The Compensation Blues

by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

Long hours. Low pay. High pressure. Zero glamour. We've known for a long time that being a Production Director is not the best job in radio. But the recently released 1993 Radio Industry Salary Survey shows that the hardest working people in the radio business are being compensated well below the "average" Account Executive.

The survey, which was published by Radio & Records and had data gathered by the C.P.A. firm of Miller, Kaplan Arase & Co., not only confirms the low salaries given to Production Directors, but also compares salaries for every radio employee category.

It's no surprise that General Managers, Sales Managers, Program Directors and Morning Talents are paid more than Production Directors. These are the people presumably entrusted with the station's ultimate success. The fact that these positions also carry many perks that are not available to Production Directors (e.g. free food and drink, entertainment, automobiles, etc.) means that the compensation gap is probably understated.

Isn't it nice to have "objective" confirmation of the fact that Production Directors are lower on the salary ladder than Music Directors, Chief Engineers, Business Managers, Promotion Directors and Air Talent in every shift except nights and overnight? Doesn't it seem entirely fair that the average Midday Talent in a top 15 market makes 50% more than the average Production Director? After all, the Midday Talent puts in a grueling three or four hour shift and then has to figure out what to do with the rest of the day.

Production Directors are sure to be comforted by the data that show General Sales Managers and Operations Managers almost tripling their salaries, Sports Announcers making about 30% more than they are and a category called "Technician" (does this mean "board operator?") not far behind.

The same study shows that spot loads increased again in 1993, the size of sales staffs rose, and the number of LMAs/duopolies shot through the roof. These three factors have combined to make the Production Director's job significantly harder than it has ever been before. Whenever there are more spots, more salespeople, and more stations to deal with, Production Directors are asked to abandon their cushy ten hour days and give the company twelve or even fourteen hours daily.

What makes this especially delightful is that they are expected to do so for virtually no increase in pay. Indeed, the survey showed that things are getting worse for Production Directors in comparison to their bosses and co-workers. A breakdown of percentage increases in salary from 1992 to 1993 is as follows: National Sales Manager (12.5%), Local Sales Manager (13.5%), Program Director (10%), Operations Manager (11%), News Directors (10%), Business Manager (8.4%), Traffic Director (10.7%). Production Directors' salaries were up only 5.5%. The lone category listed that showed a lower percentage increase than Production Directors was Morning Talent at 4.2%. But then in the top 15 markets, Morning Talent was already making more than three times what the Production Director gets.

The last time I looked, Production Directors were required to have: 1) reasonably comprehensive technical knowledge, 2) great functional skills, 3) lots of creative abilities, 4) the courage to withstand massive time pressure, 5) the people skills to deal with programmers, jocks, continuity and, best of all, salespeople. This is all in addition to running a crucial department, budgeting and various other forms of administrative torture.

What is particularly irritating about the compensation gap is that there are other signs of how trivial production has become to corporate radio in the 1990s. A Production Director at a successful top ten market station was tongue-lashed because he paid ten dollars for an obscure record the station needed for a promo. This was after he got pre-approval for the expenditure. Another Production Director in a top twenty market was told he would have to assume duties at three stations as the result of a new triopoly. He already worked a ten hour day, but was informed that his quid pro quo for these new owners was a smaller paycheck. He did the honorable thing and left.

When radio groups sit down and plot the future of their companies and the industry in general, you can be sure there are no Production Directors in the room. When formats are changed, when spot loads are increased, when morning shows are hired, you can rest assured of one thing: The Production Director will be the last to know.

At the recent NAB Programming Conference in Dallas, there were virtually no Production Directors in evidence. Even though many of the goods and services being touted (e.g. digital recording and playback systems, production libraries, etc.) were aimed at them, Production Directors were back home sweating in the room down the hall, making sure the station still sounded good and the money to pay General Managers (try an average of $185,000 in top 15 markets) was still coming in.

There is a parallel of sorts and a precedent worth noting in the film community. The stars are the stars. The producers, directors and writers are all compensated quite highly and fussed over quite a bit. But the craft people in the trenches are the backbone of the industry. The ADR and Foley people, the lighting crews, the film editors and cinematographers are integral to the process and some of the most creative people in the business. No, they aren't paid like stars. But most are members of unions or guilds, and they are paid well for their services. Can Production Directors make that same claim? Not if we are to believe the compensation report available to us.

One other interesting aspect of the salary survey was the breakdown of salaries by format. Salaries were very consistent ($40,900 and above) for top 30 markets in the following formats: AOR, CHR, AC, Classic Rock and News/Talk. Salaries were also consistent, but significantly less ($33,000 - $36,400) in top 30 markets for these formats: Gold, Country, Beautiful Music, Jazz, Soft AC and Urban. Except for Classical, which probably didn't have a large enough sample to be accurate, Country Production Directors in the top 30 markets were the lowest paid of any format: $33,000 per year. With the format's ratings dominance and importation of Production Directors from other formats, this particular compensation inequity should dissipate in the year ahead.

If you are one of the well-compensated Production Directors, you are to be congratulated. You are in a distinct minority. Meanwhile, the downtrodden masses of Production Directors need help. They need better pay, a reduction in hours, more support from other departments, and the recognition that goes along with performing the toughest job (and one of the most important) at the station. In self-defense, most Production Directors are forced to work for outside clients, either advertisers or other stations. While there is no obvious, immediate solution to the Compensation Blues, the longer Production Directors wait, the less clout they will have. That is, if less clout is possible.

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