Production 512: Your Best Tool Is Your Head

Prod512 Logo 400pxSince I started writing this column almost 20 years ago, it has slowly evolved into something less about the tech and more about the psyche. One of the reasons has been the now decades old argument about “Which is the BEST DAW?” It’s a dumb quarrel to be honest. I use Pro Tools on Apple BUT, I have a lot of superstar producer friends who use Adobe Audition, VEGAS, Mark of The Unicorn, even one who still uses SAW32. They all use a mixture of computer platforms like Windows, Apple and even Unix. Steve Jobs settled this argument best when he said, “It's not the tools that you have faith in - tools are just tools. They work, or they don't work. It's people you have faith in or not.” It’s the individuals in question who make the difference, not the gear. It’s how they think about the world and the subject at hand, not how many gigs of RAM they use.

Thus I write a lot more about the process rather than the processing.

To that point, I think it might prove helpful for you to understand how I came to think the way I think. Who were the influences in my life that helped carve my professional credentials? How did they do that? Here is a small collection of some of my favorite quotes by the people who made me this way. It’s ALL THEIR FAULT! {ahem} Sorry.

Radio is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.              –T.S. Eliot

If you’re not aware of the name T.S. Eliot, shame on your High School English teachers. Though to be honest, I didn’t really come to appreciate him until I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in college. T.S. Eliot is regarded by many as the single most important poet of American descent. He received every imaginable award for his writing, including the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he died in London in 1965, the world wept. It’s funny how I always think of him as being from the early 20th century, after all, Prufrock was first published in 1915.

This particular quote is a favorite of mine because it brings home the difficulty we, as communicators, face every day. We have to shoot our messages into the ether with zero guidance and little or no assurance that they will hit their intended targets. Of course, over time, we have learned some of what works and some of what doesn’t, but I always wonder, “What if right now, at the very moment my promo is airing, there is NOBODY listening?” Pointless to fret about it, I guess…still.

Radio, which was a much better medium than television will ever be, was easy and pleasant to listen to. Your mind filled automatically with images. –Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett was a personal favorite late-night show host of mine. His humor was always gentle and sardonic, nothing like the hard edged political hand grenades being thrown every night these days. I think my politics and his were probably not close to the same at all, but I could always see the humor in his commentary. He was also a phenomenal interviewer.

This quote is the poetic heart of what we do, though I think the “automatically” part is a little off. When we’re doing our jobs the way we need to, yeah. Otherwise, not so much. The operative phrase is Theater Of The Mind. Orson Welles taught the world the power of using your audience’s imagination by playing the drama out in his listener’s minds late one Halloween night. War Of The Worlds caused mayhem and unreasonable fear across the country…all with sound alone.

This quote makes a nice reference to the same: Radio is theater of the mind…television is theater of the mindless. –Steve Allen

Steve Allen was the very first host of NBC’s The Tonight Show and a brilliant comedian who never failed to make me laugh. (Full disclosure: I never saw him on The Tonight Show, but I watched him host several specials on TV.)

I’ve never thought this quote was as much a slam of television as high praise for radio. When I was studying radio history in college, we spent quite a lot of time on ‘Theater Of The Mind’ and the kind of impact it can have on the listener. To demonstrate what we were talking about, Lynn McKinley (my professor) turned on a television and started showing an old Godzilla movie. After two minutes, he froze the screen on a shot of Godzilla and asked, “How scary is that lizard?”

We all laughed a little because honestly, it wasn’t scary at all. The big glass eyes, rubbery skin and comical arms made it very cartoonish. Then he stepped up to the screen and with both hands, touched it at the head and at the foot and asked, "How tall is that?”

Somebody ventured, “Maybe 14 inches.”

“Not very scary at all, is it?” After a pause, he reached over to a sound console and started playback of a student ‘radio’ drama presentation of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, produced by a friend of mine named Joe McDonough. (Joe went on to do sound design for Disney movies.) Within two minutes, every student in the room had goosebumps and was breathing rapidly.

He stopped and said something I will never forget:

There is no monster on any television or even movie screen as big, dark, fearsome, evil and frightening as the one you can conjure in people’s minds. A few key words, the right sound effects and the right music can create anything in the listener’s mind. It can be scary and dark, it can be fun and light, it can be warm and loving…it can be ANYTHING you want, with a big movie budget…of zero. –Lynn McKinley

I think an argument can be made that the development of CGI might have changed that somewhat, but as good as it can be, it’s still not as seamless and perfect as what I can conjure in my head.

Basically, radio hasn't changed over the years. Despite all the technical improvements, it still boils down to a man or a woman and a microphone, playing music, sharing stories, talking about issues - communicating with an audience. –Casey Kasem

Casey was, of course, the iconic voice of The American Top 40, heard on radio stations around the world. Today it’s hosted by Ryan Seacrest.

I met Casey a few times at industry events and I was always struck by how genuine he was. I truly believe that was the key to his success. When he’d tell a story, he really felt it and you couldn’t help but empathize. THAT is what every one of us needs to do. Be real. Feel the pain or joy, soak in the emotion. Of course, even Casey had his breaking point. A quite famous out-take had him throwing down the script and complaining loudly to his producers, “Another dead dog?” Apparently, quite a few people wanted to dedicate songs to their dead-as-a-doornail pooches once it came out that the Henry Gross song Shannon was about Carl Wilson’s (Beach Boys) dead Irish Setter.

Radio is more powerful the closer we mimic the way we actually speak to each other. That's why Howard Stern is such a great radio talent. People on his show are actually speaking to each other. You might not like what they're saying, but they're real conversations. –Ira Glass

Ira Glass is a commentator and host of This American Life, heard on National Public Radio. I don’t personally spend as much time listening to NPR as I once did. I actually had ambitions once of working in public radio, either as a reporter or host of All Things Considered. My very first gig was working at an NPR station at my university and felt that would be the pinnacle of any broadcasting career. After a few minutes working at my first commercial outlet, I decided that ambition was misplaced.

That realization hasn’t diminished my reverence for many of the folks who toil on non-commercial radio. I do appreciate their insight into this medium. Statements like this prove to me that I am not misguided in my admiration. Ira is absolutely correct to say that the true strength of Howard Stern is in the conversation. Whether you find Howard’s commentary humorous or not, or whether you agree with what he and his guests say, the fact that their conversations are real and open makes listening to his show very compelling.

The most difficult part of our work is NOT doing things the way “they’ve always been done.” Reading something without sounding like you’re reading is extremely difficult for most people. Being conversational can be a big challenge, especially when your copy is NOT conversational. Writing copy like it’s a dialogue, even when it’s a monologue, runs counter to everything our English teachers taught us all through our formative years. Learning to play out emotions in the playground of the listener’s mind is one of the most difficult things we do.

My last quote sums it up nicely: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. –William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II Scene 2

Too often, we fall into the trap of having the ‘town-crier’ deliver our lines. The modern town-crier is the TV News Anchor, too many times in the mold of Ted Knight from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, or Will Farrell in Anchorman. Those are parodies of human beings, not real conversationalists. Keep it real. Keep it honest. Keep it emotional.

  1. You’ve spent enough time in my head. Get out. Get out now. Go start filling your head with the great minds of modern media. Think Roy H. Williams, Marshall McLuhan, Walter Cronkite and President Ronald Reagan. (You don’t have to like his politics, just try to learn from his amazing skills as a communicator.)

No sound from me this month. Spend some time reading instead. Then start making some sound of your own that is conversational, emotional and real.

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

T. S. Eliot also won a Tony award, and is - I think - the only poet to have done so. (Maxwell Anderson won a Pulitzer for Best Drama, but never got past being a nominee for the Tonys.)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I did not know that. I think every writer, whether composing the great American novel or radio copy for the local Toyota dealership, needs to aspire to absolute greatness in writing. Eliot is my spirit author I think, although Roy H. Williams probably has more influence over my day-to-day writing.

Thanks for reading Jay!

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