The Big Picture

by John Dodge

f you've never heard the story of the blind men and the elephant, here's how it goes. The King, who had never seen an elephant before, sent six blind men to search in the jungle and when they returned he says, "Describe this beast to me." The first blind man had felt the elephant's tail and said, "Oh my King, the beast is long and sinewy like a snake." The second, who had felt a leg, said, "No, it's tall and straight and strong as a tree trunk." The third blind man, who had felt the elephant's ear, said, "It's delicate and thin like the leaf of a plant." The fourth, having felt the trunk, said, "These guys must be blind, the beast is shaped like a big rubber hose...." And so on. Each blind man's description was right. And they were all wrong because nobody got the Big Picture.

When you're in production, it's tempting to view the radio station as your personal creative outlet, a sound canvas that serves to showcase your talents for your peers and the public to appreciate. Announcers view your work in terms of buttons they have to punch so they can get back to being stars as quickly as possible. If you're in sales, it's easy to see the programming department as greedy slobs who eat up 80% of your potential selling time with their damn music. The engineers are back in the shop drinking coffee and chuckling at management because the suits are clueless about the enormity of the technochanges in the road just ahead. And the owners are meeting with the board or the bankers trying to figure out 1) if they're in the right business in the first place, and if so, 2) who to buy, who to sell, and how to get station or group profits up and costs down this quarter, never mind next year. The only people who truly seem to get it are the consultants, the ever-expanding army of experts who promise, for a fee, to see your Big Picture for you.

It's not too difficult to get the Big Picture, but it does involve what everyone who uses nowspeak calls a paradigm shift. That means a basic alteration of your model of perception, how you fundamentally see and do things. Instead of viewing the departments in the radio station -- general management, programming, music, news and public affairs, traffic, continuity, production, promotion and marketing, sales, and support staff -- as separate businesses with different goals, different values and conflicting agendas, look at them as completely interdependent parts of the same body. Heart pumps blood to brain which sends electrical signals to muscles which move bone which taps on word processor. If the parts don't function in concert as a system, the body is literally "sick." In organizational terms, that could mean inefficient, unproductive, unhappy, unprofitable, whatever. What's the prescription? Get the Big Picture. Where to begin? By first putting the shoe on the other foot.

Here's a bit of unbelievably simple advice that'll change your working relationships for the better. Let's call it the Golden Rule of Success in Business: figure out what the other person wants and figure out a way to give it to him. Let's consider who wants what.

The PD probably wants the Production Director to devote just enough time to the sales department to get all the spots on the air when they're scheduled so sales management won't be on his neck. The spots need to be good because if the advertisers run them and get no results, it's likely they won't be back. But the PD really wants the lion's share of production's creative energy for writing and producing audience-building image and event promos. If the music is right, you are the other key to attracting new listeners and getting the listeners the station already has to listen longer. That's a very important function which you can't perform if you're locked up doing the seventh rewrite for that $500 problem account the sales rookie just dragged in.

The solution is speed. To free valuable time for the PD and the station's needs, communicate directly, listen closely, ask open-ended, probing questions and then work quickly with clients. Become an expert "people reader" so you can tailor a commercial to their marketing goals and their personality. Some clients have an image problem. They don't know what theirs is! They order steak but won't eat it when it comes to the table, secretly preferring a hamburger instead. Your insight at the beginning of a relationship can help determine what direction they'll really sign off on. The worst scenario is the endless rewrite while a client struggles with his "identity." You don't have that kind of time! So always strive to do a good job but save your great commercial work for advertisers who have the strength of schedule and the personality to accept something different. Never be afraid to ask the Traffic Director "how much is this guy spending?" Otherwise you won't know how to manage your time. Learn how to size people up so you can always give them more than they bargain for but not spend two days on a spot that runs for two days. And never forget that Radio production is commercial art -- practically speaking, that means compromises all over the place.

Uh oh -- I hear grumblings from the perfectionists. That's understandable because most creative people are idealists. They want everything they make to be a work of art, a gourmet meal, a homerun. But be practical. It ain't gonna happen like that every time because you just don't have the time.

Now let's look at the Big Picture from the Sales Manager's perspective. She/he has different motivations and goals and you need a good working relationship with this person, too. He has higher blood pressure than you because he has a gun to his head most of the time. He lives in a world of short term goals and numbers. She sees advertising being just 25% of the money that America Inc. spends in the overall marketing scheme of getting goods and services thought up, researched, designed, produced, shipped, displayed, and purchased. She sees radio snagging a puny 7% of that advertising pie while TV and print take home a combined 50%, and cable is gaining on everybody. And LSMs generally work with a staff of 20-somethings who continually require replacement and retraining because the star performers want to leave radio sales for something sexier. That's the monkey on your Sales Manager's back.

Ok, Mr/Ms Production Chameleon, for this person you need to be the station's in-house advertising agency. You need the creative writing skills of an Addy-winning agency copywriter, the marketing sixth sense of a behavioral psychologist, the engineering skills of a Hollywood record producer, a voice that makes women swoon and men your friend (or the other way around), and if you look good on a sales call, that's cool, too. You need to be able to crank out more compelling sales ideas than anyone could possibly use, most of them good ones, and turn them out under impossible deadlines. You need to know what generates repeat business. Oh, and you can't be too touchy in the ego department because the salespeople are always returning from the field with statements that begin, "The client loved your ad, but...."

Okay, your next question is a good one: how do I resolve conflicting demands on my time? Before I answer that, I want to go on record saying that I love great radio commercials, ones that entertain and inform, ones that are memorable, ones which motivate and move product so the client comes back on his knees begging to buy the station again. My love of spots runs so deep that one of my earliest memories was telling Mom, "You say the name of the car, and I'll sing the jingle." That's why it took me years to get this important radio rule: where the audience goes, advertisers will follow. Sales Managers hate this because they will privately admit that the reverse isn't so. In an either/or situation it's "Station" priority one, "Clients" priority two.

Save your real creative firepower, your more adventurous ideas, the better part of your production imagination for your radio station, your primary client. Challenge yourself to think up new ways to sell the benefits of the station to more and more listeners everyday because here's the formula: more listeners equals higher ratings equals more money per spot equals more agency and national accounts equals less time spent making commercials equals more time making promos, bits, sweepers, bumpers, stagers, and features equals a more exciting radio station equals more listeners equals higher ratings....

Getting the Big Picture yet? Being a great Production Director often means being All Things to All People. A difficult assignment, sure, but I think you can handle it.

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