By Trent Rentsch
Our Program Director recently asked me to teach one of our fledgling Producers “how to make a promo.” Outside: a smile, a nod, and a, “Sure, no problem.” Inside: “How the hell do I do that?” I didn’t mean how do I teach it, but more importantly, how do I create promos?
I don’t ask that question lightly. The mechanics are obvious enough. A script is written, audio drops are found, the voice-over is laid down, music and sound effects are added… Houston, we have mixdown. Small variations to the routine may occur, but it really is that cut and dried. Except, it’s not. Not really.
Last week saw the end of the Michael Peterson murder trial in Durham, NC. Mr. Peterson was accused of beating his wife to death with what the Prosecution suspected was a fireplace tool, although no murder weapon was found. Peterson insisted that he had found his wife dying at the bottom of the steps in their home, the victim of a fall. The trial lasted for three months. All told, both sides introduced over 800 pieces of evidence and 65 witnesses. The Prosecution suggested that Peterson may have played out an eerily similar murder in Germany in 1985, and further implied that the murder of his wife in 2001 may have been tied to Peterson’s apparent homosexual activities. The Defense attempted to downplay Peterson’s contact with a male escort, prove that his wife couldn’t have been beaten with a blow poke, and successfully established that one of the Prosecution’s expert witnesses had perjured himself by lying about his professional associations. The jury was subjected to several opposing lessons in blood spatter, video and animated recreations of the possible fall, and the “discovery” of the missing, unbent blow poke… not to mention several examples of courtroom theatrics from the attorneys. In the end, the jury deliberations lasted 15 hours over 5 days and Peterson was found guilty of the crime, and barring appeals will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
You may have heard about the case, Lord knows that the national media picked up on it early, and Court TV provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial. From start to finish the trail became top story material for the media outlets in Raleigh/Durham. It became rare to hear a newscast on our station that didn’t include at least a mention of the trial, and when the verdict was read we preempted everything to air it live. Not long after, the Program Director called me into work early to produce a “proof of performance” promo about our coverage of the case. When I arrived at the station he added the request to teach the newbie “how to make a promo.”
99% of my career I have been frustrated by short turnarounds and no studio to complete them in. That day gave me my 1% of relief. It didn’t take long to see that the usual Friday production scramble had been complicated by the need to re-do some weekend news programming, and that the only way I was going to get a promo done was to throw the work parts on my thumb drive and crank it out in my home studio. Minutes later I was waving the novice Producer goodbye, with a promise to show her the promo ropes another time. Whew! Alone to make the promo happen without someone peering over my shoulder asking me how.
I’ve always believed in sharing the wealth. If one Creative shows another a different spin that they never knew before, the other Producer gets better, as does the sound of their station. In the long run, sharing and teaching makes the industry better. Which is why I would’ve been happy to show her how I create promos, if I only knew how myself.
I could show her the aforementioned mechanics of it all, that’s simple enough. I could go on to mention that I’m listening to the raw audio of the event to find the pieces that tell the story, that while I listen to the words I’m listening for the beat that will tell me what music I will use, what sound effects I will use to punctuate the most important parts of the story. I could blather on like that for hours, but that nagging “how” will still be left unanswered.
It happened sometime after several years in the business. It happened after listening to hundreds of others production pieces. And it happened after hundreds of hours of trial and error and blood, sweat and tears. At some point the tumblers fell into place, and it all clicked. Somehow, I know what I’m listening for, what will work, what will not. And while the final result is still never good enough for me, when I work on a piece of Creative, I know what’s right and what’s wrong.
So maybe I do know the how. It’s all about time and hard work, like anything else worth achieving in this life. If you think that I believe that there is an ambiguous Creative magic that can’t be taught, that comes from personal experience… guilty as charged.