Production 212: Nature or Nurture?

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

I’ve been trying to make this column a place where you can sharpen your production skills, and to most of you dear readers, that means technical voodoo, i.e. EQ, compression, limiting, expansion and flanging, to name a few magical incantations. Yes, the stuff we all like to geek out about because they’re so cool. The geek factor plays a definite role in the response I get each month, meaning the geekier the column is, the better the response. This will be a slow month response-wise, only because I’m turning the geek factor down. I’m addressing something I’ll bet every person who reads this has wondered about at least several hundred times: creativity. What is it? Is it something we’re born with, or is it something we learn? Is it possible to make it grow? How can one enhance creativity? I’ll be very up–front about it, this is the most important tool you have and I intend to tell you how you can not only sharpen this tool, but can bend it to your will.

We all know a very creative person. As we grew up, someone got all kinds of praise and recognition for being so inventive and clever. When I was very young, it was my mother. She was an actress, an extremely talented actress who could make you laugh or cry with seemingly no effort. As I got into my high school years, it was a girl named Inez, who could draw and paint better than anyone we knew in Fort Worth, Texas. In college I met Brian who had mastered the art of telling a story with pictures and sound. (Having read Moby Dick twice during high school, I was amazed to learn what the story was really about when I helped him put together a multi-media presentation on the Melville classic, complete with songs of the humpback whale and genuine sea shanties.) I was in awe of these people and others, particularly as I worked my way through radio. They were so incredibly creative!

Then I got a job as an imaging producer. “What? You mean it’s my job to be creative? But I’m not creative! I know a lot of creative people, but I missed out on that gene. Oh boy, I’m not going to be in this job for long.” As time went by, I kept thinking, “Well, I got another paycheck last week. I’ve got ‘em all fooled.” This went on for more years than I care to divulge here, until I took on an intern a few summers ago who was even less creative than me. She was a native-born Russian who had a very difficult time expressing herself in English, so I chalked it up to the language. I’d assign her a writing project and she would come back with the worst radio copy you could possibly imagine. I had resigned myself to having an intern leave the station without even the slightest chance of ever getting a job in radio, but then she did something that stopped the train. She started to ask questions about creativity. I actually told her that it was something you either have or…not. Boy, was I stupid.

Of course, I didn’t know how stupid I was until the next day, when she brought in some amazingly good copy. You see, after I told her it was genetic, she asked an even better question: “Where do you get ideas for your work?” I explained the whole “creative well” concept that I’ve discussed here at length and how my copy is a reflection of real-life experiences that I’ve had over the years. She obviously took that to heart, because from then on, she was writing truly brilliant copy.

So I learned that creativity is something we all possess. Like doing production, the creativity begins to flow once you understand the technical processes because you don’t have to stop and think about how to do something. You already know, so you implement the idea and that sparks another idea, which sparks still another. Once she understood where the story was coming from, she was able to write it down in a coherent manner, one that included the right emotions to help the reader not just know the facts but feel the feelings.

OMG! I’m creative! The only person I’d been fooling all those years was myself. The sad part of this story is that my mother, before she passed on, TOLD me the truth and I simply didn’t get it. I had complained once about not being creative and she looked at me like I head two heads. She assured me that I was creative. I said, “Maybe a little, but nothing like you, or Inez, or Brian.” (She had no idea about Inez and Brian. She got a little confused about that, but I digress.) She granted that she was a fairly talented actress, but that she could no more write and produce radio copy than fly to the moon. Looking back after my intern teaching experience, the light bulb finally went on and I understood.

If you’ve ever played a game on a computer, think back to how BAD you were at it when you first started. After you played for a while, you probably improved…a LOT. Once you create a history with something, you progressively get better and better at it. The exact SAME thing happens with imaging, but it’s not doing the production that makes you more creative, it’s living life. After all, the best radio imaging mirrors what is going on in people’s lives, so that they can relate to your message.

I know that some of you reading this article believe that you’re not very creative. You undoubtedly listen to other people’s work on the RAP CD and marvel at their creativity. Perhaps you even wish you were that creative. Guess what? You are. We all are.

The next question is, “How do I get creativity to come out and play?” That’s a little trickier, but easy enough. When you sit down to write or produce, remember one thing: The most creative work begins directly in real life, but takes a left turn somewhere, hopefully not into a ditch. Pay attention now…this is the crux of this topic. You start with something your audience can relate to and then twist it. Listen carefully to every cut on this month’s CD and see if you can follow the blueprint of each.

Here’s an example: Let’s say your station is doing a concert ticket giveaway. Ask yourself, “Have I ever tried to win tickets to a big concert? What happened?” If you have ever had a funny or weird thing happen when you were trying to win concert tickets – THAT is the anchor point for your little story. Don’t make something up. If you have never tried to win tickets, ask someone who has.

Once you’ve catalogued a few of those experiences, ask yourself, “What if…?” Then jot down every stupid thing you can think of, like “What if the concert was being held on the moon?” “What if the person sitting next to you at the show were Vice President Dick Cheney?” “What if everybody showed up naked?” OK, so none of those things would happen, but remember you’re starting with something that is real and then bending it to give it a different finish – one that is funny, cute, or at least entertaining.

Your audience gets sucked into your story at your anchor point. Then you take them down the merry path to the payoff. Along the way, they learn something, namely that your station is going to help them by giving them tickets. Mission accomplished.

There are variations on this little two-step “how can I be more creative” game that you will start to pick up over time. Remember the video game you were so bad at to begin with? This game works the same way. The more you practice being creative, the more creative you’ll be. My mother’s abilities as an actress didn’t just happen overnight. Inez’ artistic talents didn’t magically show up when she was born. Brian’s gift for telling stories took at least 19 years to develop.

Creativity is NOT a gift. It’s a skill. You want to be funny? Read 10 jokes every day at www.amazingjokes.com. You want to be dramatic? Go see a dramatic film every week. You want to play the piano? Look up your local piano teacher, and then practice! You want to be known as a truly creative producer? Live life and then tell the story, with a twist. Congratulations, you’re really creative.

My track on this month’s CD is a promo I just finished for our on-going contest called “Z100 Pays Your Bills.” I noticed that winners always say things from a very short list of things to say when you win. “Oh my God,” is a big one as is “You’re joking” or “Are you kidding?” But my perennial favorite is “Did I win?” So, I gathered a few winners and whipped this little baby out. My reality was, I won a contest once on the radio and when they called me, the first thing out of my mouth was “Did I win?” The twist was using a different response from the same short list after finding out that I had indeed won. Admittedly, it’s a little twist, but creative…I think. Isn’t it? I don’t know. Maybe I’m not as creative as…wait. Never mind.

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