Don’t Forget the Details! - How Radios Biggest Asset Can Be a Producers Biggest Liability

by Mitch Todd

Most of us in radio have heard many of the proverbs relating to our industry: “We’re just one rung above carnival barkers in the show biz ladder,” or my favorite from Hunter S. Thompson, “The radio business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

A lesser known saying goes, “There are three elements to great radio production: Time, time and more time.”

Herein lays the paradox. One of radio’s greatest strengths is immediacy. Topical events can be reported, parodied and discussed often in an interactive fashion... sometimes moments after the event occurs. If the transmitters are cookin’, all that needs to happen is to crack open a mike and you’re “on the air” with naked candor not found in most media.

On the other hand, radio is competing with media that can be a lot “slicker” in their presentation, and more importantly, that have more resources and time to construct their finished product. This is strikingly clear to most good radio Production Directors whose directive is often to “make it cinematic, bigger than life… and I need it on the air yesterday!”

Sigh.

Pulling a masterpiece or five DAILY out of your workstation is not an easy thing. Sure, if we’re experienced we can rely on a pretty big bag o’ tricks (translated: shortcuts) we’ve compiled over the years, but it still needs an original unique twist. “Fresh, new, different, blah blah....”

But talented producers can still pull it off amazingly well at times, despite time restrictions (both in execution and length limits). One of the biggest disconnects between programmers and production people, is in this area. Many think it can be done in mere seconds! Sometimes it can; many times it shouldn’t be. Another one of my favorite proverbs is: “In the end, people remember how WELL you did a job, not how FAST it was completed” (unless you’re in a race)! This should be plastered across every production room door in America. Many times, the difference between doing something well or not is in the details.

We’ve all been there; you have the basic outline (or tracks), but you can spend more time on the finishing touches that make it seem more complete. Manufacturers of durable goods have known this for a while. Often, the difference between a Hyundai and a Honda is the “quality.” Most of that perceived quality is in the details. They all have wheels, a motor, seats... but Honda adds those well thought out, ergonomic details that create a superior overall experience.

The same is true in a TV commercial, motion picture or yes, even a lowly radio sweeper or promo. I’m not saying to over-produce and put every sound but the kitchen sink in there. Sometimes less IS more; the dramatic pause IS really dramatic! It really just boils down to good story telling. If you have visuals AND audio to work with, you double the size of your artists palette and may have a bit of an initial advantage (or at least have more “tricks” to distract the audience). But if you’re telling a story with just audio, it’s only utilizing one sense, and you may have to work a little harder at it. Regardless, all the elements can add up to a finished product that appears greater than the sum of its parts. And it’s all in the details.

“Writing is re-writing.”

There I go with the proverbs again. Of course I’m not just talking about details in the sense of the “finishing touches.” The concept has got to be strong to begin with, then REFINED before you even hit the record button. Every step of the way, every great creator is always trying to improve the design. The very first radio station I ever worked for had a big sign above the analog clock in the on-air studio that said one thing: “THINK!” Now THAT’S a great, simple, streamlined proverb! It didn’t say “OVERTHINK” (THAT’S creative suicide). If radio folk in this “Blink” world (a reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”) would just pause and THINK about what they’re doing, THINK about every detail, then many productions could be worthy of Stanley Kubrick! Watch any one of his movies (except the last one... only 1/2 a Kubrick flick). It’s ALWAYS a good story. But it’s the attention to DETAIL that really differentiates a Kubrick film from virtually any other motion picture (OK, I picked Kubrick, there are certainly other great Directors who have a signature “feel,” but most are detail NUTS)! Kubrick, especially in later films, tried to make it an EXPERIENCE vs. just a “movie” (if you’re A.D.D. -- free enough to actually pay attention without taking phone calls, talking, squirming or eating).

THAT’S what radio has lost along the way — the subtlety, the DETAILS. WHAM-BAM WE’RE ON THE AIR SAM! Great, if you’re a news station and cut live to a catastrophic event. Not so great if you’re a story teller and really want to suck people into your vision. So next time your programmer wants something done fast and fantastic... try to give it to them. But hold your ground if you think it needs more refinement. After all, it’s YOUR reputation that’s marred if you pump out mediocre work... at least in the building. And it’s a very small “building” we work in now in radio... with long, plastic hallways.

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