Production Monkey In The Middle

by Dennis Daniel

(Editor's note: One of the first games you ever played was "Monkey in the Middle." You remember it -- the older, bigger kids used to toss a ball back and forth to each other with you, in the middle, trying to get the ball as they threw it over your head. You hardly ever got the ball; and when you did, you were respected for your effort, and the game was over. The game really wasn't much fun then, and it still isn't. Eventually, we all grow up and escape the Monkey in the Middle game. Dennis Daniel did. He caught the ball.)

There we are, wedged, plopped uncomfortably between sales and programming. This seems to be our fate. The production department at almost every radio station in this country is NOT considered a department in and of itself. It is a hybrid, a bizarre mongrel that laps at the feet of those higher-ups who, in most cases, haven't got a real, honest to God, creative bone in their bods. These are people who live by statistics and numbers, quotas and hard facts. We, on the other hand, deal with emotions, creative inspiration, and technical skills. We are the flotsam and jetsam of radio, the unsung heroes, the saviors who are as good as our last miracle, the prophets who are not recognized in their own country.

What does sales want from us?

"I need this spot to stick out."

"This spot goes on in ten minutes. Can you cut a quick, straight read?"

"Do you mind if the client voices his own spot?"

And what about programming?

"This promo has to air immediately! The new U2 is here!"

"Could you change this spot? You scream too much in it."

"I hate to interrupt, but THE DEAD BABY PARTS are here to do some I.D.'s."

And on and on and on.

Heaven forbid when the two departments collide with us in the middle!

Salesman: "The client wants to use (pick a band's) song in the spot."

Program Director: "We can't use music that we play in spots."

Salesman: "Can (Morning Guy or Gal's name) do the read?"

Program Director: "I don't want (ditto) voicing spots for clubs."

In instances like these, it is up to the Production Director to figure out some way to make all three parties happy, especially the client...who is paying good money to be on the air. When simple requests cannot be granted, it can start client/production relationships off on the wrong foot. And nobody in either scenario has bothered to ask the Production Director what HE or SHE thinks. Doesn't our opinion count?

Okay. It's my job. Stop bitching, right?

Wrong. You know me better than that by now.

Herein lies the indisputable truth: THE PRODUCTION DEPARTMENT IS JUST AS IMPORTANT (IF NOT MORE) THAN ANY OTHER DEPARTMENT AT ANY RADIO STATION. I know it. You know it. The trick is, how do we get our so called bosses to believe this hypothetical quandary? It all begins with one word: Sound. It's what radio is all about. The sound of a station is the reason for listening. ALL of the sounds! Not just the music and endless liners. The better a station sounds, the more "fun" a radio station is, the more people listen. (Of course, I realize that different formats require different overall "sound" theories. Still, "sound" doesn't just apply to being clever and creative. Quality falls in line as well.)

Commercial breaks are the Achilles heel of radio. They send the average button-pushing listener straight for the knob! If a station can keep the listener tuned in, even for commercials, that station just can't lose. To do this, you need someone or a group of people who have the creative know-how to make commercials slick, entertaining, and successful as possible. Simple. However, if your Production Director is some poor, overworked slob who has to crank out meatball production at a break-neck pace, it isn't going to happen. Matters are made even worse when heavy demands and deadlines are being shoved in his/her face from both sales and programming. It's no wonder that the Production Department suffers burn out more than any other department. (The turnover of production people at stations is incredible!) We don't have anything but our own creative minds to work with. We are alone with ourselves.

When a salesman hits the pavement, he has numbers, statistics, rates, and the gift of gab. All admirable qualities, I may add. (I'm not salesman-beating here. They bust hump.) A Program Director has his music, demos, and specific format requirements, not to mention the added pressure of having to deliver ratings...or else.

We have a mike, tape, and our minds.

Production Directors deserve respect. We also deserve a real sense of responsibility that goes beyond the workload. When I was at WBAB, I was at the beck and call of my Sales Manager, the salespeople, and the programming staff. I was never invited to department head meetings. I wasn't even allowed to walk out of the building for lunch without letting at least three people know where I was going. I was trusted creatively (they allowed me to do some comedy bits when the mood hit me), but I was not entrusted with any creative projects other than commercial oriented ones. (Only once did programming use me for a contest where I produced intros and outros for the jocks, plus an assortment of sound effect carts.) In many ways, I was wasted. The only domain that was truly mine were commercials. To be honest, I never walked into programming and asked them to use me. The reason? Too much commercial production. Although I was respected and well treated at WBAB, I never considered myself a department head. (In fact, this was made clear to me. I WAS NOT!) I had no budget. I didn't order my own supplies. I didn't even know from year to year whose department my salary fell under. One year, it was programming. The next, sales. This bouncing around went on for years! I had to check with so many people, just to get my vacation straight-ened out! Even with the creative free-dom, I felt kinda belittled by it all.

At WDRE, my entire world changed.

Suddenly, I am a department head. I am treated with the same respect as any other department head, all the way up to the General Manager. I am an equal. I have been given a budget. I am actually able to order my own supplies according to MY needs, as opposed to the needs of the engineering department who used to order all my stuff at WBAB. (Ooooo, how they cringed when I told them I needed more supplies!) The Program Director asked me to produce all kinds of neat drop-ins, promos and legal ID's. I went from being a "production hack" to being the "voice of a radio station." I no longer feel like there is anyone to "report to." What I do, I do. It's called trust. I even get to go out for lunch whenever I want, and the only person I have to tell is the receptionist! And vacations? Wow! I let the office manager know when I'm going. She writes the dates down, and that's that. No guilt trips. No "Oh no, you can't leave then. It's busy that time of year," or "You can't take more than a week at a time. What will we do?"

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Sock it to me!

The time has come for sales and programming to realize just how important and valuable the production department is. As misunderstood as we are, we still provide more in-house, on-air material than anyone else. We really can make a difference in the overall sound of a station. Add to that a certain level of respect from everyone, and you have a winning combination that will help create the proper atmosphere for quality production.

Still, for some, the formula makes no sense.

To those that may disagree with me, I ask just one question: HOW CAN A RADIO STATION SURVIVE WITHOUT A HAPPY PRODUCTION DIRECTOR? Oh, sure. You can hire outsiders to write copy; copy services abound. You can have some part-time jock be your man, but is his heart in it? You can get free-lance producers to create commercials, but where's the immediacy? You can pay someone diddly to get those straight reads done, but where is their loyalty? You can figure out all kinds of ways to survive; some radio stations don't even have a Production Director! The job is handled by jocks, secretaries, sales-people, and interns. These solutions turn a legitimate art form into a color by numbers painting. These money saving, shorthanded solutions are implemented by stations that are struggling to get by financially. It can be done, but at what cost? I'm sure there are many GM's out there that would love to come to work everyday and not have to wonder about the quality of their in-house work. After all, what is a radio station without a Production Director? Just a frequency that plays music, tells you weather and traffic information, and has contests. Again, that can work, but why not go for the whole enchilada?

I don't have all the answers. (Who does?) I can only speak from experience. This is how it has worked for me. Respect equals productivity. Don't treat me like some "Monkey in the Middle" schmuck. Let me create with peace of mind. Let me know that my opinion counts. Realize that I'm going to make people WANT to listen ALL THE TIME. Get me involved in projects that can benefit the station. Hey, if I can sell a product I probably haven't even seen, imagine how well I can sell the station I work for!

Pass the torch.