Production 212: Call Me Ishmael

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

Back in the Dark Ages, I actually attended school… complete with dorm living, frat hazing and some really stupid stunts that probably should have landed me in jail. Like most of my peers, I was there because my parents told me I needed to be there, but I had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, or even if I wanted to grow up. I think I might have set a record at my University for highest number of declared majors for one student. (Can you imagine me as a Marine Biologist? Nah… me either.) To help defray the cost of school, I got a job at the campus radio station, one of those stations that has a paid (not very much) staff, comprised mostly of students and a few radio ‘veterans’ who probably would have starved in the real broadcast industry.

One of my co-workers was a student named Brian Capener, from Ithaca, New York. Brian was a pretty cool dude in my book. He was clearly smart, well traveled (his father had served in the USAID program in India), and an all-around nice guy. We got to be pretty good friends as he was an excellent producer and I had a fair voice, so we often teamed to work together. Brian produced a multi-media project for one of his literary classes on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and he asked me to narrate it for him. It was a Masterpiece bit of work, mainly due to his efforts, that really opened my eyes to what the story was really about.

We were sitting in a studio, very late one night, creating a gigantic tape loop of whale songs (this was LONG before digital workstations even existed), and he said something that has stayed with me to this day. We had been talking about production and radio in general, mostly focused on what we were learning about in school, when he said, “You know… we can learn all about tape decks and turntables, microphones and potentiometers, but my big concern is what are all these students of broadcasting going to say, once they open a mic?”

Think about it. If all we know are digital workstations, plug-ins, audio consoles and all the other attendant things we deal with daily, what DO we talk about when we crack the mic? Even as pure producers who never utter a word on the air, we still need to know how to turn a phrase just to make sure the VO guy doesn’t make the station sound stupid.

I see students come through Z100 as interns who are thrilled about getting to spend time at “the mighty Z,” as many would, but when I talk to them, I discover quite quickly that they are dumber than a hoe handle when it comes to anything substantive. (Uh-oh… I feel a rant coming on.) If you’re going to do a presentation on Moby Dick, don’t you think it would be a good idea to read it? If you’re going to represent your radio station as a pop culture outlet, don’t you think it would be a good idea to know everything there is to know about it?

Over the years, I’ve often advised students of broadcasting to change their majors. I still believe in that advice for one really simple reason: To be a well-rounded broadcaster, you absolutely need to have a well-rounded education… in everything. I can teach just about anyone everything there is to teach about production in a very short period of time, quite possibly in a couple of weeks. BUT, the biggest part of production is not something I can write about or demonstrate. The biggest and richest part of production is your own life’s experience. This is the bridge you need to reach your audience, to make a listener feel compelled to buy a client’s product or service, or listen to your radio station more often or longer.

So, maybe you are like me, way beyond changing your major. Maybe you’re several years into your radio career, but are having a hard time moving up. Do you think education ends when you get that diploma? Although it might not seem like continuing education, life itself is a continuing education. What you fill it with is up to you.

I recently tried something completely new. Acting. OK… maybe not SO completely, but it was definitely a new kind of experience. I was asked to be in a comedy sketch about a family of voice-over artists. It sounded like fun, so I said I would and I had a blast. At the same time, I developed a new appreciation for what people who do this for a living go through every day. If you have 3 minutes to kill, you can check out the results online at YouTube. Just search for Voice Talkers and the first result should be this little gem from a group called POYKPAC. I sincerely doubt that anyone will be beating on my door any time soon to be an actor in another project, but I learned a lot. Oh… I should probably mention that the guy who plays my son is my real-life son, which is ‘indubitably’ where the inspiration for the bit came from.

So how are you filling your life? Watching the same old TV show you’ve been following for a couple of years? How about the next time you sit down in front of the tube, you check out something new? When was the last time you checked out a book from the library? How long has it been since you sat down and read a newspaper, cover to cover? What was the last play you saw? Been to any high school football games lately? When was the last time you played tourist in your own city and visited the local landmarks? Have you learned to play any musical instruments lately?

Notice that NONE of these activities involves radio in any way. THESE are the things your audience is doing, day in and day out. They don’t care about radio the way you do. To them it’s just a song or a voice that keeps them company while they drive, clean or work. If you want to truly connect with them, you HAVE to have common experiences.

My production on this month’s RAP CD seemed like such a simple concept at the time, it didn’t strike me as particularly brilliant, but the reaction was amazing. We were getting ready to unveil the lineup for our spring show and without mentioning any of the acts by name beforehand, wanted to give away tickets. I started out with the premise of an old catchphrase, “keep a lid on it.” I made an imaginary box (actually a big empty plastic trash can) and started beating on it as though something was desperately trying to get out. I dragged one of the morning show producers and an intern into the studio and had them yell, “Let me out,” along with anything else they could think of that might convince someone to actually open the box. After muffling their cries, I went to work on the VO. I took something from real life and gave it a twist. Any member of our audience can relate to having a box that’s not supposed to be opened just yet, so I used that to open the door.

The next time you sit down to produce something, open the door, bridge the gap, by touching the things you have in common with your audience. The more you have in common with your audience, the easier and more effective will be the results.

By the way, I lost track of Brian over the years. He left the radio business early on to explore producing documentary movies. I even heard he was nominated for an Oscar once, but documentaries seldom make it to the big show on the networks, so I don’t know whether he won or not. I hope he did. I doubt he has any idea how profoundly he affected my career.