Back to the Well

ImaginationBy John Pellegrini

Possibly the most disappointing movie I’ve seen in the last 5 years was da Vinci Code. With all due respect to Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, I really didn’t care for the film at all. Sure it was nice to see most of the locations from the book, but the movie disappointed me because it was nowhere near as good as what I had already pictured in my head when I read the book. I won’t be seeing Angels and Demons for the same reason or The Lost Symbol when it gets made into a movie. Again, nothing against Ron Howard or Tom Hanks, it’s just that my own idea of what Dan Brown’s novels look like is far better than what they make.

Of course it isn’t fair of me to single out da Vinci Code because I really don’t like to see any movie that was adapted from a book I’ve read. No matter how much work the production team did, no matter how fantastic the CGI, the result is never as good as what I’ve already imagined. I’m one of those strange people who not only have a visual idea of what any given scene in a book looks like; I also have an audio idea. I “hear” exactly how each character’s voice sounds as they speak, I “hear” the background noises of every room, every exterior location, whether it’s rain, snow, storms, dry desert, or the middle of a battlefield. I hear it all, and it’s always much better in my own head than it is on screen.

That’s why I got into radio. I’m not a painter and I’m not particularly good at drawing. I’m not much with photography, and as far as I’m concerned the only setting needed on a camera is the “automatic” setting. Spending hours trying to capture a visual look is something I really am not interested in doing. But spending hours trying to create an audio picture of what I see, now that’s the kind of challenge I enjoy. I love the process of trying to make a mental visual image using only sounds and voices.

Your imagination is the greatest movie projector you will ever have. Just a few words of spoken dialog combined with an appropriate sound effect or perhaps a musical cue, and you can create any universe you want. That’s why audio books are so popular… the narrator gives you the emotional cue and your imagination does the rest.

Of course having an imaginative story is the key. Being able to create worlds on paper, whether as a novel or a script, is the prerequisite for making any of this happen. So believe me when I tell you that the single most important thing you can do each day as a radio production person is to read stories. Read books, read poetry, read fiction of all sorts. Especially read authors who have a knack for descriptive prose, because the best way to avoid clichés and worn out copy ideas is to fill your head with new concepts of evocative settings.

Then, if you really want to challenge yourself, as you’re reading these stories think of how you would produce that story as an audio play. How would the narrator sound? How do the characters sound? What’s the background noise of a particular scene? What kind of music would you either have or not have in the soundtrack?

Even if you don’t actually produce an audio play of any given story, just doing this simple exercise will give you a better idea of how to set a visual scene in your audio production. You’ll never read a script the same way again. You’ll also discover that you have far greater standards of what you think your production is supposed to sound like than you may have realized. Knowing that and making use of that tool is what separates an average production job from the Mercury Theater’s version of The War of The Worlds.

Let’s face it, the digital revolution is finished. Done. Over. By that I mean it’s no longer a revolution; it’s the established fact. And no matter how many bells and whistles your production studio has, no matter how expensive and impressive your microphone is, no matter how many libraries of sound effects and music beds you have, no matter how many way cool voice filters and EQ devices and pitch changing plug-ins your DAE is tricked out with, none of it is worth anything unless you have something worth hearing for your audience.

And it all starts with the words you write. As is says in the opening line of that great old book, “In the beginning was the WORD.” The message. The story. Putting all your efforts into creating a great script, a phenomenal message, is the single most important investment you can make in any production you create. A Grammy Award winning recording studio engineer isn’t going to be able to make a crappy script sound any better than some schmuck with a lisp using an iPod with a dictation app. But a well written script with a great message and carefully crafted prose will turn heads and keep the listener’s attention far better than any other noise you could make.

There are hundreds of people, including myself, who are bemoaning the state of radio today and how it’s dying a slow and painful death. The reason for this is that no one in the corporate offices of the radio conglomerates gives a damn any more about the quality of the programming. And way too much sub average crap that would have never gotten on the air in the past is now being lauded as the best radio entertainment possible.

You and I both know that’s a lie. There is only one thing that anyone who becomes part of an audience wants – only one need to be filled – and that’s to be entertained better than anything else they have for entertainment options. You give me something really great that satisfies my need to be entertained and I’ll stay with you no matter what medium you use to reach me, whether it’s radio, TV, books, the internet, film, video game, or semaphore.

Radio is dying because far too many people have decided that entertaining the audience is not as important as pleasing the stockholders. Radio is dying because corporate executives think their bonuses are more important than paying for decent talent to keep the audience riveted. Radio is dying because corporate bean counters think that having a talented production staff isn’t necessary to help advertisers get better results with their advertising and that keeping the advertisers happy so that they continue to advertise is too expensive compared to just letting the advertiser run anything they come up with on their own whether it works or not.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this situation is that there is virtually nothing we can do about it. The people in charge don’t care what we think about them or this situation they have forced us into. So it’s up to you to save yourself. Radio may be dying, radio may already be dead; radio may not be salvageable. But you aren’t dying or dead, and you are most definitely salvageable. The best way to keep yourself out of the miasma of the downward spiral is to make sure the work you do is as creative and exceptional as you can possibly produce. Not from a sonic standpoint, but from an inspirational message standpoint. Do not allow yourself to turn out any script that’s less than amazing. Do not allow yourself to use one single cliché in any copywriting assignment. Do not allow yourself to accept mediocre writing or uninteresting ideas.

Have respect for your audience and do everything you possibly can to keep them entertained. The goal of anything you create for broadcast should be to capture your audience’s sense of wonder, so that they want to keep listening to hear what you’re doing next. Familiarity breeds contempt; continuing with the same boring ideas all day long, all week long, only turns people off. Bring back a sense of surprise to your station’s imaging and commercial sound and the audience will thank you with greater TSL than you could ever get from any music research or PPM consultant.

Force yourself to go above and beyond any creative boundary you’ve ever dared to breach before. Take the extra effort. Spend more time writing and thinking about new ideas than you spend in the prod room mixing and sweetening. Spend more time reading novels than editing demos. Spend more time being concerned with every word you write and speak than being concerned with how much EQ and compression a particular audio sample needs.

Right now every single radio station needs to have its own Homer, its own Chaucer, its own Hemmingway. Radio desperately needs the most imaginative writing possible, and the only person who can make it happen is you. So that way no matter how crappy they treat you, no matter how stressed out you are over your workload, at least at the end of the day you’ll be able to be proud of the work you’ve done.

Because no matter what anyone else says, no matter how much money you make, no matter how many awards you get, real job satisfaction only happens when you are proud of your efforts.

Don’t let yourself down.

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