R.A.P. Interview: John Silliman Dodge

JV: Your “Managing Creativity” workshop is geared towards the PDs and among other things helps them manage and motivate the creative people in the building. What’s one thing you find that many PDs overlook about their in-house creative person, or one thing that you try to get across about getting the most out of their prod guy?
John: A lot of Program Directors haven’t figured out the mathematics of radio yet. They’ll have all of these promo concepts that they want to get across, and they’ll run to the Production Director and say, “We need a promo for A, B, C, D, and E.” Now, forget the fact that this Production Director in the 21st century probably has more than one station to produce – some of these guys, as many as five – and there’s that much work times five, plus the commercial work, so all of this workload goes up, but hands to do the work don’t go up commensurately.

But the Program Directors who get it understand that in order to create big impact, you run fewer promos more frequently. There’s a system well known in sales called, ‘optimal effective scheduling’ that shows you in a very clear and simple math model the proper number of times to run any message — whether it’s a promo or a commercial or whatever – any message on your radio station in order for three impressions to be reached by the average listener. That turns out to be the magic number: three times and the listener’s got it. And when you run the math on most stations, that equals a pretty high number for any one promo, higher than most PDs are able to stomach because they think, “No way am I running this thing like 45 times a week on my radio station.”

So they’ll ask their producer to make six different promos for six different things, and run each one of them nine times, which sounds like a lot, but when they do the math they find that they’re not even penetrating 15% into their core audience, and they’ve just wasted everybody’s time in the process. So if I were managing up, and that is the art of subtlety managing your own boss, I would make sure that the Production Director, 1) had enough time to do a good job – a really good job, meaning interesting, fresh perspective, not just recycling the same old lasers and blasters that we’ve heard since 1981 – a good job with each message, and then, 2) that the Program Director would schedule that message enough so that everybody in the audience could hear it at least three times.

JV: I’m so glad you bring that up. I’ve often wondered what that formula is and what that number is.
John: You take your cume and you divide it by your average quarter hour. Let’s say your cume is 100,000 and your average quarter hour audience is 10,000. That’s a factor of 10, which is the turnover ratio, or the number of times the station turns over or recycles its audience in a week. You multiply 10 by 3.29, which the cognitive researchers tell us is the number of times people need to hear a message in order for it to register. And that gives you the number of times you need to run a message in a given week.

JV: That’s so important, but how many times have we all heard PDs say, “That promo is old. It’s not fresh anymore. Cut a new one,” and in my mind, I’m thinking, “You know? I bet the audience is just starting to get it.” It’s the same thing with music. Jocks get sick of a song just about the time the audience decides it’s their favorite song.
John: Right. We have our heads so far up in Private Idaho sometimes that we forget how listeners use the radio station. I mean, the average time spent listening is a well-known number. The PD should make that number known to everybody in the radio station so that we understand that we’re inside, drinking this Kool-Aid 24/7, but the average guy on the street, what’s he with us? Two hours a day?

JV: You also have the “High Performance Writing” workshop geared towards writers and producers. Tell us a little about that, and what our readers could expect to gain from this workshop if they were to take it.
John: Well, I have always known that when you strip away all of the sound effects and all of the sonic tricks, you are left with the most fundamental instrument we have, and that’s the single human voice. And as they say in the theatre business, “It ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” So writing is the single most important skill in radio, and not only is it undervalued, it’s way underdeveloped.

I don’t know any Production Directors off the top of my head who go in with a writing background. It’s something they pick up along the way, and that’s good, but what I try to do with this course is break that down. It’s very much a writing fundamentals workshop. I’ve been a writer all my life, and what I did was go back and digest all of the great works about writing and distill this into one really tight little package.

There’s a handful of books on the subject that I recommend. Rather than give you a bibliography, people who are interested in that short list of great books can drop me a line [at john@sillimandodge.com] and I’ll send them the list, because there isn’t any one single one that I would say, “If you can’t read anything, just read this.” Some of it is really fundamental – the old Strunk & White book, which is probably all of 60 pages long, has more to do with brevity and clarity and impact in writing than any other single book. But that’s just sort of the mechanics of writing. There’s a lot to do with the visual aspects, with making mental movies when you write. I’ve always found the best announcers and the best producers are the ones who can, in a very brief period of time, spin a lot of visual images.

JV: You mentioned that you’re voice-tracking your Sirius gig from home. What’s in the studio?
John: I use Adobe Audition with a rapid write hard drive in my Dell Inspiron 6100 laptop. For a voice processor, I’ve got my trusty old Symetrix 528E. And my microphone — a good, general, all-purpose mic — is an AKG C4000-B.

JV: Any thoughts on voice tracking versus the live jocks?
John: The trend toward voice tracking will only continue. Stations routinely now are voice tracking after 7 p.m. at night and all of the weekends. A lot of times, even the primary day part, 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday has been voice tracked, although those announcers are still in the radio station doing other things.

So the shift from being live behind a microphone, knowing that when you open the mic, there’s 6 or 9 or 20 or 50 thousand people listening to you, and going in to a little booth where you crank these breaks out one after another after another, that shift is really radical for a lot of performers. And a lot of them, frankly, don’t quite make the transition from live performer into prerecorded performer.

It’s a difference, in my mind, between an actor on stage who has an auditorium filled with people who he can relate to and react to, and an actor in a movie, where there’s just a couple of people on the set, and the scenes have all been taken out of context and he has to switch it all on for three minutes, and then switch it all off again. So our announcers, and indeed our Production Directors need to become better actors. Actually, I think the producers have something to teach the announcers in this regard, because Production Directors have been going into the room and pulling up the juice and delivering un-live for years.

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