Back to Basics (...or All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Radio!)

903-Elliot-picBy Don Elliot

This is about some basics we’ve all forgotten about, mixed in with some philosophies and observations that’ll help put you ahead in today’s “every man for himself, while we call it teamwork” corporate scenarios.

Remember the book, “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten”? With a bow and some apologies to author Robert Fulghum, here is a Don Elliot twist on the elements of it:

1.) Be aware of wonder. “Don’t run with scissors,” run with an idea! (To be creative, brainstorm!)

2.) Share (not just cume). Be nice to each other.

3.) Use protection, record with a limiter. (Take an engineer to lunch.)

4.) Digital Golden Rule: Don’t take things that aren’t yours (Napster, copyright, and Fair Use).

5.) Let it evolve.

6.) Dance like there’s no one watching. (Focus. Get into the moment, or zone, of a performance.)

7.) When you go into the station, watch out for Traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

abcPre-"amble":

I’m probably not supposed to be telling you what I’m going to tell you. I’ve been asked to sign multiple page releases and waivers not to deal with the trades, publishing, or talk about “trade secrets” as interpreted unilaterally by “them,” the “party of the first part.” Not sayin’ who, but if you, the reader, are taking this personally as a corporate citizen with whom I worked, don’t be too sure it is YOU about whom I refer — at least out loud. The following references to persons living or dead are purely fictitious and entirely coincidental! Or, as Shakespeare once observed, “Methinks thou protests too loudly!” (Self-conscious self-admission of guilt.) So if you’re guilty, stay anonymous, shut up, read and learn something!

But since I wasn’t going to get paid what I felt it was worth to sign those releases, I didn’t... and therefore, I can tell you anything that I feel like telling you. Corporations are very afraid of people like us, because they think they should be able to quantify and control us. The truth is that they can, only if we are intimidated enough to give them that power. Aha... do you see what I am saying? You have to give them permission to do this to your mind. So, you see, you are in control after all. And one of the enemies of creativity is negative stress, feeling that one has no control over their destiny or even small day-to-day functions. Positive, enjoyable work-stress is an entirely different matter. Never let someone else hold all the options, no matter what it is!

Remember Jack Palance as Curly in City Slickers, when asked by Billy Crystal the secret of life? His response: “Just one thing.” To which Billy asks, “What’s that?” Curly says, “That’s for you to figure out.”

Or Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), being asked by Johnny Carson, “Truman, what is the secret of life?” “Ahh,” replies Capote, “the secret of life is... never getting the carrot!”

My business card reads, “Itinerant French Hornist and Production Guru.” Because it says “what I amsk.” The assistant to my own creative guru at a station where I once worked had a card that read, “Playground Director.” Why the hell not? “Production Manager” means nothing if I can’t hire and fire, or spend $25 on a magazine subscription without someone else approving it. So let’s cut the crap and call it what it is... whatever it is! Unless titles are functional, there is no respect, internal jealousy fires are fanned, and the false perceptions go on until we can be the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and recognize what it is.

Find out where your aptitude lies. Where is your niche? Is it voice? Is it production? Imaging? Commercials? Working with clients? On-air? Engineering? Perhaps it’s in the depth of detail required in retail — sales, operations, continuity. Find out and then run with it.

Always keep striving to improve. Keep learning. Raise the bar. Don’t compromise your standards. Don’t be satisfied with “adequate or good enough” if it doesn’t carry your brand of quality.

1) BE AWARE OF WONDER

Where do ideas come from? What is creative? Well, creative in our end of the woods is something that is different, useful and saleable. There really is an unlimited supply of this creativity, believe it or not. Our challenge is in problem-solving — coming up with finding the solution for the client’s needs, often complicated by the fact that they often themselves don’t know! Tell me as a client what you want the audience to feel about your product, and I’ll write you a spot to make them feel it. This entire area is meat for other articles, but it opens the door here at least to lay down a couple of basic rules of what “brainstorming” truly is all about.

Most people shudder in fear over the suggestion that “there will be an 11 a.m. brainstorming session in the conference room” with everyone “invited.” (You’d BETTER be there!) And what typically ensues is an exchange of one-upmanship, criticism, people waiting their turn to drop in their big idea, and some huddling by the timid for fear of being called on!

True brainstorming demands a group rule that says there are no BAD ideas, and that a safe-haven for contribution prevails in this “sanctuary” for creative time. Rule number one is for the group as a whole to withhold judgment in this phase. The thing to do now is to generate as many ideas, as DIVERGENT as possible. I say "table;" the next person may say "chair." Fine. The really valuable input often comes from the right-brained people in the session who may say “moon” instead of “chair.” It is the steps along the way to “moon” that reveal useful information to the goal. When enough information is extracted in this session, the next phase is one of CONVERGENCE, or filtering out and assembling ideas adaptable or relevant to the “problem-owner,” usually the client.

Sid Parnes has carried on the work in brainstorm techniques originally pioneered by Osborne, the “O” in BBD&O Advertising years ago, using this method. Their group is called CPSI, The Creative Problem Solving Institute (http://cef-cpsi.org), which holds weeklong dawn-to-midnight (and beyond) seminars and groups on the technique. Much of the method is outlined at Project Renaissance by Win Wenger (www.winwenger.com), author of The Einstein Factor. Win runs high think-tank method on how to dispose of nuclear waste. I’d say he’s “in the zone” much of the time.

Invariably, great ideas often happen upon awakening, getting out of the shower, driving, weeding the garden, or mundane chores. Racking the brain during a “writer’s block” never really works. Go for a walk. Wonder a lot. Putting something aside so that the subconscious may work on it is usually the solution, as things will come to mind when you least expect them when using this technique.

To be creative, wonder and brainstorm! “Don’t run with scissors” by trying to force something by a formula, instead, do it with feeling and run with an idea!

2) SHARE

Be nice to each other! Come up with standard routines where each person using the studio understands the technical standard operating procedures. More Kindergarten stuff: “Put things back where you found them”, etc.

Be sure everyone is interchangeable in their knowledge and use of the systems and programs in place. If Fred likes Cool Edit and Joe likes ProTools or Saw, there’s nothing to prevent anyone from using their favorite tool if there is across-the-board compatibility in being able to move, store and read files, etc., such as a server or big networked hard drives.

Share the Wonder

It is absolutely unpredictable where new talent may spring from. But unless we foster the idea, share the wonder, and encourage internships that actually teach instead of using interns as slave labor to stuff envelopes, we will be hard-pressed to find the next big talent to develop.

I am admittedly somewhat of an elitist, and I continue in wanting to raise the bar to bring up the entire industry, with a deep, internal disgust for the word “adequate.” Because competition is so keen and jobs are so scarce, one must have the talent and drive to win opportunities. Where is the next Gary Owens, Rick Dees, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger to come from if we stand idly by thinking and hoping that “someone else will do it”?

Some of my Jesuit teachers had it right, although I didn’t think so at the time in the impatience of my youth. They would not allow radio majors to work in the college station until their Junior year. The theory was that with a broad liberal education that they would have more to talk about than “time and temperature.”

My philosophy of teaching the business? It’s the same as programming a radio station. Radio is an escape (or it should be). It is entertainment (or it should be). It is creative (or it should be). Shouldn’t our interns be the ones who make it what it should be?

We should teach teambuilding, survival in corporate environments, and competing – all at the same time! We should teach overviews, the “big picture,” how Production is about Punctuation and Flow, and how it gives the station its image, how technical sound and operation is just as much a part of the image picture as is the concept of promotion. We should teach the programming strategy of “competing with one’s self,” that is, knowing our own turf, thinking what could be done against us that might undermine our strength or position, and how to do it here first! It’s done by imagining you had just been hired to go across the street to program against the station you now work for!

Focus

By the way, Multi-Task while you’re at it — although this sounds contradictory, like talking on a cell phone while driving. But in this case, you can control the elements and work faster. The competition for your attention will at worst just be the “plink” sfx of an arriving email instead of a Mack truck on the wrong side of the freeway headed squarely at you.

To “simplify” my life, I use to a dual-monitor display open at all times to handle my email, CD-burning, client dubs and copy. A second PC was my multi-track recorder, so that I don’t have to tear down a project at someone else’s disorganized whim. And finally, the fourth screen is an automation monitor. To that, add a 360 and their two-track editor for quick voice-tracking “gun and run” stuff for when a talent flies in with yet another unannounced “deadline.” A patchable area sits unobstructed for easy plug-in access from MD recorders that come in from the field, or anything else you might need to patch in.

It’s a funny thing, this work-focus/passion situation. How many times have you ever been at home and unable to concentrate, with TV, spouse or kids commanding a piece of your brain, yet take an even more demanding situation at work under deadline stress, interruptions and changing priorities as is often the case? Yet, in the deep focus of the moment, a bomb could go off and you would not hear it! So that you will relate more closely, consider how an actor blocks out distractions when delivering the performance; consider the jazz musician who performs in musical improv, pieces of wonderment that come flying out of their instrument from “they-know-not-where,” but simply from the groove of being “in-the-moment” and tightly focused. It’s the same as that moment of exhilaration of a dynamite winning streak or succession of scores in sports competition, and the satisfaction of nursing a creative spark through to an end in writing and producing a piece in its totality. That kind of flow can become almost unstoppable. It’s practically a high, and nurtured by a hip boss or director, can drive talent to their full potential.

3) USE PROTECTION

Why buy a $100 microphone and then spend $3000 on outboards and plug-ins to fix the sound in an attempt to get it to sound like a $2000 microphone? Brian Tracy, motivational speaker, makes a lot of sense when he says, “If the benefit of an item is greater than the COST, then it’s FREE.” Think about it; what a wonderful way to show your boss how to justify what was formerly narrowly viewed as an expenditure rather than an asset! You can probably relate to how difficult it gets these days asking for money for some needed piece of gear in the studio. It is often viewed as if you were going to take it home with you, or that it was not for the good of the company. If you find yourself in this “inside the box,” narrow view of the world by a person over you with power but no vision, look at it from his position and show him how it will make him look good with HIS boss. Basically, you are putting yourself in his shoes.

A lot of us in a radio station have to record by going through an older analog board to get into the soundcard of the computer. This is the standard setup arranged by something out of your control in most cases.

Take an Engineer to Lunch

Take the bull by the horns and convince your engineer that he’ll look good too if he can make the sound cleaner, cheaply! If he can either give you a “direct out” from the board, or (even better) spend minimal bucks on something like a Mackie mixer to feed your computer input, you are then minimizing the amount of junk in the chain between you and the soundcard. With one notable exception: I feel it’s a real good idea, given the unpredictability of talent performance, to have an in-line processor ahead of the computer after the microphone — NOT FOR EFFECT, but for PROTECTION. In fact, if you can hear it, it’s too much. When Mike Dorrough, (the DAP Discriminate Audio Processor multi-band limiters) built one of the first really transparent limiters I ever heard, he told me that he used to get snide remarks from the “unwashed” buyer who would say, “By God I paid $2000 for a limiter; I want to HEAR $2000 worth of limiting.” Well, the point is that you want the transmitter (hear, the computer soundcard) to see something neatly leveled and processed, while at the same time the human ear saying, “Golly, I don’t hear any processing.”

Limiter-Compressor 101

Compressor theory is an easy thing to understand if it’s explained properly to you. A slight, say, three-to-one (3:1) ratio setting on the compressor’s controls means that when there is a 3 db change on the input, there will be only a 1 db change on the output, also thereby keeping the output’s waveform roughly resembling that of the original as well! Now, let’s say I set it up for 8:1 or beyond! Then that is when it called “brick-walling,” where an 8 db change at the input will only cause a 1 db change measured at the output, which in this case, feeds our recording device — the sound card of your computer!

I like to set up a compressor’s inputs for a high threshold, just in the line for protection, but keep the ratio above 8 to 1 so that it will “brick-wall” into what is known as limiting if somebody gets uncontrollably hot! Fast attack and slow release settings will also contribute to the desired result.

When recording hot, as some of you undoubtedly know now in the digital world, there is no “PLUS 3” in the red. Many of us make 0 VU on the mixer correspond to -18 on the input of our digital devices in order to allow some headroom. You hit a full bit set and you just crunch it all up and can never get the undistorted sound back no matter what! Now if it were a perfect world, you could keep an eye on levels and just record lower. The other side of the coin says to just record lower like we did in the analog world. Well, that’s a mixed bag too, as too low a level will net you a noisy little artifact at the other end of the scale called “quantization error.” So double vigilance is the key here. The limiter-compressor setup above alleviates this responsibility and assures you of getting more usable takes on-the-fly in under-pressure environments, such as radio. And guess what that frees you up for additionally? Creativity!

4) DIGITAL GOLDEN RULE

Where “stuff” comes from:

One of the more challenging feats facing the production person of today is staying legal with music and production material. Jay Rose in a recent article, “Copy Rites” in DV (Digital Video Magazine), reminds us clearly of what I’d like to call The Digital Golden Rule on Fair Use: chances are, according to the legal advice website Nolo.com, “A use that takes money out of anybody’s pocket probably isn’t a fair use.”

5) LET IT EVOLVE

People, and continuing to learn.

Once in a while, you will feel that you have learned everything you can in your present surroundings. There is a point where the student sometimes becomes the teacher! But as a point of practicality, one cannot always simply uproot and take wing if he is not financially independent. So biting the bullet and figuring out another way to go is mandatory here, not only for sanity, but survival. About once a month, I got to the point where I just HAD to go hang out with people smarter than me or I thought I would lose my mind! This self-realization would invariably come from repeated sessions with the same salespeople who insisted on getting 32 lines of wide-margined miniature type into 60 seconds. After one of these particular experiences during which the youngest minority salesgirl was schtupping the boss to back her illogical credibility, I plunked myself down on Chuck Blore’s couch at lunchtime and lamented over her “trade secrets.”

Chuck said, “I never wrote a spot over :55 seconds long.” Forget engaging brain; without analyzing the gem of wisdom he had just imparted, I quickly retorted, “whuddya mean? We run 60s.” He explained that by the time you’re done with it, it’d be60, giving you time for an effect or two, some interpretation of the copy, a better read, etc., etc.

Or I’d call Shadoe Stevens or Dick Orkin and say, “heeelllp! I need a sense refill.” Often I’d just go for a walk on the beach or shore up reservations for the next convention, or sell some music rights, just something to break the rhythm of the madness.

Remember, no matter at what stage of your career you find yourself, there is always someone dumber and someone smarter than yourself. Pay it forward. Pass on what you know to those coming up; you OWE it to them.

On Negotiating

In political situations, use time as your friend, and often the next day an additional alternative always shows itself — a fork in the road. (In negotiation, it lets you retain power and also makes the other side absolutely NUTS.)

6) DANCE LIKE THERE'S NO ONE WATCHING

Get into the moment, or zone, of a performance. Keep a couple of simple things in mind as an attitude or philosophy. (If you’re thinking too much about this or anything else, you won’t be able to perform to the best of your ability.)

1) Figure out what the writer had in mind.

2) Get thoughts of headphones, EQ, forcing your voice, clearing your throat, thinking of how you sound, etc., out of your head; concentrate instead on the WHAT of what you are saying, and the HOW TO will take care of itself!

3) Leo Burnett used to say, “become the client.” My twist on that is, “be the butcher,” a little method acting. Stop oral reading techniques, and for a moment, BE somewhere, BE someone else, and above all, pick out a person. That’s right “A” person, not a “ladies and gentlemen” target with whom to speak and communicate in your mind! When I used to just “not get it” in the studio, Chuck Blore used to hand me a telephone receiver when I was doing a spot where I was on one side of a phone call. It really made a difference. It flipped my switch. The best direction is often non-verbal like that. When you are “in the zone,” you are in the moment, and your read is much better!

4) “All we are saaaa-ying... is give zone a chaaaance!”

7) WHEN YOU GO INTO THE STATION, WATCH OUT FOR TRAFFIC

For years, I have said that being a number one radio station isn’t a result of setting unattainable goals, like the mandates of “Zero Errors” or “Don’t Screw Up, Or You’re Gone” style of Phear-losophies. But rather, it comes easiest as the result of a whole lot of little 1%’s! They all add up to a hundred percent, and with that comes accountability for your own area of expertise!

Here are some ways you can contribute to that end.

Establish a Policy “Manual” for your department. One of the biggest things missing in today’s corporate environment is ACCOUNTABILITY. Oh, they’re trying, all right, and if you sign on to this bandwagon, you’ll not only beat the right drum, but they just might make you the Drum Major, if you’re up for the gig!

Remember the expression “follow the money,” or even “show me the money”? Same idea; look at how the wagons are being circled now at the top. Consistency and accountability in budget, affidavit reporting, more control of barter and trade and its documentation (before that subject becomes something even bigger than payola in hitting the fan). So standardization of accounting programs is the wave of the future in order for better corporate control and consistent reporting. Nowhere is this more crucial than in a publicly held corporation, which must present accurate information in their annual reports.

I’m Just a Bill

Establish your own local in-house standards and practices “operating manual,” standard operating procedures to be followed in the life of a spot. (Remember Schoolhouse Rock's “How a Bill Becomes a Law”?) This can and should be as brief and to the point as possible, routing the beginnings and tracking a spot’s progress along the “factory” assembly-line, when the salesperson first picks up the telephone, through concept of the spot, and all the way through to the moment when the “start” switch is pushed to play the spot on the air for the first time – concept to completion! (Andrew Grove once drew this analogy as his “Egg Factory” at Intel.)

You will be amazed to find all the places where something can go wrong along the way. And the further along the conveyor belt “it” travels, one must consider how the more valuable it becomes. You could almost track progress with a routing slip or recording order showing approval. It’s no less than amazing how many spots get recorded or sometimes even AIRED without final approval by the client, and is then followed (justifiably so) with requests for make-goods. It is at this point that searches begin for scapegoats, and the “he-said, she-said” finger-pointing that goes on. I’ve actually had multiple instances where a $2500 per spot production — due to air the following hour — was sidelined to accommodate a smaller (no ratings) pecking order station in the cluster’s perceived position of food-chain importance in commandeering the use of a studio for a spot that would not run for days later and only a few hundred dollars total run!

When there is a requirement for paperwork before a machine is turned on or a studio is assigned, then there is accountability!

Imagine having a solution for all that and getting the backing of management to make it all happen! But beware of the manager who is of the “mommy, mommy, look at me” persuasion when he/she deals with Corporate. I do not fault the owners of major corporations who feel that most problems must be handled at the local level, as I do blame the plight of selfish middle-management which competes with one another in their cost-cutting and cutthroat tactics to make themselves look good to “mommy…” er, mother Corporate!

Stay in harmony with the corporate goal of accountability. Someone’s violation of that accountability is your only excuse for bucking the “chain-of-command” in protecting your own interests. And when your interests and goals are in harmony with the company’s, who do you think is going to come out on top? It’s win-win to climb on board with this philosophy. You can’t tell me that the accounting departments are the only departments that know how to deal with Accountability! Learn a lesson from where this area focuses and transpose the lesson to your own immediate area of responsibility.

Be Organized; Prioritize!

Lay out your day the night before so that when you stumble in the next day, you can hit the ground running while others are acting busy “BS-ing” or waiting for the caffeine to hit.

Re-prioritize hourly to fit the changing needs of the day and your schedule. You’ll have some days where the only things you get done are the “number ones.” What’s wrong with that? You’re way ahead of most people; what does it say about you if you straightened out the kinks in all the phone cords in the building but didn’t get the spot on that airs the next hour? You’d probably be ready to audition as Adrian Monk’s understudy.

CONCLUSION

Let’s go way beyond everything you really needed to know being learned in Radio.

Uncommon Common Sense might tell us that in most cases, “the opposite is also true.”

Some just simply learn the hard way. Ever notice the tendency among many of us to try out a new electronic product or computer program without reading the manual? And after the first mistake, you have learned the hard way not to try that method again. And it is usually retained faster than following the manual, even though the answer was there all the time in that manual. So it is with the kindergarten analogy; most of what you need to know to succeed in radio not only was learned in Kindergarten, but since that was at such an elementary level and still is not even being applied by today’s managers, what we should learn is that WE SHOULD NEVER STOP LEARNING!

You don’t have to be anything like Mensa to get into CPSI; they’ll take you as they find you, although you will probably find a lot of other Mensa people in it. I think I got irritated while writing this article when it occurred to me that we all sometimes can’t understand why we end up working for people who are less intelligent. To their credit I must say that those who consciously hire better people to get the job done are secure enough in their own right to use this wisdom to make the team succeed. Unfortunately, this is about 20% of the time. The default is that around 80% of us end up working for others who rule their roost with Unconscious Incompetence. That means “you don’t know and you don’t know you don’t know!”

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