By Trent Rentsch
There was a time when I wanted one piece of gear in my studio above all others. They could keep Pro-tools, Neumanns, Focusrite blue pre-amps, and every keyboard or rack-mounted synth in my drool-stained audio catalogs, as long as I could have the one magic tool that I had seen during a visit to a big league radio station. With that mystical device, I knew that I could transform myself into a real Creative Producer.
I discovered it during a planned vacation that really wasn’t. In a radio groupie moment, I had written the Production Director of a large market radio station some 4 hours from where I was living at the time. I had admired his work while on vacation in the market and told him so, never expecting that he’d take the time to write me back… but, he did. He thanked me, gave me his number, and told me to give him a call next time I was in town and he’d show me the station. Wonder of wonders, I happened to have another day or so off later that week.
It was my first time in a major market station, and the gee whiz quotient was high. Signed gold albums all over the walls, 2 thousand dollar suits oozing down the halls, DJs with interns answering their phones and getting them coffee? Some guy with big hair in leather jeans walked by and I said, “That looks like…” and my new friend shrugged and said, “Yeah, they’re in town, show tonight.” But the biggest thrill was yet to come. We came to a door with a picture of Wiley E. Coyote taped to it, with the caption, “Genius at work. Enter at your own risk!” He opened the door, hit the lights and said, “Welcome to the playroom.”
If there is a heaven for Radio Producers, it must look a lot like that room did. This was in the days before consolidation, when a company would pour a huge amount of resources into one facility, one station. My host had gotten his share of those resources. There was a 1-inch 8-track reel-to-reel machine, flanked by two top of the line 2-track units. “I was going to get a 16-track, but then they got the computer.” He motioned to his new Dyaxis computer, which was THE state of the art for computer audio at the time. He explained that they were even looking at getting an add-on that would let him make CDs of his audio… make his own CD’s?! That was the stuff of gearhead urban legend at the time. There were racks of processing gear, all the model numbers I knew by heart if not by use. Then he showed me his “music corner,” where he had several keyboards, drum machines, even a couple of guitars plugged into a Marshall amp stack. In fact, he was just playing me back a MIDI sequence of a music bed he had produced for a station promo when the Sales Manager walked by the window. “Damn!” He reached across his massive mixing board and hit a switch. I heard a thud at the door, followed by knocking. “I’m working, come back later,” my new hero yelled. He grinned at me. “Electric lock. Best piece of gear in the room!” I agreed. But no matter how much I reasoned, pleaded and begged I could never convince my General Manager back home that we needed one on our Production Room door.
Ah, the old days. So young, so stupid. Somehow I really thought that a lock on the production room door was going to make my production better. True, cutting down on the distraction would speed up the process. My day was filled with sales and announcers and management barging in as though the on-air light was a “Welcome, come on in” beacon. But isolation was not necessarily the key to quality.
I thought Production was supposed to be a lonely business. The most I was taught about Production at my first station was where the on switch was on the reel-to-reel. From there it was me and trial & error — heavy on the error. As time went by and I moved on and up, I thought it was easier to do it all: writing, voices, everything. I reasoned that I was THE Production Guy, I had the sound in my head, I should make it all happen. My ideas, my writing, my music choices, all the voices, me, Me, ME!
Thank God that understanding General Managers do walk the earth and that I had one at that station. He dropped by the production studio one afternoon. “I’d like you to bring up the station a minute,” he said. It was right at the beginning of a stop set. The first commercial featured me. Followed by, me. Then me, and finally… me. He smiled. I blushed. He walked out of the studio. And I began rethinking this business of Radio Production.
I had found the perfect tool to improve my production during my trip. It wasn’t a lock for the door; it was stepping through the door and making contact with another Creative soul. Getting it right, mixing down the final product is generally a solo process, but getting to that point doesn’t have to be.
It’s more than using voices other than your own on production projects; you work at a radio station, plenty of voices, no-brainer there. It’s the ideas, the training, the skills that only come from being a part of a community of like-minded Creatives that seemed hard to come by in the past. There’s less excuse than ever to go it alone. Your best tool is in your hands right now. Just look at all the people ready and willing to share in the RAP Network! With so many Internet forums, user groups and the like, it’s easy to find people in similar sized markets, using similar equipment, with similar issues to share ideas, successes and frustrations with. You’d also be surprised how many Creatives in larger markets would be happy to take time out of their day to listen to a demo politely MP3’ed to them by a young talent. Listen to their advice; apply their wisdom to your own bag of tricks.
Hiding behind a locked door might get you out of the building a few minutes earlier at night, but it’s not going to make you a better radio Creative. Open up, reach out, learn… and teach. And as far as the Production Room, the old jam the chair under the doorknob is an oldie but a goodie.