R.A.P. Interview: Scott Muller

Scott Muller, Manager of Group Programming Production, GWR Group, Bristol, United Kingdom

by Jerry Vigil 

In recent months, we’ve touched on the idea of Production Directors becoming Program Directors. It’s rare when this occurs, but when it does, it usually involves someone with not only great production skills, but a keen sense of radio as a whole, someone who understands the listener’s part in the game, someone who sees the “big picture.” Scott Muller is certainly a great production person, as we discovered in a past RAP Interview with Scott in July of ’96, and he’s clearly learned a lot more about the “big picture.”  Shortly after our last visit, Scott became a PD “down under” in Perth and recently left that position for bigger and better things in the United Kingdom at the huge GWR Group. We check back with Scott to find out what his 2-year stint as a PD was like, and we get some insights for anyone wanting to do the same. And there’s plenty of interesting and useful info in this month’s interview for those of you who are happy where you are, in production.

JV: How did your present job with GWR come about?
Scott: Earlier this year I had the perfect opportunity to travel, which I’d meant to do 10 years ago. So I traveled Europe and the UK for five months. While I was in Greece, the GWR Group contacted me, and here I am.

JV: Why did you leave the Program Director’s chair?
Scott: The way I see it, I haven’t left the programming chair. I’m still in it, in a fairly unique role. At GWR I’m heavily involved in programming, promotions, and production, and I work closely with the Group Head of Music. It’s not like I jumped the fence from production to programming and then jumped back again. I kind of see myself as a radio programmer who uses that experience to help make our radio stations sound as good as possible—often it’s through scripts and production.

JV: Tell us a little more about GWR.
Scott: GWR Group is one of Europe’s biggest radio networks. In the UK, we have one national license, Classic FM, which is the biggest commercial radio license in the world with a weekly cume of about 5 million plus 30 local licenses. The combined audience is nearly 10 million, and the company employs around one thousand people. One of the most exciting things about GWR Group is that it’s the major shareholder for the world’s first commercial digital radio license.

JV: Your title is Manager of Group Programming Production. Tell us about this department and what your job entails.
Scott: The majority of the work we do is for the FM stations, which have a fairly production-intensive HotAC/ModAC format. We also do work for the AM network, which runs a Gold format. On top of that there is a lot of work for Group Sponsorship or group sales promotions. Classic FM takes care of its own production. Group Prog Prod (Programming Production) produces everything with a station brand in it, whether it be the call sign, station vehicles, etc.. We don’t make any commercials. Group Prog Prod is part of Group Programming, a small team of 7 people, 3 of whom are in production—Paul Andrew, Chris Wrapson, and myself. Group Programming is responsible for coming up with promotional concepts, features, music scheduling, production, packaging, etc.. The Production team writes a lot of scripts, though many of these are also covered by different station’s Programme Controllers—that’s the UK title for a PD. We produce the majority of all the radio stations production needs. There are only 3 of us, so it’s fairly busy, especially since a major part of our charter is to continue increasing the quality of the production on our radio stations.

My role is to oversee the production team and make sure we’re serving our key “clients,” the Programme Controllers. Having said that, it’s flat out in here. We guarantee a 3-day turn-around from script to finished product, but studio time is always fully booked over a week in advance. So, if someone hasn’t booked studio time in advance, we can’t guarantee the 3-day turn-around. Besides which, the priority is on quality. We don’t want crap promos on-air.

JV: When we last checked in with you, you were the Production Director/Asst. PD at Fox in Melbourne. How did the Program Director jobs at 6MMM and PMFM in Perth come about?
Scott: In late ‘96 I needed to move to Perth for family reasons. Fortunately, Austereo offered me the position of Assistant Program Director of Triple M Perth, a city with a population around 1.1 million. By the time I arrived, the PD had been transferred to another market. So that was my first real role as PD. I was PD at Triple M for a year. It was one of the most creative environments I’ve ever worked in—everyone was pumped.

Around September last year Austereo bought Perth’s #1 and #2 stations, PMFM and 94.5, and shortly after that I became PD of PMFM.  Again, a great radio station, and the most educational experience I’ve had, especially being in the midst of two very strong corporate cultures merging together.

JV: How did you apply the things you learned in production to the programming side of radio?
Scott: The jobs are similar, but PD-ing is on a bigger scale.  Put simply, one is a part of the other. It’s not like the two roles are separate in any way or that I’d moved from one side to another. One way to look at it is that in production, your product is about 30 seconds long, whereas as a PD, it’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  But the same principles apply—know your audience, know your competition, stay focused, maintain the flow and direction, entertain, inform, and stick to one message at a time.

I owe a lot to John Dodge who wrote an article for RAP years ago, The Ideal Production Director [April 1993 RAP].  You can apply the same principles to being a PD, announcer, or a Promotions Director.  At Triple M we used that article as the basis for a lot of job descriptions, regardless of the department. Thanks, John.

The single most important thing I learned in production that’s exactly the same in programming is focus.  Keep your message focused.  You can be as creative as you like, but don’t distract from the message. At Fox I worked with comedians Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, and they said “the greatest enemy of comedy is distraction.”  You can substitute the word comedy with communication.  In production, distraction is a sound effect in the background, which draws the listener’s ear away from the message.  Or it’s a mix where the music bed overpowers the voice-over. Or it’s using bangs and zips and whooshes the wrong way.  In programming, it’s running a major music feature at the same time as a major contest while trying to promote your breakfast personalities.  I’ve been guilty of all of those things, but I’ve learned from it.

One of Australia’s great producers, Tim Symons, once told me some words of wisdom which he attributed to Jeff Thomas [Kiss/LA]: “When you’re building a monster promo and you’re ready to mix it, the first thing you have to decide is what you’re going to get rid of.”  The reason is there’s almost always too much going on.  Same thing goes for programming, promotions, and an-nouncing.

JV: Over the years, you’ve done presentations to Program Directors about production. Have the presentations changed over time? What are some of the things you talk about?
Scott: Most of them stick to the same theme these days—talking to PDs about how to get the best out of their production team, the importance of a good script, and trying to demystify “production” for PDs.  A few years ago, while preparing for a presentation, I phoned up a lot of PDs, and it was interesting that a lot of them found “production” a difficult area to under-stand.

The presentations I’ve been fortunate enough to do are just my take on what everyone in a radio station does for a living, no matter what their role. It all relates to show prep, knowing your audience, making an emotional impact, and making sure your message is simple enough to understand.  You can apply all these things to announcer air checks and promotions meetings, too. It translates well.

There’s a great video called The Great Communicators, which analyzes the speeches of people like Winston Churchill. Did you know some of his critics thought he didn’t do enough prep because he’d only spent 8 hours writing a 40-minute speech? Apparently he did a lot of speech writing in the bath. That’s a serious bath—I would’ve gotten out after 8 hours, too. There’s also a really great book, Lend Me Your Ears—Great Speeches in History.

JV: In a previous conversation, you mentioned how you had taken this programming knowledge and trained young production engineers to “think like Program Directors.” Elaborate on this.
Scott: When I started out in production, I didn’t get a lot of useful feedback from the PDs I worked with. So I ended up producing reels and reels of crap promos. Some clear direction from a PD would have made me a much better producer more quickly. And they wouldn’t have had to put up with crap promos. In retrospect, I can also see what a huge advantage it would have been for the radio station if those PDs had also taught me the basics of strategy, marketing, and music scheduling.

A good example of how that experience has had an affect is when GWR Group Prog Prod recently produced a new package for one of our stations to address some specific issues. Usually what happens is the PD decides what needs to happen, and the package arrives in production in script form. All you need to do is produce it and stick it on-air. But that’s not a professional approach, because the person making the package won’t necessarily know where each sweeper will sit in the mix on-air, what the music clocks are, or how frequently each element will be played etc.. With that package, we went through the whole process together: looking at clocks, designing the form-guide to suit, deciding which strategic message you want going into which song categories, making sure each message was getting enough frequency, taking into account talk-breaks, commercial breaks, news and other features, and finally writing the scripts and producing it. In a lot of cases there were 2 mixes of each sweeper, but invariably we chose to run the simpler one. It won’t impress any producers, but it’ll work better for the listener.

I suppose “thinking like a PD” means trying to think like a listener, which means listening like a listener. It means taking things like EQ, compression, music edits, DAWs, effects and flashy production techniques for granted—because the listener takes them for granted—and instead concentrating on making an emotional impact inside the listener’s mind, with a strong concept or script and a simple, focused message. And making an emotional impact is a really tough job because the listener is never interested in anything you’ve got to say until you give them a reason for being interested. A hot music edit or radical EQ or effect might get your production buddies excited, but the audience expects all that as a matter of course. From the listener’s point of view, we’re competing with all other forms of entertainment including big budget movies, so why would they expect anything less? We’re not just up against other radio stations. As entertainers we’re up against Friends, The Simpsons, Godzilla, and Armageddon. That’s why Joel Moss is the king. He can do all the tricks and make it sound like God produced it, but his trump card is the creative angles he goes for, and how the angles are inextricably linked to the message. He’s the only one I know who can make a radio station T-shirt sound like the greatest prize in the world—makes me look like a wombat.

Another trick I learned which helps to listen like a listener, is to test your mix at really low volume—virtually inaudible—and see if the message still cuts through, or if the music or effects are drowning it. Better still, sometimes I’ve listened to a producer’s finished mix through a speakerphone in my office with the radio blaring in the background. If the message cuts through then, you’re on a winner. The thing to remember is your listener is doing something else while the radio’s on. They’re making breakfast or going to the bathroom, or they’re suffering from road rage in peak hour traffic. Does the promo still cut through?

JV: Production Directors becoming Program Directors, is this something that happens often in Australian radio? It’s not a very common thing in the US.
Scott: It’s not common anywhere. There’s a few in Australia, and there’s Steve Woods here in the UK. I read John Pellegrini’s article in the October RAP arguing the virtues of Production Directors for PD gigs. As usual, he made some really good points, and he’s obviously passionate about the subject, but I don’t think Production Directors are necessarily the best-qualified staff in a radio station for the PD’s job. Just like announcers and Music Directors, some people are and some aren’t. It’s more about things like attitude, focus, and drive than anything else—especially drive. Having said that, a lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time, and that applies to any position.

JV: What qualities should a production person have to make them a good candidate to become a Program Director?
Scott: The best person to answer that question would be someone who’s hired a few PDs, but I’ll take a punt anyway. Most of this is accumulated wisdom handed down to me from PDs with long, strong track records, so I can’t really take credit for it. You need to be a driven, committed, and a very “competitive” person. You have to want to win, and you need to be able to identify what “the win” is. Then you need to be able to achieve that goal, whatever the obstacles. And there’s lots of obstacles you can’t overcome yourself, so you need to be able to motivate other people to buy into the vision and achieve that goal...which leads to “coaching.” You need to be able to bring the best out in people, and help people improve in ways you yourself may be lacking. One of Australia’s greatest and most successful Olympic swimming coaches died at a ripe old age a few years ago, without ever learning how to swim! Being able to do it yourself isn’t always essential. Most PDs don’t make good breakfast jocks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t coach a great breakfast jock. The reason is that as a PD you need to be able to listen. You need to be able to listen to the radio station like a listener, and understand your listener, their attitude to life, what they do, and what they expect from you. In a nutshell, know your audience. You also need to be able to listen to the people working in your radio station. Listen, listen, listen—it’s a lot easier said than done. And you need to build a creatively inspiring environment. The PD is the coach and therefore a kind of catalyst for everyone and everything that goes on-air. You need to appreciate creativity. As John Cleese said, “Creativity isn’t a talent, it’s a way of operating.” As a PD, that’s how you have to operate.

Finally, the most important point, you need to stay focused. There’s a term used in radio programming taken from the Prussian military philosopher, Clausewitz, “the fog of war.” It’s when small issues look big, and big issues look small. You’ve got to be able to step back and look at the bigger picture. “The fog of war” happens to every PD at some point. One other thing, Dave Charles from the e.s.p consultancy told me this: “leaders are readers.” Read voraciously.

That’s the theory. The hard part is putting it into practice.

JV: Once you were in the PD’s chair, was there anything you felt you weren’t ready for? Any surprises?
Scott: Sure. Fortunately, working for Austereo, I had a really good grounding, and when I was at Fox, Jeff Allis set the perfect example of how to be a PD. Still, there are always things you’re not ready for. I hadn’t really been involved in the merging of two cultures before I worked at PMFM, but I learned a lot from the experience. It’s a thing you have to experience to understand. But that experience has paid off a lot since I moved to the UK, where it’s not just the radio station culture that’s different—the country’s whole attitude to life is different.

Also, I’d never been as involved in really heavy “staff poaching wars” before PMFM, but that was quite satisfying because we turned a few potentially disastrous situations into advantages.

JV: Did you find yourself doing most of the imaging production for the stations you were PD for, or did you have someone handling that under your supervision?
Scott: I initially found it frustrating because I wasn’t doing it myself. But I was determined to accept that my way was not the only way, and also to make sure I didn’t spend more time in production than other areas of the station. It frustrated the Production Managers, too, though I was on the phone to Linc “Skywalker” the other day, and we helped each other out with some fireworks promos. So I guess we’re still on speaking terms. Linc is ex-Triple M Perth and now at SAFM, Adelaide.

When I rocked into Triple M, I forced myself not to do any production because I knew the temptation was too great, and a bad PD is someone who does everything himself and doesn’t trust people to do their job. There were really good producers working with me, and I figured if I couldn’t communicate the vision to them, then I didn’t stand a chance with the rest of the team. Maybe I was lucky, but it was such a great radio station, virtually everyone was into the vision. We even had sales execs pulling commercials because they didn’t fit the station sound!

However, I did write 90% of the scripts—pretty anal, I know, although we did brainstorm a lot of script ideas with everyone in the station. Call me a bastard, but I also critiqued most of the finished production. Linc and Jeff Nielsen, who’s now working for GWR, had some really good stuff on-air.

But the only hands-on real production I did for a few years was a couple of times editing the actuality for breakfast promos or cutting up an urgent, last-minute interview for the night show. I did it more for relaxation than anything else.

JV: Which do you think is the tougher job, Program Director or Production Director and why?
Scott: PD is. It’s your balls on the line and no one else’s. You’re the first person in the firing line, and you have the lowest life expectancy. It may sound strange, but I find that feeling comforting—you can’t get complacent.

It’s also very satisfying to be a PD, watching a station and the people around you grow, seeing ideas come to fruition, and helping people do things that you know they can do but they don’t believe they can do themselves.

There’s risk involved in both jobs, but with programming it’s much greater. There’s a great video of Randy Michaels from years ago at a PD Grad School where he says, “I’d rather try out 100 ideas and have 3 of them work than only have 2 ideas and have both of them work.” Maybe that’s an overstatement, but you can see his point.

JV: How much of your job was spent dealing with the music and the music reps?
Scott: Before Triple M, I didn’t have much Selector experience, but I’d been taught a lot about the principles of good music scheduling by Brad March, the Managing Director of Austereo, Jeff Allis, the Austereo Group PD, Greg Smith, the Managing Director of e.s.p, and Dan Bradley, D.M.G.’s Group PD. And I’d been fortunate enough to spend a little bit of time with the legendary Guy Zapoleon. Besides which, Jeff always said, “Hire a good Music Director,” so I did.

The Music Directors handled all the music reps, so very little of my time was spent on that side of it. With scheduling, it varied. Sometimes I’d spend 6 hours a day and all weekend, and there were times when things were ticking over so well I barely had to look at the log. Having said that, it’s important to spend at least as much time on the music as you do with your jocks. A fair bit of time needs to be dedicated to music meetings and research figures. Research sounds dull but it’s actually a lot of fun. I’ve got a music and a mathematics background from high school, so it’s fun.

I never did too many record company junkets—there’s never enough time, and my twisted view is that seeing Billy or B*Witched do a live acoustic set for a bunch of industry groupies isn’t going to build cume or increase TSL. Having said that, I’d fly to the ends of the earth to see the Stones or Cold Chisel, and that wouldn’t do anything for the ratings, either. I guess I’m a hypocrite at heart.

JV: As a Program Director, armed with your knowledge of production, how did you use production as a programming weapon?
Scott: The same way Austereo always has. It’s important not to distinguish too much between production and all the other ways you can get your message across on-air. In a nutshell, keep it focused.

Again, I didn’t spend a lot of time in production, but when I did I coached the producers in detail. It was kind of funny, when doing a production critique I’d notice the big picture, the overall affect of the piece, as well as the finer details like EQ, compression, mix, effects. That made it a bit difficult to argue with me. If I’d been working with me, I would have told me to get stuffed…but I would have had my way in the end.

JV: What did you like most about being a Program Director?
Scott: Many more experienced PDs have told me this, and I agree; being a PD is being a service professional. You’re a servant and a coach. Giving your clients, your listeners, what they want is the biggest thrill. You don’t get it right every time, but quite often you get a really good, unsolicited reaction from a listener. In production terms, it’s like someone ringing up to request one of your promos instead of a song. As a producer, I’ve only ever had that happen rarely, but I know Steve Hunt at Triple M in Melbourne and Darryl Missen have experienced that a few times.

On the other hand, as a programmer, you’re involved in every aspect of the station, so you can share the thrill when you meet someone who’s a fan of your breakfast show and can recite everything they said on-air this morning, or when a listener’s all time favorite song made it to number one in your station countdown. Occasionally your station gets to do something really worthwhile for the community or for someone in a dire situation, and we all know how privileged that makes you feel.

There’s also a huge satisfaction from responsibility you feel to your other clients, your team, and it’s very gratifying to see people develop and the station develop. Triple M’s Music Director was also our afternoon announcer, and while the breakfast show team was on holidays, he covered the breakfast shift. The plan was he’d do a really tight shift with lots of killer “Best of the Breakfast Show” comedy pieces lined up for him to play. The day before he had to do breakfast for the first time in his life, Princess Diana died. So at 4 a.m. we ditched the comedy bits, and I asked him to go on-air, open the phones, and let the listeners do the talking. He didn’t think he could do it, and he was so nervous he nearly couldn’t go on-air. But he handled it really well. Seeing people exceed their own expectations is humbling, because I couldn’t do what he did in a million years, but I knew he could.

JV: What mistakes do you feel are most common among Program Directors?
Scott: I don’t know if I’ve clocked up enough frequent ratings miles to comment, but I’ll try. Take into account though, that at the end of the day, if the ratings are up, then the ends always justify the means. So, if a station is successful, and the PD has made all of these mistakes in the process, remember that “results matter most,” as John Dodge said.

John Pellegrini said it best in his October ’97 RAP article, Radio Is Not Immediate, Radio Is Intimate. “Good radio inspires listener participation. Good radio gets personal with you. Good radio is Intimate.” John was talking most specifically about sales execs promising clients they could get their commercial on-air virtually immediately, but the argument holds true for the rest of the industry. I know I’ve been guilty of forcing too many sweepers and promos through production, even when I was the one producing them. And the worst thing is when you pull something off air before it has had a chance to make an impact, and replace it with something else only to do the same thing again.

Other mistakes I’ve seen PDs make, which I’ve made myself—and hopefully learned from—include: being susceptible to the “fog of war”—”temporal focus shift,” not listening enough and directing too much, listening too much and not directing enough, reacting too slowly, reacting too quickly, making the message too complex to understand, and making the message so simple it’s boring.

JV: Where do you see the job of Production Director heading in the next ten years?
Scott: In an ideal world, more producers would have a more rounded understanding of creativity, writing, marketing, promotions, programming strategies, music scheduling, and communication. Which reminds me, there’s a great book every producer, promotions person, PD, and jock should have, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s a gem.

In a nutshell, I think Greg Smith from the e.s.p consultancy hit the nail on the head. “What’s ahead: packaging will be everything to give your station the edge.” There’ll be more radio stations, with more narrow music formats, and production will be a greater point of differentiation than ever before.

Bottom line is, it’s gonna get much busier.

JV: Any parting words of wisdom for Production Directors eyeing the Program Director’s chair?
Scott: These are more nuggets I’ve picked up from some of Australia’s most successful Programmers, so again, I can’t take credit for any of it. But you have to study. Learn about other parts of the radio station. Don’t be a radio groupie/anorak. Find out what gets the listeners hot. Go to listener advisory boards or focus groups and watch the reaction when a piece of your production is played—but don’t let them know you did it, or you won’t get an honest response.

Accept change as a daily part of work and life. Be meticulous about details, but don’t obsess about them. Find a mentor who can help you become a PD, and follow their advice, even if you don’t always agree with them. Get a copy of John Dodge’s article, The Ideal Production Director and use it as your job description. Learn how to schedule music because it’ll increase your chance of achieving your goal, and it’ll make your production sound better.

Remember that as a PD you are the leader, and as Confucious said, “It’s better to be easy to work for and hard to please, than hard to work for and easy to please.” Don’t ever assume that you or anyone else has the right answer. And remember that the thing about free advice like this is you get what you pay for.

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