Q It Up: How do you perceive the state of radio imaging today?

Q-It-Up-Logo-3Q It Up: How do you perceive the state of radio imaging today, and what predictions or hopes do you have for imaging in the future?

I had the opportunity to listen to imaging at a lot of major market radio stations recently, and what I came away with was a lot of the same -- deep voiced male announcers as the imaging voice, short imaging pieces with no creativity in the copy – just the basic station info and positioning statements, and very little creativity on the production side of things. Granted, there were several stations that stood out with creative copy and production technique, but for the most part, it sounded like the large majority of stations were plugging in imaging elements with about as much thought as you would give to light bulb selection.

What’s your take on the state of imaging in your market in general? What trends have you noticed, if any? And where do you see radio imaging headed, or how would you like to see evolve?

Johnny George <jg[at]johnnygeorge.com>, Johnny George Communications, Inc.: After producing the “stationality” for over a half dozen broadcast stations over the past 30 years, I had grown by creating my own sound and being influenced by other imaginative minds in programming and imaging. I lost that interest of development after I left radio in 2006 due to many factors. I agree with your assessment of non-creative liner-type promos. When I was imaging my last property of 95-5 WFMS, GOLD 104.5, Jack-FM and other formats on our 93.9 frequency, (Susquehanna Indianapolis), I loved to go to work and make those stations sing. I was surrounded by lots of talent from programming and on-air that I listened to and grew with in the stationary development. My biggest problem was that I was SO “Theater of the Mind” that I sometimes took the liberty to spread my story out way too long. I think I held the record for the longest damn station promo coming in at 2:01. HaHa... that was a short-lived run. Had to whittle that baby down. But I enjoyed telling stories and that’s where my style spoke so loudly. Today, you’re lucky to hear a promo longer than 30 seconds. And that’s not a bad thing, just that I massaged a story a bit more and would rotate a variety of promos if I had more sponsors that had to be included.

Dave Fox continues to shine the light for the imaging folks today, but he is only one guy who cannot control the corporate broadcast world from NYC. They can only listen. But the powers that be have lost sight of what radio CAN and SHOULD be. It’s sound without pictures and it’s up to the Imaging Director or CSD or Production guy, whatever they are called today, to push that creativity in order to enhance the sound and emotional feel of the station. If corporate big-wigs would stop micromanaging and allow the special talents and creativity of the people they hire that are supposed to be qualified to paint that picture, radio would be a more interesting, and in the long run, a more satisfying place to camp and listen to. They must trust their people.

Trend-wise, all I’m hearing is generic, non-specific, superfluous verbiage. Flip to the next station and you hear it all again. I’m now listening to only talk radio and Sirius-XM for my entertainment when in the car. And even they are not doing anything spectacular to speak of. Seems like a lost art is practically gone. And that’s so sad.

Jeff Berlin <imap[at]jberlin.com>: I’d be disappointed if today’s producer was doing more dazzling creative work now than they did in the days when they could focus all their efforts on one station. Production departments have undergone massive “reductions in workforce” over the past decade. With far more duties on any given producer’s plate, creativity has become a luxury.

Matthew Morse <mattmorse2496[at]yahoo.com>, Voice Actor & Audio Engineer, Washington, DC: I find dull, flat imaging to be the result of overworked production guys who have to cut material for three or more properties. Nothing against their skills or their ethics, but in truth, trying to come up with some new way every day to say, “The Most Music” is tedious - and boilerplate production with no variation gets the message on the air fast. In other cases, stations receive material from a production “division” where one nice, safe version of imaging gets rotated out to hundreds of properties at once and dropped directly into the automation system with no intervention. The local prodo is helpless to change anything.

Unfortunately, the concept of “nice and safe” rules the roost, and stations that spray a generic product all over the dial all hope to hit the widest possible audience. Recent RAP Magazine subscribers might not remember a writer named Dennis Daniel, who penned a superb production column in the 1990s. He wrote about his renegade Long Island rock station that used over-the-top crazy production to make them stand apart from the ten-in-a-row’ers. Highly targeted, highly entertaining, and unique to the station. Today, the renegade Rock audience is now indistinguishable from the laptop-carrying, ironic-glasses-wearing Alternative crowd. So given conventional thinking, why even try?

Trends-wise, I’m hearing CHRs in some places bailing on the deep male announcer and using female imaging voices; devoid of energy and excitement, they depend instead on a detached “hipster” sound with a slight Californian overtone. The effect is a snarky “what-evvurrr” tone without actually coming out and saying it. The station’s audience probably finds it relatable, but not being part of their dream demographic, it just sounds grating to me.

Radio imaging won’t budge off the dime until independent owners orbit back into the picture, buy stations, and tell their people, “Hear the competition? Make us sound like something they are NOT!” Special playful imaging that runs only over the audio stream can be helpful; like, “Rockin’ the Web... for people too damn hip to own a radio... Rock 105!”, or, “Broadcasting to the nation’s capital and streaming all over the world... Jesus, why don’t you just move here?... Z-93!”.

It is worth mentioning that too many prodo people limit their thinking in considering imaging to be “radio only”. Widen the gaze and see that the station webpage could use a little Flash-driven audio sparkle whenever an item is moused or clicked. For stations that stream video of their morning team, specialized imaging for “the TV side” is worthwhile too. Since many audio playback [read: automation] systems can handle split audio output, both radio and webvideo can carry the program, but the imaging in and out of spot breaks can be tuned to match the medium.

Creativity in on-the-air imaging is essential. But with more than one signal now going out the door, there are ample opportunities to be even more creative. We just have to want it bad enough.

Evan: For the past two years, I have had a PD who does not communicate the events that happen on the station. It feels like I’m banging my head against the wall every time I address this issue. With social media, promotions, handling the on-air staff, I wonder, is it normal these days for the PD not to be involved in any way with the station imaging?

Jeff Ogden <jeffo[at]gpimonline.com>, Fargo, North Dakota: Most stations contract with one Signature Voice. You know, that most often deep Movie Trailer type read. But what is a Signature Voice? For some formats this may be a must, but ask yourself: does that voice sound like most of my audience? Does that voice relate to my audience? Does that voice relate to my demos? Is radio audience really at the point where call letters and positioning statements are now so below the Sig-VO as the identifier to them as “that station?” Is the Gary Owens Big Voice still effective? Can that type of HYPE be counterproductive? I ask the questions first because it showcases the risk of a “One Voice” presentation.

Instead, why not, like the spokes of a wagon wheel, create many positioning statements using many different reads written from the listener’s point of view? Each spoke being different using females, males, kids, recorded outside, at the mall, at events, using the local theatre people paid with some station food trade...

Roy Williams says,” talk to the dog in the language of the dog, you can’t meow to a dog!” I get that in regards to Ad Copy, and that’s important because commercials are as important to AQH as profit is to a sales department. Listeners have less of a reason to hit the button if the ad is great, but 35 plus, 18-34 , 25-54 have a lot of puppies to old hounds in there. Does one voice speak to all of them? Using one Sig-VO, could you “Not Be Speaking “to some of them? In a time when format focus tries to NEVER EVER give a listener a reason to hit the button, can the One Sig Voice presentation produce that?

NOT USING STATION ON AIR STAFF VOICES. I say let the Creatives in the “Produce Department” produce you as many of these as they can come up with. Now, Station Identification can truly identify with as many listeners as possible.

Kyle Whitford <kyleprod[at]gmail.com>, Charlotte, North Carolina: Radio imaging is one of the biggest, overblown, budget blowing elements on the air.

Great expressions of framed up audio textures are amazing when they happen. They convey a depth and feeling that is hard to articulate in any other way. The right laughter, the right voice breaking with emotion, or an Adam Sandler moment that is so funny you almost pee.

But most radio station folks are not even aware that THAT IS THE GOAL of imaging. It’s not about the big voiced, big explosion sounding crap you guys are in love with. That just reflects your power trip. The state of radio is so ridiculous and it is 99% due to lousy personal leadership. Quality people make all the difference in the world. Compare Jim Clifton at Gallup (great leader) with some ego crazed Union boss who brow beats others and extorts as a way of life. I will stick by that statement. Radio is a lot of the latter. What a mess.

ANONYMOUS: I just recently moved to a Medium market and sampled the Imaging around town when I decided to do a listening day just like I did back when I was a PD. I am also 40 miles from a Major market so my choices of station were pretty prime. It has been exactly one year since leaving Radio thanks to a certain large company that was once family owned which shall remain nameless. In my efforts to rejoin the clan and get back in the business, I noticed something strange, my listening tastes in just 12 simple months has changed extensively. Frankly Imaging is annoying, frustrating, and almost always seemingly meaningless. Imaging in my opinion as a listener, (and get ready this is going to hurt), is considered by me, your demographic, an interruption, and a meaningless piece of crap! I hate to be blunt and harsh, but I think it is high time you got a wake-up call.

Now before you storm Dallas demanding to know who I am and have me run out of town by a small mob holding torches, hear me out. Jerry asked me to be a judge recently in the RAP awards, and when I listened to all the Imaging, I did something to amuse myself. I took each and every piece of audio that was being judged and spliced the first three to four seconds with the first three or four seconds of audio from almost all the entrants. You should try it sometime, it will sound like a very long audio file of the beginning of the same swooshing sound effect Radio has utilized since the 1980s, and for those old enough to remember you will think the needle is stuck. (Google that if you are younger)! The sad part is that many of those entrants came from other countries. This means we have infected the entire world with our boring mentality.

You might argue that since the whole world is using our methods that it must work… Really? When I compare Imaging I hear today to the stuff I have heard all my career, absolutely nothing has changed. Ask anyone to imitate a Radio Sweeper and watch them grasp their ear and puke out words and junk sounding like they are about to vomit and heave all over the place. Even very young kids do this. I saw them do this while chatting with each other recently inside a sandwich shop and I was shocked. The producer and crafter of Imaging still follows old ways of thinking, assuming that Radio is the only Media of choice, and that those of us on the outside should feel privileged and honored that Radio stations are broadcasting anything. On the contrary, my day of listening was the most Radio I have listened to compared to the last 12 months as a whole, simply because no one seems to want to go to the trouble to give me a reason to listen. (Sorry, but you do not play the most country, even your 30 minute music sweeps make me roll my eyes as they do everyone else). Who has 30 minutes to listen to nothing but music anymore?

Just like Programmers should let go of the old mentality and simply allow the voices on the air to be natural and real, Imaging producers have got to change their thinking and surprise their audience. You may not like what I am saying, and you may disagree with me too, but I am Anonymous for a reason, because this way of thinking is so embedded in the psyche of Radio, it is almost going to take an underground revolution to destroy it. I dare you to take a digital recorder and keep it in your pocket all the time and whenever your station goes out somewhere, or you venture out of the building, simply record people. Don’t worry, when you look at how public everyone is now anyway with Social Media, this will not be something foreign. I was at a restaurant with my wife a week ago and we saw two tables in one night videotaping their friends at the table. The social norm is now to be taped, recorded, and out in the open. Have you realized that to your advantage? Don’t tell them what to say and don’t script them either. When and IF they ask you why you have a recorder, just tell them it’s a project for a Radio Station. Do try to steer the conversation at some point to Radio and listen for them to tell you what they like about Radio and what they don’t like. Then just let the thing roll! I bet if you and the PD sat down, listened to all of the audio, and really let it affect you and what you do each day, you could see what I am getting at here.

Frankly I think almost all of the audio could be used, even stuff that has nothing to do with Radio. No, not to splice it in the middle of a sweeper, but just insert it between songs or coming out of a stopset and go straight into music. In other words let the segment of audio stand on its own, naked, almost like an audio FB News Feed. For example, commercial ends, suddenly you hear a guy say “I love ham sandwiches”, then a song starts. Odd huh? Consider this, the guy who said it and those around him when he did will know, that small group of people will know they will be on the radio. Suddenly that small group of possible listeners turns into cume, they turn into your viral marketing, they become your promos and liners, and they become your social media advocates. Revolutionary indeed! But that is what it is going to take to move the needle.

If I were an Imaging director right this very moment for any Radio Station, this is what I would do plus some other ideas I have been simmering in my mind, and if you were my competition you would never see me coming either. I have other ideas, but sharing them here would be silly, then everyone would be doing them and I would never get hired again. My Imaging would have no music, no sweepers, no blasts, explosions, or deep throated antiquated ego centric VO guys who get paid far too much money to sound the same in too many markets. My Imaging would say what they like about Radio and what they don’t, and over time you would realize the things they say they do like is exactly what we are. The things they don’t like would surprisingly identify with what you and everyone else in town is doing.

My Imaging would be the element everyone is listening for, the fun between the business, the prize in the cereal box. It would also take a PD willing to be different and realize Howard Stern is still very popular, not because he identifies his SiriusXM channel all day. In fact Howard does stuff and says stuff I remember many PDs over my career telling me that Major Market personalities would never do or say. But I digress. My Imaging audio would be obscure, fun, real, and every listener in town would know they have a shot at being on our airwaves. In fact, they could submit their own audio and never know it. I would use Social Media to get audio from my local audience, and I don’t need their permission -- it is already being broadcast. Ever think of that? No Copyright to worry about. If it is out in the open already, it’s fair game.

I wouldn’t use liners or promos on our air telling listeners to send their audio in either; if I have to explain it then it’s no longer any fun. Would I identify my station and have them say my call letters? Nope, never! Mostly to piss you and your consultant off when our PPM and Arbitron numbers are through the roof. It would also burn your hide when you cold-call a client to get them to buy time and they know my station by name, and my station hardly ever says its call letters or repeats ad nauseam a ridiculous positioning statement.

Is this the only thing I would do? No, but it is where I would start. I have more ideas, but don’t worry, no one will hire me, and everyone is too afraid to do something different, so you will never have to fight that battle. Ten years from now your station will hire another deep throated VO guy or use a breathy and whimsical male female combination and combine it with sweeps, swooshes, and explosions as you ramble on and on about how you play the most country or are the best in Adult Contemporary. Meanwhile I’ll still be out of Radio and the world will go on and you and every other station will continue to sound the same, do the same things, think you are trend setters in social media, and no one will notice.

David Tyler <david[at]davidtyler.com>, www.davidtyler.com: Probably because I’m in Montréal, I’ve got a unique perspective on radio imaging. On one side I see what’s happening in the US, and on the other the very different scene here in Québec and Europe.

The imaging that I hear produced in this city is truly mind-blowing. A lot of that is the European influence, who tend to create big lush sounding “audio Rembrandts”. Peak Studios is a major independent contributor to that sound here (studiospeak.net). The attention to detail (specifically proper use of EQ), the use of effects, VO, singers, original music and writing really makes me believe that radio imaging is vibrant, alive and well.

And then I hear what’s happening in the US and am usually disappointed. Radio imaging seems to be a throwaway, an unimportant, uninteresting aspect of radio production.

I had an enlightening conversation with a US based GM/Owner not long ago who was interested in hiring me as a voice talent for one of his stations, and he said, “I really don’t care about the imaging, I do it only because I have to”! OMG! For the first time in my 20 years of doing VO, I actually did not want the job! I couldn’t see myself working with this guy!

Generally, there seems to be an attitude in the US of just get it done and put it on the air. Creativity has gone out the window to just get-it-done. I understand and wholeheartedly sympathize with the ever increasing constraints US based producers have and that most of them are doing both commercial production and radio imaging... and only one of those two pays the bills.

I see radio imaging as the packaging of a radio station. Imagine if after all of the hard work of creating the best tasting cola on the planet, Coca-Cola decided to package it in brown cardboard with the words Coca-Cola scribbled across the front in black crayon. What would that tell you about how Coca-Cola feels about its product? The same goes for your station.

It’s time to get creative. Use all the colors in your box. Have no holds barred creative brain storming meetings every week and invite the funniest, creative people in the building to be a part of the rebirth of your station’s audio packaging.

BTW when you go to your boss to ask for a bigger radio imaging budget and use my Coca-Cola analogy...? You’re welcome. :0)

Andrew Frame <andrew[at]bafsoundworks.com>, BAFSoundWorks, Lehigh Acres, Florida: I’ll preface this by saying I don’t listen to much commercial radio because both the programming and imaging are too insulting and repetitious. I can’t hammer the commercials too badly, because they often have the demands of the advertiser, and we all know there’s not a lot you can do about it when they decide to play creative director instead of sticking to selling shoes.

But programming and imaging - those are completely in the control of the managers, programmers, and producers. If they suck, they have no one to blame outside their offices.

On the occasion that I do listen to local, the imaging is usually generic and bland, yells at me, and is clearly written towards some form of perceived grandiose self-importance, or is attempting to bribe me to listen with some trinket or contest that I don’t care about. No station actually tries to bring value to the time I spend listening. There’s just a lot of shouting and buzzwords. Television has exactly the same problem.

In my radio market, we have three corporations that control most of the signals. One company seems to have some mandate to go as far over-the-top as possible to convince me that they are all but the Messiah of the transmitter. There isn’t a buzzword or cliché they won’t use to make me think they are the epitome of cool and crucial for my very existence. Look up “hyperbole” and you’ll see their corporate logo as a definition.

The second company uses the national plug-and-play stuff that a part-time board-op can dub (or be downloaded remotely). To their credit, this group’s imaging doesn’t yell at me. They just speak their peace, and get back to music or commercials. Or more imaging. The content of the imaging is typically single-syllable words and crayons, but the approach isn’t something that makes me dive for the tuning button.

The third cluster’s imaging sounds much like someone is badly burned out and needs to get out of the business. It mixes the hype of the first group with the methadone-influenced copy of the second.

Now, of the small- and medium-market imaging copy I see from colleagues on my producers networks, the same attitude seems to be across the country in markets of all size. What it sounds like when produced, I don’t know, I only see the copy. But if the larger market that I am in is an indication, the small markets are pretty much making noise like a sucking chest wound, too.

The shameful thing is that there are people in this industry that care, and really want to do outstanding work. I hope that they can, before they too are required to dumb-down their product.

Personally, when I was doing page after page of imaging, I would try to be clever and punny. I incorporated as much local content as possible. All in 10-seconds or less. I called it “ear candy”. In hindsight, I can see that I thought I was doing the right thing, but it was all just vanity, an outlet that I couldn’t get with commercials.

These days, I’m a firm supporter of simplicity and shotguns. If that imaging piece is long enough that I can change the station, it’s too long. Don’t bullsh*t listeners. The radio station is NOT important in their lives, so stop pretending it is. If the programming is so weak that you have to try and rely on snappy imaging to hold it up, get a new program director. Be honest, be concise, and be out of there.

Joey DiFazio <Joey.DiFazio[at]siriusxm.com>, Sirius/XM Satellite Radio: I would like to refer back to an article in the August edition of RAP about “content producers”. I still meet too many production pros that have that short order cook mentality. Orders come in, we add the flash, and the only way to improve is with bigger and better equipment and effects. These people produce for themselves, their friends and their colleagues... all the wrong reasons.

In this era of On Demand and App Radios, we need to think more about how we deliver content, and while there will always be a need for show opens, promos and commercials – we can be doing so much more.

If you run a department, or are involved with a particular show, use these tips to gain synergy in your world.

Roll on-air - Find a way to monitor your show or station feed outside of the realm of your studio. Some automated systems allow you to monitor on air and pull clips without interrupting the audio stream. Or ask your engineer friend to patch in an old reel-to-reel, Shortcut or PC with Adobe that’s been laying around. Hook it up to a separate speaker and listen in the background while you are working in the studio. You needn’t pay particular attention, and you’d be surprised how much audio you can grab and how it helps make the creative wheels spin.

Get to know your talent or Producer - Invite them to visit your studio after their show for the sole purpose of working on a promo or bumper. Then when they are pleased with your craftsmanship, send them the project as a session using your automated system’s multi-track feature or some other software of choice… the simpler the better. Teach them how to do the basic swapping out of elements so they can keep their promo fresh. Then continue to load clips or music to their session on a regular basis. The result is - they get fresh imaging more often with less work from you. Plus, since the promo was produced in your studio – the quality control is built in!

IM your new friend - Offer the talent or Producer Instant Message access to you in the studio during their show. Many automated systems have this feature built in, but an IM client like Pidgin will work just fine. Check with them during the show so they know the line is open to them for suggestions. You will quickly realize the benefits when that “Radio Gold” segment happens and the producer or talent asks you to quickly update a show bumper. If you have your system down, you should be able to have it back to them in time to play into the next break… now THAT is content delivery, my friends! It wows the talent, makes the Producer look good and gives you ownership in the product. Most importantly though, you’ll generate a lot of positive feedback from your audience - and after all, aren’t these the people who really matter?

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