By Michael R. Lee, Ph..D.

We live in strange, uncertain, scary times. It seems like it began some 18 months ago when we elected a new President with less than half of the popular vote. We were subjected to chads and re-counts and the realization that good politicians were as hard or harder to find than ever.

The stock market had been soaring. A lot of people made a lot of money without ever engaging in anything resembling work. Prosperity meant miniscule unemployment, record levels of conspicuous consumption and wealth suddenly widespread in a younger generation than ever before. Dotcoms ruled, profits were irrelevant, hey mom look-at-my-Porsche.

Just as reality began to overtake the dream market, another kind of dream interrupted our way of life for the foreseeable future. The September 11 nightmare killed some of us and scared the rest. Security, which was always a relative term, vanished from the skies and became an overriding concern for many Americans.

Economic reality turned bleak enough that even historically low interest rates couldn’t prop it up. Unemployment grew, dotcoms collapsed, an uneasy aura settled in over the business sector. When it appeared that the bottom had been sighted, Enron came along to remind us that the lure of easy money still has a very strong appeal. The crisis of confidence in institutions — from government to business to education — is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

The media performed well during these trying times, especially in covering September 11 and its aftermath. Journalistic overkill was to be expected, but there was genuine pathos and attempts at understanding such unfathomable events and their ramifications.

That being said, it isn’t just the airlines or telecoms that are currently in serious turmoil. The media are in as much trouble as any other industry. Advertising is down sharply with no yellow brick road in sight. There’s a slash-and-burn mentality guiding most media giants.

Consolidation and rampant acquisitions have brought another problem throughout the media in general, and radio is no exception. Huge and sometimes ridiculous sums expended for acquisitions have left media giants in a no-win situation. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization have done pretty well, but the debt load incurred in acquisitions makes it almost impossible to show a real profit or pay significant dividends.

The answer seems to be similar amongst media conglomerates and other major industries. Cut back on everything. Well, almost everything. Cut capital expenditures, cut salaries, cut back on customer service. Eradicate research and development, slash benefits, eliminate workers. Well, not all workers. The people at the top, the ones with most of the stock options, the ones with most of the perks, the ones who are responsible for getting us into this mess seem to be the least affected. Very few of them have been forced to alter their luxurious lifestyles while the rank-and-file are told it is a miracle for them to be given a 3% raise.

What American companies have done in the name of shareholder value, which just happens to include the bosses who own so much stock themselves, is to emasculate the product and its development, scare workers about being laid off and ignore the long-term for temporary gain.

Radio is a prime example of all these things. Listenership is down, revenues are down, workload is up. Even once-sacred General Managers are now forced to oversee three or four stations in a market. They, of course, still trail the typical Production Director, who now operates in crisis mode most of the time. Art and science have generally been enslaved by quantity and deadlines.

A radio producer today contributes more to the sound of the station than at any time in the past. Fewer jocks talking less has seen to that, along with voluminous local spots and promotions for every conceivable purpose. But who does today’s radio Production Director really work for? Is it the General Manager, the market manager, the national format director, the Sales Manager or the Program Director? Is it the regional V.P., the national P.D. or the CEO? Do you work for the parent company, the market cluster or, god forbid, an actual radio station? Do you work for stock options or corporate jets or so you won’t get fired?

Have you noticed that, just as in radio itself, the word “listener” has not yet been mentioned? You can’t really work for the listeners, because they’ve been distilled into that harmless, quantifiable myth known as audience. Age, sex, cost per thousand, something to be manipulated for the sake of shareholders, who might through some quirk of irony even be listeners.

The only way to know who you work for in an era of confusion, greed and tunnel vision is to look in the mirror. At the end of the day, the only person you need to satisfy or impress is yourself. The only real arbiter of whether you’ve created a great sweeper or promo or spot is yourself. No one else is strapping themselves into that chair for 10 or12 hours a day, tweaking the EQ and compression, sliding the voice tracks to the hit points, coddling talent and management, fixing copy, meeting deadlines and making vast quantities of audio art.

When it comes to getting satisfaction from being a radio producer, one timeless adage won’t let you down. Above all else, to thine own self be true.

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