Production 212: Less Is More... More or Less (reprise)

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

Did you miss me? I missed the last issue because I did something I’ve never done since I got into radio: took a two-week vacation. I took my wife on the long-promised cruise of the Mediterranean. I have to say, it was awesome. Not just the cruise, but taking two weeks. If I can finagle it, I’m going to do that again! Of course, it felt weird to open the last issue of RAP and not see a Production 212 column. But now I’m back and ready to yak.

There’s been a buzz flying around the industry for several weeks now about the Clear Channel “Less Is More” strategy that goes into effect at the first of the year. Just about every CC producer I’ve spoken with is anxious about how they’re going to make do with less time. Every non-CC producer is curious about how we’re going to do it. Well, I won’t pretend to speak for any other producers, but I think the whole thing is brilliant. You might even recall that I wrote an entire column with exactly that title a few months ago. (My ego would like to believe that the folks at the top of the CC food chain read my article and took it to heart, but come on – let’s get real.)

For those of you living under a rock, the LIM (Less Is More) strategy is simply a restriction of how much “non-music” content we’ll be allowed to air in any given hour. This cuts down on the number of commercials we’re allowed to air in any one hour and in any one stopset. As I understand it, the entire strategy grew out of the fact that many advertisers were feeling (rightly) that their message was getting lost in a sea of commercials. This meant they were no longer willing to pay the freight. Clear Channel can’t raise rates in this atmosphere, and adding more units is clearly the wrong direction. So, they’re making commercials more like diamonds. If you restrict their availability, the rates will automatically climb.

What has all my producer friends in a tizzy is that the restriction is global. It’s NOT just the commercials. It’s the promotional material. While I doubt that anyone is going to sit around with a stopwatch and time how much time we use for promos, sweepers and stagers, the effort is going to be immediately obvious. With an honest commitment to having fewer commercials, the amount of promotional time will become obvious.

The big little question in this forum is “how?” Well, let’s look at each major category of promotional production.

Ever since we first heard about the new policy, Z100 has been weaning itself from the long-form promos. Even the current batch of winner’s promos is shorter by a third (40 seconds, on average) and the imaging promos are all less than 30 seconds. At first it seemed like a real hardship, cutting hooks down to the bare essentials, but I’ve discovered it really does sound better. My hooks are 3 to 4 seconds long now rather than 10 to 12. The big surprise is that the audience has already reacted positively to the change. (We’ve gotten a few emails on a topic nobody ever addressed before.) Plus, I only use 3 hooks now, instead of having hooks from all the powers. It means I have to do more versions, but in the end, it really keeps the promos sounding fresh a lot longer.

Other than shorter promos, the one thing I think has had the most impact is the lowly sweeper. The sweepers are now ALL playing over intros, which means they are 5 to 10 seconds long and have a lot less of the snap and crackle of effects and no musical tones so they don’t fight with the song we’re playing. Personally, I think it makes the station sound much more “together” and flowing. It’s actually harder for me to turn it off now and I suspect it’s the same with listeners.

Now that I’ve pared down the stagers a bit, I think what I was doing before was really pompous and self-serving. 45 seconds to introduce a jock’s show? Forget about it. It’s 15 seconds or nothing. If I think something needs some razzle-dazzle, I just pump it all into a more concentrated form, which has had the effect of really making them jump. Honestly, having big special intros for jocks is great for their egos, but I just don’t think they have that much impact on the audience. They would really rather we play more music sooner.

Speaking of which, the “Back-to-music” stagers are also a lot quicker. Never more than 10 seconds, more often around 5 seconds. Again, I think it’s improved the overall sound of the station because it really sounds like we’re serious about playing more music right now, instead of sitting there talking about playing more music for 20 or 30 seconds. It has certainly given the station a lot more forward momentum.

The most problematic production item is the Top Of the Hour, and that’s no doubt why it’s the last thing I’ve looked at for the LIM strategy. The heritage of this station almost demands that we have the big boy voice say something like “Serving the Universe!” and a major jingle production piece. We’ve been doing that for 21 years and it would just seem weird for us to NOT do that. I’ve been consulting with Reel World to see if we can come up with a faster, sleeker vehicle for that message, because I really don’t want to completely lose it, but it definitely HAS to be shorter than the current 25-30 second piece. (OK...12 seconds of that is a donut for the jock...but still.)

For my audio selection this month, I’m providing a montage of new production pieces beginning with an Image Promo that is 20 seconds long. That’s followed with several “generic” sweepers that all can play over the intro of a record. Finally, there’s a “New Music” stager followed by a “Back-To-Music” stager. All of them are short and sweet and hopefully, effective.

I guess the big bonus with LIM is that it forces us to really distill the message to its absolute potency. How long does it take to say “New York’s number one hit music station,” or “One station – all the hits?”

Personally, I think the whole strategy is brilliant, not so much because it makes my job ‘more interesting.’ It’s going to give our spots more value, allowing for higher rates (down the road), it’s GOT to help us fight against the satellite and internet onslaught, and I really think it’ll improve the sound of radio in general. I predict that within a very few months, other major radio suppliers will be pursuing the same policy. They’ll almost HAVE to or face extinction.

I don’t know if you ever watch Bill O’Reilly on Fox News Channel, but his mantra when soliciting email is my new mantra for production. “Pithy – NO bloviating!” We’ve all been guilty of bloviating in our production. I hear it all the time. I like pithy. If you’re a Clear Channel producer, this is a reality you’re going to have to face almost immediately. If you’re not… here’s your chance to impress the boss. Anticipate. If your station is across the street from a Clear Channel station, you’re facing the prospect of competing against a station that really does play MORE music and LESS talk. Start slimming down now. More pith. Less froth. No bloviating.

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