By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
It has been a wonderful run. About two decades ago, radio took an overdue step. It recognized that production had two areas of responsibility and expertise. While radio traditionally had one person designated as production director, it added another person and another title: Imaging Producer.
That system has worked well for a long time. Imaging producers thrived as the renegades who got to do the most creative work, who spoke to the audience in quick bytes (sweepers) and clever stories (promos). Except for morning shows, that was the most glamorous gig in radio and certainly had the most influence on the sound of the station. Good times, good work, good pay.
In recent years, imaging producers have suffered along with every other occupier of radio’s trenches. Lately, they have been faced with job eliminations, drastic pay reductions, outrageous workloads and precious little time to do anything too creative.
Indeed, the US is the hardest hit country of all for imaging producers. It used to be the land where so many incredible imaging pieces were created. The top imaging people in the US were imitated around the world for their technique, their copy, their passion and risk taking. You have to go no further than this year’s RAP Awards Finalists to realize that America is now looking up to Canada, Australia and the UK.
Of the 20 finalists for Small, Medium and Large Market promos, exactly none are from the US. Only a few years ago, a substantial majority were from the US. On the big stage of Feature Productions, the 2011 RAP Awards had one US finalist out of eight. Even the commercial categories in the RAP Awards were virtually devoid of American finalists.
Yes, there are factors like budgeting and the cost of entering the contest. And yes, the imaging work done in Canada, Australia and the UK is often fantastic. But there is ample evidence that you can only fire so many talented people, you can only squeeze the budget dry so many times before it has a profound effect on the quality of creative work. We have arrived at that sad truth.
At the same time this phenomenon is taking place, another one is in the works that is more hopeful. And yet, almost no one has recognized it. After an incredible 20 plus year run, the notion of Imaging Producers is less about the future and more about the past. The faster-than-ever information/entertainment age, the arrival of PPM and the sophistication of audiences make it imperative that we change once again.
Welcome to the next frontier: Content Producers. What does it mean? Who will fund it? Will I be alive when it comes to pass? The first question is the easiest. It is time that imaging is only part of the production puzzle. PPM does not require incessant identification of the station. To be sure, this staple of radio since the beginning of time has browbeaten more listeners than the five hour energy drink. Call letters, frequency and slogans are pretty much wasted content in that the listeners are already there.
A great promo is a joy to behold, especially for those of us in the industry. And exceptional promos still excite the audience’s imagination. But programmers are reluctant to give up much more than 20 or 30 seconds for any promo, and the sponsorships and rules and BS have taken so much of the creative canvas away from producers. A killer promo is something to kill for, especially in America, it seems.
In Australia, the term “Program Director” has been buried. That function is now called Content Director. It is an enlightened recognition that a radio station conveys content and not programs. Why it took so many years after “programs” ceased to exist is baffling. More baffling is that America still calls them program directors and might continue to do so after most of them have died.
So, let’s see. A Content Director should probably have a Content Producer, except, of course, that Content Directors haven’t yet come to the realization that content should be produced. Around the world, we rely on air personalities for that mission. Sometimes it works stunningly well, other times it is a bust. For great comedic stories, for interplay with listeners, for parasocial interaction, there is nothing like a really talented air personality.
But for efficiently and quickly imparting information and entertainment, air personalities are absolutely not the answer. Just time them. How long does it take an air personality to do a piece of trivia or an interesting short factoid? They have to prime it (giving it context), dance with it (to make it interesting) and comment on it (to give it their imprimatur). Something that could be produced in a cool, clever way and take seven seconds ends up taking 45 seconds or more. In the second decade of the 21st century, air personalities are not efficient conveyors of short infotainment. In this regard, they are more like anachronisms. And audiences are impatient enough to recognize that.
Enter the confident, well-armed Content Producer. He or she can create context (as in a killer quick shell), movement (with sounds and driving underlays) and a better experience for listeners who value their time and listen faster than any air personality is going to deliver these bits. And wait a minute. Here’s a crazy thought. These content bytes can be repeated in different shows. Many will be timeless, so they won’t be one and done. And the Content Directors can use their skills to decide when they should be aired and how they could be grouped. It is a Content Director’s dream called strategy. Air personalities will be better utilized for what they do well than what they don’t. Some air personalities will be reduced in scope or eliminated. Some will become Content Producers.
Content Producers will be the new cool. They will work with Content Directors and air personalities to create better, faster, more exciting radio. Audiences will have access to more information and entertainment in less time. The content of the station will get a big boost in that more of it will be enjoyed by non-core listeners. Content Producers will still be doing imaging, just less of it and hopefully remaining fresher.
But back to questions two and three. Who will fund it? Perhaps it’s a radio executive who is tired of merely talking the talk. Or some management type who decides that radio has nothing to lose by trying something based on rationality, creativity and efficiency. Or maybe it will be a radio group that just wants better ratings so they can make more money. In the end, it only takes one and who that is doesn’t matter.
And the final question, Will I be alive when it comes to pass? Hey, if radio can stop giving the call letters, frequency and slogan 26 times an hour, if Program Directors can be called Content Directors and act like it, if we can live in a Kardashian free society and Mick Jagger can tour hard at 68, then this is surely destined to happen in our lifetimes.