Production 212: Two Tomcats and a Razor Blade

Prod212-Logo 2014 webBy Dave Foxx

When I first started in radio, all the hits we played came on 45s, commercials were on little 4-inch reels of tape and to even get a job on the air at a radio station, you had to hold a license from the FCC (3rd Class with Broadcast Endorsement). If you were ever going to touch the transmitter controls, you had to have a 1st Class, which required a demonstration of your proficiency with Morse code. I’m not kidding! It’s absolutely true. I am sure there are still quite of few of you who remember working on “Triple-Stacks,” EDITALL blocks & grease pencils, patch bays and had to learn to avoid cue burns. There are probably even more of you who have no clue what any of that stuff is. Consider yourselves lucky… maybe.

Knowing what all that is and having the skills to use it effectively are something us old-timers take great pride in, but I sincerely doubt that many would ever want to go back to it. In that time, working in radio could often be a physical challenge, especially to producers. It wasn’t difficult physically, but you had to be fast and precise. You had to have a game plan before you ever started, knowing exactly how and when you would do what to achieve the sound you really wanted.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times in one session I would have to rewind my 8-track beast (2-inch tape/open reel MCI), start it rolling, punch record and then try to hit a cart at precisely the right time so the sound on the cart would hit a musical post at just the right moment. Add in sound effects, musical transitions, additional VO, a few zings, pops and splashes, and finally a complete mix down to two tracks again and you’ve gone through quite the workout. Oh, and while you’re at it, make it really creative. Many producers routinely did all that and more without the 8-track beast. I have many memories of walking in on producers who had two open reel machines, two turntables, a cart deck or two and arms poised to hit each in succession, hoping that he/she would get the timing and sequence right to finish a piece quickly.

But today, that’s all changed. If you miss the post with one piece of audio, just grab it and nudge it a few milliseconds. The mix is completely automated, and when you want to add a vocal effect, you just click your way to a plug-in. It used to take a couple of hours, perhaps as many as 4, to make one really dynamic promo or commercial. Now, it might take 25 or 30 minutes… physically.

Making production magic has changed a great deal over the last several years. Some of the great producers of yester-year are long gone because they refused to get on the digital bus, but understand this: they were amazing producers. NOT because of the equipment they used, but because they knew how to make a promo or commercial truly sizzle. Many of you who grew up in the digital age can produce circles around those dinosaurs, quantity-wise… but how good is your end product? I’m not writing this to be critical. I’m just asking. It’s a question you should constantly be asking yourself.

I virtually thank Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Peter Gotcher and Evan Brooks every day for their contributions to our industry. They’ve made my job faster and easier, but more importantly, they’ve allowed me to concentrate on the really important stuff. The stuff you have to do before you even sit down at your workstation. It’s that pesky creating part.

Having said all that, I am feeling a bit depressed over the state of our industry right now. And in a perverse way, it’s at least partly due to the digital revolution. The people who count the beans have seen how quickly and easily we can physically generate amazing promos and sweepers, without ever taking into account all the work that precedes firing up the workstation.

In the auto parts industry, the skill to produce massive quantities of the same auto part is highly prized. Day after day, week after week, the same worker can constantly turn out hundreds or even thousands of that auto part with excellent quality. However, that worker on the assembly line didn’t design that part. Some engineer in Detroit designed it to exacting specifications. All the worker has to do is use that design over and over again and the bean counters have loads of that part to sell at retailers all over the world.

You are NOT an assembly line worker. Oh, you crank out the production sure, but you are ALSO the designer. On top of that, the part (production) you make is NOT interchangeable with parts for other cars (stations). It is, or should be, unique to your radio station.

I recently had a conversation with Eric Chase (thanks to Ryan Drean and his podcast) and we got into a long conversation about how the industry is shrinking. Most of us, myself included, are handling the imaging for more than one radio station, doubling, tripling or in some case quintupling the drain on creativity. We all get the work done, because our digital toys give us the ability to do more in less time, but at what cost? What kind of emotions are we producing? Eric was talking about how we used to always have paid assistants, or at least unpaid interns and continued:

Now that we’re in an era in which that sort of stuff has been squeezed out of existence, it’s crucial to remember that I wouldn’t be here had it not been for my mentor, the great Joel Moss of WEBN. Joel and the PD at the time, Tom Owens (another radio visionary), took a huge chance on hiring some random musician with no radio experience whatsoever as Joel’s assistant. If not for that gig, and the time under Joel’s wing in Cincinnati, I’d probably be working at an ad agency now. So removing the hired production assistant from the equation is just one more reflection of the short-sighted mentality that permeates our industry as a whole, and is yet another reason for the watered-down state of affairs we’re facing today.

When I started in the industry back in the mid-90s, there were loads of stations and markets where talent was highly concentrated. Piles of talented people having loads of fun making ONE radio station unique. Over time, all that talent has been diluted and spread more thinly, or squeezed out altogether. So apart from a handful of large-market behemoths (like Z100), it’s hard to find any one station that feels like it’s firing on all cylinders. THAT was the satisfying part of that era for me--- feeling like you were on top of your game, and able to consistently knock it out of the park as part of a fantastically focused team. I’m wondering, does anybody feel that anymore?

The future for really good young producers in the radio business is looking pretty dismal right now. We really need to have someone in charge, a radio visionary perhaps, like Tom Owens, who understands the complete production process. It has to be so much more than the time it takes to actually sit down and produce a spot or promo. The entire creative process is so much more involved in both time and effort.

Remember when goose bumps marked the hearing of a remarkably imaginative, creative promo or commercial? When was the last time you got goose bumps listening to one of your own pieces? More importantly, when was the last time your PD or Sales Manager got goose bumps? That doesn’t happen bay mistake! It’s something that is designed by the producer. It’s something that evokes a memory or feeling, and triggers Broca’s area in the human brain. I can state with absolute certainty that it is that kind of production that moves the audience. It really sells cars. It pushes any retail response to the absolute maximum. THAT is what gets you and your station to the Nirvana of any sales team, repeat business. Likewise in the imaging arena, if you want to foster brand loyalty, if you want to “drag” your listeners through a commercial stop set to boost your quarter hours, it must move the needle. That needle lives in the heart, NOT the brain.

I would posit that all the time we saved by jumping on the digital bandwagon, still needs to be used. Imagining, creating, narrowing the focus, smoothing out the flow, ramping up the emotions and being completely meticulous with every little detail is critical to getting in your listener’s mind. The only way in is Broca’s area, so open it up wide every time out of the box. Soon, you too can be a high caliber producer.

There are a lot of people who will point out that not every station can have a high caliber producer doing their imaging. I would dispute that. As much as any imaging producer would like to take credit for his or her station’s success, you have to remember that they are part of a team. If you’ll forgive the baseball analogy, maybe producer X is the starting pitcher for brand WXXX, but it doesn’t matter how good they are, they can’t be a star without the catcher/promotions director or the shortstop/marketing director. They can never reach their full potential as a starter without the right manager/PD. The rest of the team/on-air staff has to play for keeps if a producer’s heat is going to do anything with the listener’s mind.

So your personal assignment is to foster good relationships with all of the players on your team. Make sure you are all completely in sync. Communicate fully in a generous spirit of cooperation. Then hunker down in your studio and start crafting your sound. Keep a clear head and always reach for the heart.

My sound this month raised a lot of goose bumps all around. When Jessie J was rolling out her new collaboration with Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, she popped into the Z100 studios and did an acoustic version of Bang Bang. Her acoustic version was pitched down a notch, I’m sure to accommodate for the early hour and the fact that she had only a few hours before, gotten off the plane from London. My light bulb popped on immediately. Transition from the acoustic to the recording studio version would give that musical lift you always get when you change keys to a higher pitch. It got quite the reaction.

Next month, I will give you my top 3 picks for the “Produce Dave Foxx” contest. I haven’t yet heard them all as I write this, but I’ve been hearing some amazing work. There’s even one that used country music, just for fun. (Never gonna hear that one on Z100, but it’s pretty cool!) You can hear all the finalists on this month’s CD.

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