It's Only Money

by John Pellegrini

Every once in a while, I find that things are kind of quiet and life is going smoothly. That's when I usually end up with the urge to wreak havoc and get everybody screaming. I have a feeling that this article is going to do just that.

This is a subject we're not supposed to talk about. This is a subject that most of us are supposed to keep quiet about. Salary is a private matter because: 1) it's no one's damn business what I make; and 2) I'd be embarrassed to find out that I'm making less than others in the same city.

However, without revealing too many figures, I believe that salary is an issue that should be addressed. When you've been in radio as long as I have and in a number of markets, you get a feel for how much money the job will pay. And for Production Directors, it's pretty pathetic.

It's amazing to me sometimes, how station management will tell us Production Directors how valuable we are to the station's sound, how our commercial writing talents are the difference between landing a client for the station or not, and how much money is made off of our efforts. Yet, with a small percentage of exceptions, the job of "Production Director" continues to be one of the lowest paid positions at almost every radio station in the country.

I worked in Grand Rapids for a total of eight years, two at WGRD and six at WKLQ. People used to ask me all the time, "Why are you still in Grand Rapids?" Believe me, it wasn't because I didn't want to go to a major market. It's just that I couldn't afford the move, until now. I was fortunate enough to be working for a company (WKLQ) that valued the production I created for them and compensated me very well for it. But there was a drawback to that situation. Over the years, I discovered that my salary at WKLQ was higher than what most Production Directors in much bigger markets were making. And, to be perfectly honest, I didn't think I was being paid a huge amount from WKLQ. Just for information's sake, Grand Rapids is market number sixty-eight.

I had been approached over the years from many friends and colleagues in bigger markets asking me if I was ready to make the leap into "The Big Time." Then, I'd find out how much the job paid, and discovered that even stations in the Top Twenty were paying less than I was making in Grand Rapids. Just for reference, I'll say that I was on the high end of the salary survey figure for markets fifty to seventy-five. A good salary, but not so far out of whack that I should have to take a pay cut to go to a bigger market! When I considered moving up, I expected my salary to do the same, not decrease!

Finally, WLS came through with a good offer, but even here, we're not talking about anything amazing as far as salaries go! Just a decent increase that finally made it worthwhile to move up.

I'm not bitching about my friends who were kind enough to make an offer, because I know that they're given only so much as a budget by the "Powers That Be." I also realize that in many large market stations, the Production Director's role diminishes due to those stations having a larger staff or people able to do production, combined with less commercial work. But so what? Isn't the role of the Production Director supposed to be that of an overall creative person who comes up with the wild sounds that keep the station alive between the music and the moments when the talent speaks? Is that any less important than the music or the talent? Program Directors in major markets get bigger staffs to assist them, but you don't see their salaries decreasing. Why should the Production Director's be any different?

Folks, let's get realistic here! If you want to compare what a Production Director does with someone in another, but similar field, then let's look at an advertising Creative Director. The Creative Director of an advertising agency is the reason the agency exists. Without a good Creative Director, the agency wouldn't get much work. That's why Creative Directors, as a whole, get paid much more generous salaries than the other members of the agency. Sometimes the Creative Directors are paid as much as the top management. Sometimes, the Creative Directors are the top management. Sometimes it's the Creative Director who's actually the owner or president of the agency!

This is why WLS has named me Creative Director instead of Production Director. As my new boss, Mike Elder, explained, "Creative Director is a term that advertising agencies understand. We want them to know what you do, and to also know that we now can offer them better creativity for their clients." That's one of the benefits of having an Operations Manager, like Mike, who had been a Production Director himself many years ago and understands the frustrations and problems that come with the job. And he's right, Creative Director is a term that most ad agencies understand right away. That's because they have the same thing.

But, does the Creative Director of an advertising agency do all the production? Does the Creative Director, for example, voice the commercials? Does the Creative Director control the studio environment, such as do all the engineering, mixing, miking of the other voices and such? Does the Creative Director of an advertising agency make all the dubs of the commercials that run on the other stations? The fact is, no Creative Director in any agency, even the ones who specialize in radio, do as much or are as involved in the production as we are. (Okay, Dennis Daniel is, but apart from him?) But look at the salary comparison and ask yourself, "Why are any of us still in radio?"

There are those who would say that the Program Director is the Creative Director for the radio station. This is true. But even the Creative Director oversees other Creative Directors who are paid salaries on a similar scale to the department head. Maybe that's the air staff. But why then is the Production Director paid so low? I've seen stations where the morning show is paid in the six figures, followed by the afternoons getting upper five figures (eighty-ninety range) and so on, with most of the full-time air staff getting mid five figures. The Production Director, however, gets under twenty-five grand. Mind you, this is in situations where the Production Director does promos, commercials, copywriting and some amount of continuity.

Sure, some of these stations have separate production, creative and copywriting people, but splitting up the jobs doesn't make the work less difficult. At best, many Production Directors are paid salaries similar to that of the overnight graveyard shift disk jockey, twenty to twenty-five thousand. That's first year college graduate wages! What gives? Radio stations think nothing of paying their morning shows more than the Program Directors, yet won't even consider paying their Production Directors more than the evening or overnight A/Ts.

Is it because the Production Director's job isn't that important? Promos aren't important? Commercials aren't important? Advertisers and clients of the radio station are being asked to spend thousands of dollars with the station and are being told that they will receive a top quality commercial for their money. How is that possible when the Production Director is being paid about what the receptionist makes at a major advertising agency?

Is it because the Production Director doesn't have as many responsibilities as the air staff? Let's compare. I've been both in my decade and a half in radio, and I believe that I can sum it up pretty objectively.

The air staff is under a lot of pressure. Each day, they are to be as entertaining as humanly possible, deal with phone calls from geeks, idiots and irate wackos, control all the problems, along with interruptions from other staff members, and try to keep all the elements of their show on schedule and organized. Honest, folks, that is a tough job, and no, I'm not being sarcastic here. I've done it myself. It isn't easy, and the ability to perform well for the four plus hours that you're on, as well as being able to motivate yourself to that level every day, is a tremendous talent. That's why the air talent is well paid. That's why they earn every dime they make. I'm not begrudging any of this at all. A good air talent can be the make or break difference for a radio station, especially in morning drive.

Now, let's examine the responsibilities of the Production Director. The Production Director is under a lot of pressure. Each day, they have to be as creative as humanly possible, come up with fresh ideas for the same old crap, deal with lunatic clients who don't have a clue, write sixty seconds of brilliant copy from exactly two sentences containing five words each, that sum up what the client wants to say in their commercial and be prepared to rewrite, rerecord and remake as many as five commercials for the same client in less than twenty-four hours. Plus, they must also write and produce exciting promos for contests and the overall sound of the station with about as much notice. Many times, the Production Director actually gets more air time in a typical hour than most of the air staff, due to commercials and promos running.

As far as how much creative pressure the Production Director is under, wouldn't it be fair to say it's at least equal to that of the station's morning show, or the main air staff members? Is this job as important as the morning show or at least the main air staff members? If the answer is yes to both questions, then the next question is, are you paying your Production Director as much as your morning show or at least as much as the main air staff members? If not, why?

What's that, you say? Ratings? Are the ratings any less important when the morning person isn't talking? Are the ratings any less important when commercials or promos are running? If the cume and TSL are high, doesn't that indicate that people are staying through the commercial breaks, and doesn't that indicate that the Production Director is helping to keep people listening?

Fortunately, there are radio stations out there that do believe this and pay their production people appropriately. I'm lucky enough to be working for a station like that, here and before. Unfortunately, they're not the majority, even in the majors!

We live in interesting times. The radio industry is going through the same kind of corporate shake-ups that the rest of American business went through back in the eighties with the hostile takeovers and such. Let's not forget what happened then! Likewise, the competition for entertainment and information has increased about a thousand percent from what it was at the beginning of this decade. The need for immense amounts of creativity has quadrupled and will continue to rise similarly as radio finds itself working harder and harder to keep its audience. The roles of the Production Director, Creative Director, copywriters and all are going to need to be expanded and without question, improved. Good creative people are going to be as important to a radio station's survival as the morning show. It's time that management started compensating the same. Just like with the level of morning shows out there, you're going to get what you pay for.

If the commercial your Production Director creates means the difference whether the sales person can get the client to spend money on the station or not and remain a loyal client year after year, then is that job important? If the commercials that the Production Director creates help preserve the TSL and cume ratings by giving people a reason to keep listening through the spot breaks, then is that job important? If the promos the Production Director does are the reason your station's contests and events are as successful as they are, then is that job important?

If the job is important, then you'd want to make sure you had people with the best abilities and talents for the job. Therefore, you'd probably want to offer a great salary and compensation package so that you would attract the best people you could find for the job, no?

Yes, I know most Production Directors come from the air staff and have little or no experience at all in marketing or sales, at least of the kind needed to understand how commercial production works effectively. But, trust me when I tell you, the reason for this is that the job pays so poorly. If Production Directors were compensated better, more on the par of how an advertising agency Creative Director or radio Program Director or morning show was compensated, then the quality of the candidates for the job would improve vastly!

Then you'd see colleges and broadcast schools offering full courses of study in the job of Production Director rather than a couple of hours of it during the basic disk jockey course ("Okay, here's how many words make a sixty second spot; and that's all you need to know. You'll learn the rest when you get hired.") There would be specialized degrees, perhaps even doctorates. You may scoff at that proposal, but let me ask this question: Why aren't colleges and broadcasting schools offering specialized courses in radio production? And I don't just mean one class for a half a semester the way most of them do. I mean a full two or four year degree of study. They do for television production! Why not radio?

I'll tell you why: Because the job pay sucks. Nobody in their right mind would want to do radio production because it takes years for a Production Director to get to the point where they're making almost as much as the evening air talent. I've seen radio stations where the bookkeeper was paid more than the Production Director, by a ridiculously significant amount! Consequently, we see the reason for the lack of experience and skills that most of the people who get into production have.

Read the background history of every Production Director interviewed in RAP. It's nearly identical to mine. I got into production because I was sick of the air shift hours and thought that a steady paycheck was better than a big wage dependent on ratings. Plus, I liked to fool around in the prod room and write funny stuff. Impressive, huh? Notice that not once did I, or most of my colleagues, mention anything about educational background in production or sales and marketing study. You usually don't see mega-corporation managers saying they got into their fields because they liked fooling around in their offices or they were bored with their other jobs.

Let's face it. The role of the Production Director isn't taken seriously because it isn't compensated seriously. The Production Director has no real clout or authority in this business because everyone knows that most of us could be flipping burgers at McDonalds for the same amount of money. For radio stations to have the best creative people on their production staffs, they're going to have to start paying higher salaries. Yes, there's always going to be some dead wood getting more than it deserves, but what corporation in America doesn't have that situation? Why should Production Directors be paid less than the top air staff members? Good creative types can translate what they do into any medium available. You don't have to be a TV engineer to write for TV, you don't have to be a publisher to write a novel, and you don't have to be a movie producer to write a movie.

With more and more outlets for creativity becoming available, and the need for more and more creative people to fill those outlets, radio is going to find itself on the short end of the stick for creative (actually it has been for decades, it's just going to become painfully obvious very soon). When the opportunity exists to make five times the salary of a Production Director, while producing about a third of the total creative output (which is about what the average agency Creative Director, or movie and TV writer or novelist does) why should anyone with any talent or ability in creativity even consider a job as a radio Production Director? Is it any wonder why radio Production Directors are laughed at (or at least looked down upon) by other advertising creative professionals? Obviously, the job can't be worth anything if it pays so low.

The solution is simple. It's time to raise the level of pay for production and creative people in radio. The times demand it, the needs demand it, and reality demands it. Just within the radio industry itself, with more and more stations signing on and more and more stations becoming parts of larger and larger conglomerates, and more and more formats and audience targeting becoming narrower, causing smaller and smaller fragments of the overall listening pies, the need for top creative and Production Directors to help preserve what little audience is left, is going to be huge. This also means that if salaries don't start coming up for prod people, there ain't gonna be anyone with any ability available, because the good ones will have gone where there's better pay. And that's likely not anywhere in radio.

Lest you think I'm kidding, just do a little research. In the past nine years of RAP, I wonder how many of the top creative and production people that have been profiled or have contributed to RAP have gone on to something outside of working directly for a radio station? I've seen a lot of names come and go from the RAP subscription list. How many of those in the top of the radio production field have left radio station employment altogether? I'll be willing to bet it's close to, if not over, fifty percent. I don't have the exact figures, but my hunch is based on all the people I know in the biz and what we hear in the "grapevine" from other production people. The top prod people are almost always leaving radio station employment and going on their own, sometimes into another field entirely. That should be an eye-opening message for radio management! Where are the creative replacements coming from? How qualified are they going to be? No other field that employs creative types has that kind of losses. Sure, Creative Directors come and go at agencies, but they most always go to another agency, not leave the business entirely!

The truth is, if Production Directors were paid better, the rate of tenure would improve and the level of professionalism and creativity would increase immensely. Instead of having copywriters who flunked English Lit classes in high school (yes, I worked for a station that had one, and I've seen other stations that have them), you'd get people who were actually educated in the field of advertising who not only can write effective copy, they can also help your station sell that copy for a much better rate. That couldn't hurt radio's future, could it?

I know I've stepped on a few toes here, and if you're a management type who works for a station that truly does a good job compensating your production people (and you're not just saying you do), then understand that you're not the target of this article. However, if you're offended because you think I'm a trouble maker for telling others to want their fair share, then wake up and smell the jet fuel! Do you realize how much money you're throwing away each year by not having adequately trained and adequately compensated professionals writing your station's commercials and promos???

There is not a single radio station in any market in the United States of America that could not have their direct billing double by employing a better trained copywriter. There is not a single radio station in the country that couldn't have their ratings improve with better promos from a highly talented and skilled Creative Director. How do you get one? By offering a better salary. Likewise, there's not a single Production Director or Creative Director who couldn't improve his or her abilities with access to a better education in radio production from any college or broadcasting school that offered it. How will this happen? When the production and creative types are paid as well as some of the morning shows are, you'll find those courses and degrees showing up everywhere.

Experience on the job is not always the best way to educate someone for success. If it was, then why are so many CEOs and corporate executives hired from outside most companies, and often with no related experience? The person who has written copy in small town USA is not always the ideal candidate for the major market gig. But if that person had completed a two-year (or four year) degree in radio production, no matter where they went, they'd do a great job. So what if you had to pay them more?

If you want the job to be taken seriously, offer a serious salary. It doesn't get much simpler than that. A high salary for a good Production Director will pay for itself easily. Just like any other member of management, the good ones are worth what they get. And they will more than adequately compensate any station with their expertise which, in turn, will make more money for the stations they work for. Isn't it interesting how this process always seems to work for other industries? How could it not work for our own?

I'm beginning to feel like a union agitator. I hope I don't have to start singing Woody Guthrie songs. Next thing you know, someone's going to label me a socialist or a communist! Gee, I thought I was a Sagittarius. Oh yes, there's trouble in Radio City...with a capital T that rhymes with P, that stands for...Payroll? Production? Poop hitting the fan?

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