By Dave Foxx
Ever have “one of those days” when the stupidest little thing can really set you off? Today I’m rather peeved at myself for having delayed writing this column while I was away in Europe. Now that I’m settled in back in New York and actually putting words on this Word doc, I keep getting interrupted by stupid stuff like work. My deadline is already past so I’m having to rush a bit, even though I think this is a really important topic. Naturally, I keep getting phone calls and folks keep walking in with problems that need solving. I know when someone walks in behind me because the door squeaks. I’ve gotten in the habit of just calling out, “What?” Not a good thing when it’s the boss.
Anyway, I’ve just returned from a most marvelous experience in Holland, speaking to hundreds of radio folks in Hilversum at The Netherland’s “Radiodag” or Radio Days. For those who’ve never been there, just visiting Holland is a very special treat. The people are incredibly friendly and thanks in some part to American TV shows, most of them speak excellent English. The food is good, the cheese divine and the climate is usually a lot like Seattle. After the first day though, the clouds parted and we had glorious sunshine all week. But rather than give you a complete travelogue, I want to share with you what I spoke about over three different sessions with broadcast producers from all over the region. You will no doubt recognize bits and pieces of things I’ve written about before here; they form the base of what I consider to be the most important things you can know and use in radio production.
First, a little radio history from that part of the world: For those who saw Pirate Radio and paid attention, up until just several years ago, all legal broadcasting was completely controlled by the government. Typically, there was one news channel, one popular music channel, one or two classical music channels and very often, some kind of jazz channel. Those were the choices listeners had back then. Contrast that with the New York market today, where we have at least 65 broadcast channels competing for the ears of listeners. That doesn’t count all the sub-carrier channels that provide special services to small ethnic groups or reading for the blind, and now all the HD channels. Throw in Sirius/XM and the internet and the mind starts to grow numb. Out of the meager European offerings to the listening public in those days grew “pirate” radio stations, run by programmers who felt they could do so much more than what the government would or even could. A few of these stations operated offshore on ships like you saw in the movie, but more often the transmitter was carted around to various locations by a truck or van, set up and operated for a few hours and then packed up and moved again. I have a friend in Holland named Bart van Gogh (yes, he is related) who used to actually work on setups like that. He once told me that the work was exhausting, but entirely worth it.
Well, the governments of each country eventually decided they were spending way too much time chasing down these ‘pirates,’ and moved to limited commercial radio licenses. It’s still difficult in some countries to put up a stick and throw the switch, but broadcasting is quite a bit different today. As commercial radio became more viable, Europeans adored just about anything the American broadcast industry did and tried their best to imitate it. To a certain extent, that’s still true; just wearing my trusty Z100 Radio logo baseball cap gave me a certain Royal status at “Radiodag,” but I’m discovering a lot of really exciting radio programmers and producers across the Atlantic who are blazing their own trails, taking things far beyond what we know here in America. I heard some terrific radio in Hilversum on stations like 3FM, KINK, Sky Radio and Radio Veronica. Even though my Dutch is limited to a few important words, like, “bier” (beer), the energy and vitality of what they’re producing is very evident in every break.
So, it was in this atmosphere that I walked in and offered some insight on How To Get My Gig at Z100. Most of the attendees were young and hungry, anxious to leave their marks on radio in Holland, Belgium and the world. Some of them had been in radio less than a year and yet they were asking all the right questions.
So, what does it take to get my gig? I’m sure more than a few of you dear readers would be interested. It will happen, one day. The only question now is, will you be ready?
I began with emphasizing the importance of knowing your audience and how at Z100, we don’t give a range of ages for our target demo. Instead, we select ONE age. This opened the entire conversation about narrowing the focus to broaden the appeal. When your programming is laser focused on a 22-year-old female, nearly every young woman below that age wishes she were 22 and so will do the things that a 22-year-old does, like listen to Z100. On the other end of the spectrum are all the soccer moms we like to talk about so much. What do they wish? More often than not, it’s to be 22 again, so what do they listen to? Of course! When a radio station tries to be all things to all people, offending no one and pleasing everyone, they always end up pleasing no one and offending everyone with blandness.
Once you’ve set your focus correctly (whatever the age and gender), study your target. Go where they go. Experience what they experience. Figure out what they like and what they don’t like. Become your target demo. (To be honest, I still haven’t gotten my makeup and clothes just right, but I’m working on it!) If you can accomplish this, you will open so many possibilities for your creative production. It also allows you to sharpen your tools so each has maximum effect.
These 5 tools are the basic building blocks we all work with every day.
COPY – Learn to write radio copy. The secret to writing good radio copy is simple. ALWAYS write dialogue! Even if it’s a one-sided conversation, make certain it’s a dialogue between you and your target. Write the words you would use in a conversation. This will always eliminate stupid catch phrases we all see in copy all the time like, “15 convenient locations,” or using phone numbers over and over and over again. Seriously, taken from the listener’s standpoint, only ONE of the locations will be convenient, and how many times do you give your phone number to one person?
VOICE – You do NOT need a “big-boy” voice like mine to be a good announcer. In my opinion, the best announcers have very normal sounding voices, but they are expressive to the extreme. They don’t sound like they’re reading, they don’t use 50¢ words when 5¢ words do the job and they don’t force their voice into any range other than where they normally speak.
MUSIC – I cannot tell you how many people I know in the business who don’t really care for the music they use in their presentations. They will somehow imagine that since their demo likes it, they need to use it, but if they were producing for themselves, they wouldn’t ever go near that genre. Country springs to mind. It’s almost always true that the best producers, in any format, love the music they work with. They respect it, like it and would probably listen to it on their own at home or on vacation. Additionally, they understand the music they work with -- how it’s constructed, de-constructed and re-constructed as they work with it. (Side note: If you ever take a job on a station that plays music you don’t know and love, you’d better learn to love it quickly or you will be out of a job sooner than you’d like and that could kill your career.)
EFFECTS – Natural sound effects that you’d use in a cut scene are something most everyone understands innately. It’s the electronic sound effects we’re all so enamored of that need special handling. As fun for you as that massive synth glissando might be in the middle of your promo, it had better be just as exciting for the listener. Electronic sound effects need to support the music and message, not replace them. If you strive to make your effects add emphasis or impact to your work, rather than have them be the whole reason the piece exists, you’ll be miles ahead of the game. Today’s audience likes things that are more organic, not less.
SILENCE – Every religious text I know of makes a big point of the fact that without darkness, light would not exist. Without hate, there would be no love. It’s an odd way to look at it, but things lose their meaning when their opposite number is eliminated. Words without silence between each become a meaningless jumble of sound. Add more silence and their meaning becomes more profound. Pay attention to the silence. It can be the most powerful tool you have in your arsenal. If you really want to emphasize something in a spot or promo, stop the music and effects, stop talking and let the silence stretch out a bit. The next few words will be the most memorable words in your work… every time.
If you can master those five tools, you are 95% of the way along to my gig, or one like it in a major market. The last 5% will only happen through NETWORKING. Spend a couple of hours every week building your own network. Use whatever means you can to reach out to people in the business, regardless of their stature. When I first came to New York nearly 25 years ago, it was through someone I knew. So many of the people I met when I first came to New York were just as green as I was. They were phone ops, show producers, assistants to the big names and otherwise in low-level positions, but in the intervening years have become major players themselves. Right offhand I can think of several. One phone op I met back then went on to program several major market radio stations; another became the CEO of a major record label. One assistant I met back then is now managing one of the best known, all-purpose venues in New York and around the world. Every one of them will tell you the same thing. The gig they’re in now was through someone they knew.
There you have it. The formula you need to hang your name on my door. Oh, and when you get here, do me a favor and see if you can remember to bring a can of WD-40 for that stupid squeak!
For my sound this month, I’ve chosen a promo that makes the most of each of the five tools, I think. It’s about a woman who practically lived in the tabloids for a few years, but recently decided she needed to get her career on track again. Against all odds, she has done it, and in a very short time. Like many, I assumed Britney Spears’ career was pretty much done. Every week for years, it seemed like she was splashed over the front of the tabloids. Her career was seemingly ended by a long string of drug busts, bad relationships, poor parenting stories and one episode where she shaved her head. Now look at her. One number one song after another from her new album, a wildly successful tour and suddenly she is again one of the premier singer/songwriters and performers of the world. I always call re-imaging a radio station “pulling a Madonna,” because she did that every few years for a long time. If I ever am asked to salvage a heritage radio station through imaging, I think I’ll call it “pulling a Britney.”