Production 512: Need Inspiration?

Prod512 Logo 400pxWe’re not creating the same kind of art that someone like Idris Elba, Helen Mirren or Ridley Scott make. Our work doesn’t acquire millions of adoring fans like Ariana Grande, Ed Sheehan or Justin Bieber. Ours is extremely different from the art of Picasso, Rembrandt or Grandma Moses. It’s not The Art of War, The Art of Self-Defense or even The Art of The Deal, but our goal is exactly the same in every case: Taking an idea and expressing it to people in a way that plants that same idea in as many of their heads as possible. Many of these inspirational artists do their work in a studio somewhere, alone with their thoughts, communing with their individual muse, trying to find the best way possible to transplant that idea or emotion with as little distortion as possible. So…how is that any different from what we do?

It’s not.

I honestly get a little put out when I hear a fellow producer complain that he or she has a difficult time finding inspiration. The world is FULL of insanely great communicators, who use their art so effectively, we as the end users of their craft seldom realize what they are doing. They change our world by adjusting our views and thoughts on an almost microscopic level. It’s almost like they reach into our minds and make changes without us even being aware that they’re tinkering with our perception of the world. Now THAT is some world class inspiration for you, as a producer. The problem is, when you’re not aware of the changes they make, you cannot see the forest because the trees are in the way. You’re not looking at the intergalactic picture when you’re rooting around in your own navel.

Make no mistake, I think having access to other producer’s work, as we do on the Soundstage here on the RAP Mag website, is a real boon to the business. Nearly every piece of sound heard here offers amazing insight into the intricacies of radio production, particularly in a technical sense, but truly inspirational work is rare. If you are in need of something truly inspirational, you need to expand your searchlight into completely new territory from time to time.

As an example, I give you my own introduction to my Creative Service position at Z100/New York. Everyone knew I had skills. My Operations Manager, Steve Kingston, My Program Director, Scott Shannon and I had worked together for years with many long stretches in the production studios of WPGC/Washington and B104/Baltimore with a few side trips to stations in Pittsburgh and Panama City, Florida. However, Z100 was a whole new species to me and we were all nervous.

I asked for some guidance from Steve and after a brief pause, he pointed to the television in his office, muted but tuned to MTV. This was back in the day when MTV really was Music Television, when they played a TON of music videos with some of the coolest, glitchiest, weirdest promotion pieces in between. One came on as I looked and he said, “I want us to sound like that LOOKS.”

It was my glimpse of a world dreamed of by Frederich Nietzsche for me, something far, far beyond my own experience that promised ideas I could scarcely imagine. I felt like the character Charlie in Daniel Keyes magnificent science-fiction story Flowers for Algernon in which Charlie is surgically enhanced to improve his IQ from 85 to 185. As I’m sure you can imagine, his understanding of the world changed substantially in very short order. By the way, if you haven’t read this 20th Century masterpiece, find a copy. You won’t regret it. There is an 1968 movie version too, starring Cliff Robertson called Charly. Like many books made into movies, it doesn’t have quite the punch, but it’s still really good.

This was like a narcotic for me. I had to have more. I kept searching for new sources of inspiration, and boy howdy, did I find them! At first, I had to tease them out, moving from MTV to motion pictures, then Broadway, books, music, dance and art!

One of my favorite comics in the paper each day (comics are basically the only reason I even subscribe any more) is Dilbert. I have a few other faves like Pearls Before Swine, Pickles, B.C. and Argyle Sweater, but Dilbert is consistently funny, topical and true to life. As I was cruising through Twitter a few days ago, I found a post from a music artist named Akira The Don who had composed a hypno-trance tune using the spoken words of Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. I was instantly drawn to it. The words were all lifted from Scott’s Periscope sessions in which he talks about philosophy and life in general in a strictly non-political way. The clip Akira The Don tweeted about had some quotes that got me really fired up as a creative “pro-feshunal” and I thought I’d share a couple here. They read like they come straight out of my playbook.

You wanna make sure that you always inject novelty; it’s what triggers memory. ‘Cause your brain will get bored of the sameness, so you need to trigger memory and attention.  – Scott Adams

How many columns and lectures have I preached about doing something different when you’re building a spot or promo? When I was a new producer, I always thought it was about making it ‘sound’ totally pro, meaning the words and music flow like a stream of water tumbling over rocks, gurgling a pleasant sound that is soothing to the listener, hoping to prevent them from tuning out. I was SO wrong.

Early in my career an AE brought in a new client called Shakey’s Pizza and told to make something fun! No copy…just bullet points and the word FUN. I wrestled with it for an hour or so, trying different music beds, writing some copy that was truly UN-inspiring, then decided to bag it for the day and come at it fresh in the morning. 

On the way home, I was listening to my station when an extremely well-saturated ad for Campbell’s Soup came on. (It had been on the air for the entire summer on multiple stations in an “A” rotation.) In it, the announcer was making a ‘random’ phone call and asking whoever answered to sing the Campbell’s Soup jingle. If the listener did, he’d send them a case of whatever flavor soup they were hawking at the time. They did, he did, and I started to think we should come up with a Shakey’s Pizza jingle. I thought, “Nah. That’s too expensive for a local mom and pop business.” And then, lightning struck. “Have them sing the Campbell’s Soup jingle and say, ‘Sorry, wrong jingle.’”

I almost turned around to go back to the station and produce it right then, but I was really hungry and almost home, so I let it stew overnight. By the time I got in the next morning, I had expanded the concept to having listeners sing other famous jingles for a chance to win a pizza dinner. I produced the Campbell’s version first and gave it to the AE for client approval. He thought I was nuts, but presented it anyway. The CLIENT thought I was nuts too, but liked it enough to give it a test run. He bought a week-long schedule. By Saturday night, his place was jumping, and dozens and dozens of people kept asking how the Shakey’s jingle goes. The employees were mystified, but the client green-lighted a whole 6 month schedule, so my AE took me out to dinner…at Shakey’s, of course. Their pizza was pretty decent. The client kept telling me how genius I was and the AE tried to take credit. Thankfully, the client didn’t buy into the AE’s line of crap. It was my first truly shining moment in what turned out to be a long career of wielding creativity for cash.

I could have done what I was going to do, as I had with many others, and made a ‘words-and-music,’ ‘professional sounding’ spot that did absolutely nothing to increase the client’s business, but instead, I inserted some novelty. In spite of some initial reservations on the AE and client’s part, it paid huge dividends for them AND me.

Contrast is a way to move people from where they are to where you want them to be.   – Scott Adams

Pick any Unique Selling Proposition (there’s a handy list in last month’s column) and you’ll realize immediately that CONTRAST is what makes the USP work. If the USP is Price, you’re talking about how much lower the client’s price is over the competition. If it’s Luxury, you hype how much more luxurious your client’s product/service is. Safety is all about that coveted rating from Car & Driver, or the top rating from J.D. Powers

Contrast is one of the most important buttons. Use contrast often.  –Scott Adams

I would say use contrast every time, but you surely know by now how much I dislike using absolutes in any creative process. Scott has it just about right.

Scott Adams probably doesn’t know diddly-squat about audio production for radio or advertising, but he certainly has the creds on creativity. That is the whole point of this column. Don’t EVER get sucked into the feeling that there’s no place to go for inspiration. It’s everywhere, my friend. There are a lot more ‘experts’ in our field than you ever imagined.

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Brilliant! Creativity comes at all times of the day. You just have to look for it. Just the other day, in the midst of this covid crisis, my brother-in-law replied to my message to him on Facebook. He used the acronym WFH. The way he wrote his note, I thought he was talking about his new place of employment. But he meant "working from home." A couple of days later, I use WFM in a spot for an air conditioning distributor in their continuing campaign on our stations.

Michael Shishido
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