JV: How much of the course it is about production?
John: Well, it’s probably around a quarter to a third of it total, although there’s so much overlap from one area to the next. I’ve been a little bit devious in how I’ve designed the course modules. For example, one of the early studio experiences that students have is putting newscasts together, and they start out in a lab setting doing that on tape. So, their earliest hands-on production recording is actually doing the lab assignments for their journalism work. But to do that, they have to be conscious of mike placement and level settings and recording and playback and dubbing and all that stuff. So they’re getting some real beginning production basics that are contained within assignments in another course area. And a lot of these things that we do are layered together like that, so that you’re really covering multiple things at one time and may not even be aware of it.
JV: When you get directly into the production aspect of the course, what are some of the primary things you teach?
John: Copyrighting and the basic technical stuff. We start with analog production. This is a really interesting time to be doing broadcast education because of all of the changes in technology, and there are days when I think this would be easier to do as a business rather than a college because we could just be using one kind of equipment and get on with it. But there are still enough stations operating in the analog mode that we have to maintain and teach all that equipment. At the same time, there are all the stations that have gone digital, and we have to teach that as well. So, people come out of here having had both.
We start them in production doing traditional analog tape recording production work. We go into blade editing and splicing and all that stuff. I’ve found that this experience is really helpful when they move to the digital side of the house because the cut and paste functions are pretty intuitive when you’ve actually cut tape. They do everything from thirty-second spots, basic bread and butter copy and music spots, on up to elaborate promos and multi-track work by the time they are done. Part of how we fund running this station is sponsored public service announcements and underwriting announcements, so there is a steady stream of those that have real world deadlines that are very, very basic copy and music spots. At the same time, we’re doing promotions and station promos and format pieces that can get fairly complex. Right now we’re about to launch an on-air contest with probably the biggest prize we’ve ever given away to a listener, which will be a trip to Florida, and that’s a fairly elaborate multi-track production effort with a whole bunch of spots and a lot of sponsors involved.
JV: When you get sponsors involved in something like this, do you end up having to produce actual commercials for them?
John: No. We are a non-commercial station so we are very, very careful about the FCC rules regarding commercial content. We do promotional participation spots. There are a lot of companies looking to promote something who are willing to provide merchandise prizes in exchange for promotional mentions that can be done within the non-commercial rules. At the same time, we are a state agency. We are licensed as a state college, and there are some state laws we have to be careful of. We don’t actually ever give anything away here because if the prizes belong to the college, it would be against state law to give them away because they would be public property. So, other people give things away and we help them do that.
There is one area where we do get into advertising, and that is for non-profits, and that falls again within the non-commercial rules. So, we do a lot of straight ahead advertising type spots, which would be a commercial spot for our own college, other colleges in the area, other educational organizations, and for charitable groups. We’ve been very active, the station has, in working with fund-raisers for organizations like the March of Dimes, the Elks Club, and other non-profits in the market.
JV: So there is some hands-on commercial production, but you’re not cutting spots for the local bar down the street.
John: No. But we may do a station promotion where we go out and get local businesses to sponsor a promotion in order to provide prizes. For that, we’ll do promos and sometimes underwriting spots as well. Those can get very creative. Since the eighties, non-commercial underwriting has been a little less restrained than it used to be. You’re limited by being prohibited from having a call to action, a qualitative or comparative statement, or a price quote; but you can be descriptive of businesses’ products and services. I would say we’ve done some underwriting spots which are entirely within the non-commercial bounds but which are as creatively done and as effective as a lot of commercials that I’ve heard.
One of the other things we produce is a weekly public affairs show, a short form one. It’s a sixty-second feature we produce for Pierce County Crimestoppers. Crimestoppers exists all over the country as an effort of local business and law enforcement to reduce the crime rate, and we produce the Crimestoppers sort of “Crime of the Week” program feature. That’s distributed and aired on six radio stations in the Seattle market.
JV: What do you teach about copywriting?
John: We start copyrighting with journalism of all things, again because the discipline of the language is most easily introduced writing news stories. And from there, we go to writing spot copy because the grammar of broadcast or spoken English is already in place at that point. It’s just a matter of shifting gears to being a little bit more excited about things than you’d be in a news story.
One of the basics we try to get across is to get to the point. Whether we’re doing spots or whatever, even if it’s news stories, I find the hardest thing I have to do with students is overcome what their English teachers have taught them to do. I don’t want to erase that knowledge, and I don’t want them to think it’s not valuable, but they want to write prose when they first get here. They want to write stories, and they want to write plays. And to get them to shift gears to do spot copy that just punches home the key points is really tough because they want to write an essay.
JV: Well, at least their doing one of the things we hear a lot about, and that’s to make a story out of your commercial.
John: Yes, it needs to be a story, but it needs to fit in thirty seconds. We don’t have an hour. I think that’s really the biggest and first stumbling block with the student beginners is that they write too much prose that goes on too long. I use the RAP Cassette tapes a lot because the tape is worth a thousand words. When you can listen to a spot that paints a picture in thirty seconds with some sound effects and some phrases, it’s really easy to get from that to writing copy rather than trying to get from writing a term paper to writing copy. Being able to play those examples in class has been very effective. I use them all the time. When you do the annual awards, we sit down and vote on them in class. The RAP Cassette is the production version of what the air-check people do. I use the video air checks from California Airchecks and some other companies, and we do a lot of monitoring of the stations in the market. So, when we’re in the classroom, there’s a lot of discussion and sort of analysis of what other people have done. And we’ll go through spots from the Radio And Production tape and kind of pull them apart. We’ll ask, what’s the image, what’s the picture in your head, why does that work? It’s actually one of the most useful tools I have in doing that part of the class.