a hit song as background for, let's say, the Joe's Pizza spot, unless Joe has paid for the use of that song.) I'm not a legal expert either, but I've heard about this from enough people to make me want to be cautious. When in doubt, ask.
5. Be kind to your audience. Commercials should blend in nicely with the overall sound of the station. I realize that we don't always have control over this. Some agencies do send country spots to AOR stations and screaming CHR spots to soft AC's. But when we do have control, we should pay close attention to how everything fits. Some young Production Managers forget that the great new sound effects they love to play with just sound juvenile to a 50+ audience. Know your station's target audience. Learn about their lifestyle. The more you know about their likes and dislikes, the more effective your commercials will be. Read useful magazines like American Demographics to find out what age groups like what products. In USA Today and elsewhere, you can also find out what the latest trends are. If nobody ever trained you in production basics, there are some good college text books, such as Radio Production: Art and Science by Michael Keith (published by Focal Press) that might answer some of your questions.
Exchange ideas with more experienced production people at other stations. As busy as everyone is, most of us are flattered when we are asked for some advice about how to do something better. Conventions are good places to have those exchanges too; and, of course, keep reading publications like this one and write in if there is a certain area you feel needs to be discussed. Read the other trades too, and not just the jobs pages. Learn more about the needs of the audience. That knowledge may come in quite handy in the future, be it at your present station or your next one. Well informed people do much better production, I have found.
In summation, ask yourself when you listen back to your production if you got the message across in a way that you would talk to a good friend. Try to find that responsive chord in the audience. Knowing what matters to them can help you transform a ho-hum commercial into a memorable one. While it may seem at times that you are expected to be a cheerleader for the local economy, the truth is that you are the station's ambassador, the link between the business community and the audience. Good production requires planning, it requires working under pressure without losing your own sense of humor (or your sanity), but above all, it requires taking pride in your ability to keep the audience informed in an interesting and comfortable way. So practice writing concise and impactful copy. Practice communicating with enthusiasm and without hype. Work with the sales staff and let them work with you. And no matter how thankless your job may seem on its worst days, never forget how important you really are!