The Production Panic

by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

Radio is in a panic state. Yes, it's happened before. But not like this. Outrageous sale prices of stations and the resulting debt make operating a station at a profit unlikely if not impossible in a severe advertising revenue recession.

Most sharp radio companies are in trouble. The "bean-counter" operators are in even more trouble. Unfortunately, radio is allowing the size of the pie to suffer while everyone battles for their share of it.

For radio production, this is fast becoming a disaster. The ax-wielders are headed down the hall toward the production room, intent on decimating the gains radio production has made during the last five or six years. Equipment, libraries and supplies are under attack. Sadly, some of the most talented people in the business -- Production Directors working ten and twelve hours a day -- are endangered.

Several scenarios are playing themselves out in radio's top markets. One is forcing the existing Production Director to assume weekend air shifts and/or swing duties while cutting his/her salary. Another is to replace existing Production Directors with jocks who remain on the air, or bringing in the lowest priced talent available.

Whenever such measures are enacted, management expresses its regret but blames the "new economy" of radio. In most cases, it is as foolhardy as it is convenient. Management slowly upgraded the status of production throughout the late eighties. They acknowledged that production was 1) important if not crucial to the success of the station, 2) a position requiring large amounts of creativity, detail work, technological expertise and patience, and 3) an environment not easily controlled by amateurs or the faint-of-heart.

Production remains just as important as it was before, if not more so. The sound of the station, especially after the morning show ends, rests more with the Production Director than any single jock. He/she is responsible to the program, promotions and sales departments. A Production Director works with continuity, traffic and engineering. Time is as tight as pressure is pervasive.

Why then are radio Production Directors cast aside in this wave of economic gloom? Why has management gone after them more than other personnel? What will the results of this folly be?

It is apparent that some General Managers and Program Directors have felt uncomfortable about production for many years. After all, a person is performing audio voodoo in a room by him or herself for hours on end. Usually, no one else at the station really knows how the equipment works. Neither the General Manager nor the Program Director knows what is possible or what isn't or how long it takes. They tend to underestimate the complexity of production and the time it takes. Furthermore, unlike jocks, Production Directors need additional budget for supplies, equipment, libraries, etc..

Last but not least in this process are the personalities of most Production Directors. They are not part of the self-promoting, ego-toting panorama of radio performers. Production Directors aren't paid anything like morning personalities, even though they work harder and have to possess more skills. Most management types tend to view Production Directors as skilled mechanics with a bent toward perfection. Since perfection is less important to radio management than competitiveness, production personnel are often perceived as having a lackadaisical attitude toward winning, much less burying the competition. The same criticisms could be made of brain surgeons.

So much for the underlying attitudes. What are the likely results of downgrading production in the nineties? Disaster is one word that comes to mind. The likelihood of a young, untested rookie performing to the levels of an experienced, creative professional are as unlikely as a rookie winning the Cy Young award in baseball. Sure, it happens once in a blue moon. More likely, years of suffering occur before the rookie can contribute to the necessary level. And who will train and nurture the rookie Production Director? The General Manager? The overburdened Program Director? These are the same people who don't really know what the Production Director is doing. Another major problem is mastering the complexities of today's technology. It will come to the point where no one at the station knows how to operate the most advanced gear. This is an ominous situation in the digital-intensive nineties.

The second possibility is for current Production Directors to remain with the station while adding rather extensive roles on-air. This reverts to the primitive assumption that production is not all that important or time-consuming. It also assumes that Production Directors are capable of such work or want to do it. While some Production Directors have a talent for airwork, they have intentionally abandoned it in favor of production. Air-work for most top Production Directors is a burden that drains them of the creative energy to do production work. The baseball analogy here is taking your best starting pitcher and having him play short-stop a few times a week. It doesn't help your infield, and it certainly detracts from his pitching ability.

Chaos is almost assured under either scenario. Less work will get done, and it will be less creative. As turnaround time in production increases, programming and sales will have to lower its expectations of production or face great frustration. Mistakes will be made, and ground will definitely be lost to competitors who aren't dependent on rookies or part-time production people. In the end, rookies will demand salaries commensurate with their effort and massive time involvement. The problem will have come full circle.

We are at the beginning of a production panic. It is all the more painful after building a strong production foundation over the last five or six years. Some of the sharpest radio operators will realize this as a golden opportunity to move ahead of the competition. Others will see only the opportunity to lower next month's expenses. The price they pay will be so much higher than the potential gain. Radio management would do well to see the forest before a tree falls on its head.