Wednesday, June 17, 2009

And the winner is......nobody!

One of the highlights of my radio career was learning how to do digital production. When I was hired at Y-105 in Mansfield, Ohio, the main production studio had a multi-track digital recording system. Having spent most of my time surrounded by reel-to-reel tape and razor blades, this ultra-modern method for recording commercials and promos was a bit daunting at first. But a very generous Scott Statham spent an inordinate amount of time showing me how to put that huge Tascam machine through its paces. (or at least enough to enable me to reel off a couple of commercials for Ray Bowman Chevrolet so that he didn't have to do them.)

When I eventually landed my first full-time radio job, almost all of the air personalities had to do "production". The Production Director or Traffic Director would assign "spots" and "dubs" to each air talent. They would put two or three orders into each person's "production box". Then, after your show, you would march over to your box to see what you had to do for the day and then head into the production studio, hoping and praying that the person doing work before you hadn't "gone overtime" into you scheduled production time-slot. Sometimes you'd have a full :60 piece of copy to record for a heating-and-air-conditioning dealer or a furniture store. Maybe you'd have to add a local tag to a national McDonalds commercial. Or, perhaps it was just a "dub", a reel-to-reel tape of an already-produced commercial that simply had to be put on a cart so that it could air.

Most On-Air Personalities HATED to do production. But, I really liked it. I really enjoyed working with a good piece of copy and trying to make it sound like a national commercial. I loved putting reverb and filter-effects on my voice. I also enjoyed trying to find just the right music to put underneath a spot. Later, when the copy couldn't or wouldn't suit my needs, I just wrote my own. Even later, as a Program Director at Y-105, I enjoyed doing my share in the production studio. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I left Mansfiled to take a position as a Production Director at a station in Knoxville, Tennessee...the now-defunct WXVO-FM. (98-7, The X) While I was there, I was even lucky enough to win a Knoxville Addy Award for "Best Station Commercial".

The other day, All Access posted a story about this year's Radio Mercury Awards. Amazingly, this year's awards featured NO winners in the radio commercial category. None. The judges felt that there were no submitted entries that actually merited an award:

"As for the judges’ decision not to present awards in certain categories," the site continued, "our official guidelines give the judges the discretion to make selections, or not, to reduce the number of prizes or not to award a prize if they feel the quality of the entries does not meet their standards. Please also note that, per our guideline, entry fees are non-refundable."

So, what does this mean, exactly? Air personalities who actually enjoyed going into the production studios were more talented back then? Tascam produced machinery better equipped to facilitate creativity? Radio copy today None of the above, certainly. Xhang Creative Founder and 2003 Mercury Award winner DOUG ZANGER writes:

"...there will be no awards for Radio Station Produced and other categories in this year's Radio Mercury Awards. That should make you upset ... Good. I give the RAB, the Radio Creative Fund, RICK BOYKO and all of the judges a lot of credit for having the guts to take a stand on mediocre creative. Yes, this is the best radio-specific award in the world, but I think it is a good thing that the standards now have a new bar. It takes courage to do this and it sends a clear message: We need to do a better job. Period."

Quality "creative" from Production and Imaging Directors in radio should, obviously, not be about "awards". However, it does speak to the catastrophe that has been bubbling for years: most stations don't have the interest, the personnel, the money, or the foresight to focus and direct their attention on the importance of what comes out of the production studio! Even during the years when stations could afford a "production director", that person who assumed the position NEVER made a salary comparable to even some of the lower-paid people on the airstaff! Often times, a dedicated production or imaging person spent up to 10 hours a day at the radio station. Sometimes, they were even seen toiling away in the studio on the weekends, or taking portable hard-drives with them to their home studios. These "creative " people got the short end of the stick even during radio's boom-period.

It's difficult to foster and grow "creativity" when you have one person doing production and imaging for 8 stations in the building. It turns in to an assembly line, a daily juggling-act of dealing with late orders and last-minute changes. The art of "slapping something together" is not production. It doesn't sound good on any radio station, regardless of market-size. So how can it possibly sound good to a judge at the Radio Mercury Awards. The answer is: it can't.


* Why not grab your favorite beverage, cop a squat, and groove to some DEMOS at