By Steve Pigott

After recently recruiting a team of producers for Pure Tonic Media, an unsuccessful “25 year production veteran” was hot on the reply button, with a very interesting perspective: “radio production hasn’t changed; we’re doing exactly the same things we were doing 20 years ago.” This guy really got me thinking on how people perceive the imaging on a radio station. Is it just simply there as a function? Or is it there for a purpose? I’m thinking the latter, but I guess there really is no right or wrong answer. More importantly, is our life as an imaging producer really that limited? Is there a time in years to come, when I’ll just be past it and give up?

Gone are the days when you were considered to have a skill by mixing different audio tracks together. Anyone can do it now; multi-track editors now ship as standard on most computers, and everyone seems to be at it. Let’s face it, by playing around in Adobe Audition for an hour most of earth’s inhabitants could EQ a voice, and layer it over a music bed. Things like “Garage Band” have even enabled “tone deaf” people to become music producers. Tasks that used to take a day with a razor blade can now be done in 5 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with that — it’s technology, it’s inevitable. In another 20 years, I can’t dream to imagine what we’ll be working with — a touch-screen Pro Tools wired directly to the ear canal? Maybe even automated imaging where a computer eliminates our jobs all together!

Let’s face it, we all understand the foundations of audio production, as well as constantly learning new techniques and experimenting with bizarre plug-ins; we can all make something that sounds half decent in minutes. The real skill however is making it entertaining and relevant.

I guess where I’m going on this, is there isn’t just a “radio producer” anymore. There’s a whole bunch of talented people who are great in different areas. Personally, I’d rather have a guy on my team who has an imagination than someone who is technically brilliant. To a certain extent, you can teach them techniques and EQ settings, but you can’t teach someone to be creative. It all comes down to what is more important, connecting with your listeners through creative imaging, or simply producing a bunch of sweepers that are clinically perfect.

If you really think far enough into it, there aren’t actually any rules to radio imaging, or probably better phrased; there shouldn’t be any rules. Personally, my view on the whole thing is that it has to connect and relate with your audience, yet still maintain and re-enforce your stations brand and identity.

I just turned 24, which in our field is probably still considered very young. But think about it, I am almost out of a youth station’s target audience! How can I make sure what I’m kicking out of the radio is relevant to a 15-24 year old?

Maybe we should all spend a day in the life of our listeners, and really get a feel for what’s going on. These are the guys who make the whole station’s existence worthwhile. What are they doing? What are they talking about? What are they buying? Who do they love in the world, and who’s annoying them?

Someone emailed me recently from a big AC station in the UK, and said they really liked the topicality of my work, but also said, “I could never do anything creative like that on my station.” Why can’t you? You don’t have to produce it in the same way. Your listeners may be 20 years older than the listeners on my station, but they still have interests and have a lifestyle. Movie’s like The Da Vinci Code and reality TV are all still relevant to an AC audience. It’s the way that you produce it that will make it fit.

I’ve done a lot of work recently for the “Commercial Radio Network.” This is a relatively new concept in the UK, where certain big radio groups join together to broadcast an event or contest (for example, the Live 8 concerts last year). This results in 90% of UK radio broadcasting exactly the same thing. How the hell do you make imaging fit on every single UK radio format?

Have a listen to “The UK Music Week Chart” imaging on the RAP CD, a short example of work that has come out of Pure Tonic since launching last year. The UK Music week stuff is a prime example of relating imaging to a specific project. This imaging needed to be relatively “safe” in the fact that it needed to fit comfortably on pretty much every station. The tricky part was making it fun and entertaining. As the show’s main focus was to showcase great British music, I decided that the imaging should too, but not in a conventional way. Every ident in the show used clips of famous UK music in such a way that the song lyrics were edited to create the positioning statements.

OK, so it took hours to listen through decades of Brit classics to find specific lyrics, but in the end, we created a package that fit with the quirkiness of the show, and really defined the show’s objective… to celebrate great British Music.

Listening around the world of radio, there are millions of stations that pretty much sound the same. We’re all playing the same records; even our presenters are similar. This creates a great potential for us guys in the production studio to really make a difference to the station. How do we keep up with what’s relevant as we get older? When we get older than our target audience, is it time to move on and hit the oldies station? Or do we really try hard and keep up with the culture? I guess I’ll find out in a few years.

I think I speak for a lot of producers when I say that our jobs have taken over our lives. There isn’t a movie that I don’t watch, where subconsciously I’m making a list of drops I can use in the next promo, or even listening to music and thinking, “god, that would make a great bed,” or even reading newspapers and magazines and thinking how I can transform popular culture and current affairs into my work.

Unfortunately, our jobs aren’t just as simple as sitting in a studio and making great sounding audio. It’s much much much more than that. Your radio station has an identity, a point of view and even its own personality.

So I guess the actual question I’m asking is: Am I destined to keep reading trashy celebrity magazines that my girlfriend buys each week, and watching soap operas until I’m 65? Unless I win the lottery, then yes, I guess so. It’s part of my job.

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