Producing Program Content

by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

While the corporate behemoths battle for turf and radio stations become like baseball trading cards, those who work in the trenches must try to forge new frontiers even while they perform more tasks than ever before.

With all the turmoil, it would be easy to coast--try to get the necessary accomplished and little else. But that is not the true nature of most Production/Creative Directors. It's a masochistic/proud group of people who prefer progress to paychecks. Or, perhaps, they'd like equal doses of both.

Toward that end, here are a few considerations for the potentially bored Production Director. The first is that the future of radio is closely tied to the ability of producers to create program content, not just promotional material. Oh, my God. Is this guy really suggesting that there's more to creative production than spots, liners and promos? Are there really Production Directors capable of fashioning high-quality comedy, fantasy, even drama? Yes and yes.

Program content is the next frontier for the medium in general and Production/Creative Directors in particular. Audiences want to be entertained in a manner not dissimilar to the other media, namely television, movies and books. Currently, creativity is far too channeled into the narrow tunnel of slogans, contests and promos. Radio indeed does a good job with those things, but there is no substance other than the hype itself and the music.

One of the factors leading to this new focus on program content is that studies show radio listeners care very little about discussing music. In an era when jocks contribute less and less to creative radio, the audience is patently bored hearing about tours, tantrums and the history of recording artists. They want music and entertainment, not necessarily in that order. Ask Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh. For most of the public, disc jockeys are like the anonymous cashiers at gas stations.

Since genuinely entertaining people are not found in abundance on the air, the next logical step is to nurture creativity in the production room. Vignettes, characters and parody can give a radio station interesting program content without utilizing jocks. How many listeners are slaves to the idea that there must be an omnipresent music host? Less than you think.

To accomplish this foray by production people into program content, two things must occur: 1) On-air personalities must be reduced in number and production people must be increased in number, and 2) Radio must finally learn to pool production resources. Two or three people working as a small team will be able to do things no single, overburdened person can accomplish--more voices, fresh ideas, the synergy of working in something other than a vacuum.

Point #2 above is self-evident in that television doesn't produce N.Y.P.D. Blue, Denver Blue and Chicago Blue. There is only enough budget to create one high-quality show, and the same is true of radio. Why stay up late poring over a hot workstation when only 80,000 people maximum will ever hear it? Top work deserves an audience of millions, just like television or magazines or movies or books. This is something the corporate guys are likely to figure out soon, and there's evidence it has already started via national personalities. Fantastic, innovative national production isn't going to come from syndicators that are driven only by dollars. The seed money for creativity on this scale must come from deep pockets with lots at stake. It is possible that either a very progressive corporate owner or a format that cries for program content beyond the ordinary will ignite a wildfire.

Meanwhile, this discussion has raised another very important point. We are overdosing on expendability of content in radio. Television has reruns during the season, after the season, after the show has gone off the air, after the stars have died and still it's not enough. On radio, you run a tremendous, killer liner for five days and banish it to the audio graveyard. Is the audience bored? Is the Program Director bored? No and yes. Recycling great liners does not require a working knowledge of rocket science.

We must go back to the days of Chickenman to find an entertainment series on radio so powerful that people would listen for it. That series was so good that shows were repeated daily, weekly, and the whole series itself was brought back several times. In fact, Chickenman is still running in several markets.

It is not because management likes Production/Creative Directors or because ownership is infatuated with the notion of improving the medium's content that this new era of radio entertainment will come about. This change is driven by a turned-off audience. They are burned out on ideas and formats that have not changed since the late sixties. They are bored by endless "facts" about recording artists and equally tedious joke services. They have starved on radio's all-sizzle, no-steak diet.

And make no mistake about it. Listeners don't give a goddamn who owns the station, or how many stations they own. No, listeners have the correct perspective, the same perspective they've had since the dawn of time. I like it. I don't like it. Nothing else matters. Nothing else should. How about you? Do you like it?

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