Production 512: Specialization is for Insects

Prod512 Logo 400pxHave you ever known someone who constantly blew your mind? You can bring up just about any topic and he or she will consistently know a lot about it, even to an expert level. It’s the kind of person that you refuse to play Trivial Pursuit with, because you know you’re gonna lose. There’s a phrase that describes that person perfectly: Renaissance man – an outstandingly versatile, well-rounded person. The expression alludes to such Renaissance figures as Leonardo da Vinci, who performed brilliantly in many different fields. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Of course, in spite of the gender specific nomenclature, it applies equally to women.

Oh, we all know people who are transcendent in their field. Name a profession and you can probably think of at least one ‘expert’ you would recommend to anyone who asks, but that’s in one particular interest. I know a brilliant musician who couldn’t begin to tell you how to make scrambled eggs. I know an amazing master carpenter who has a hard time spelling his own name. I’m sure you know a lot of people like that, but how many true renaissance men or women have you met? I’d wager not very many.

I’ve known at least one…others may have been hiding their genius.

Do you remember the MTV veejay, Adam Curry? For several years, Adam handled the MTV Top 20 Countdown every weeknight. Of course, this was back when MTV really was Music Television, spending the vast majority of airtime talking about the music industry and actually showing music videos. Those were the days, eh?

Adam is a true Renaissance man. He is one of the smartest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He is almost always the smartest person in the room, but he never makes you feel stupid. Most folks only remember him (if they do) as the tall, blonde dude on MTV who introduced Beavis And Butthead. Some folks in the radio biz remember his syndicated radio show, Adam Curry’s Top 30 Hitlist which I had the pleasure of producing. He founded OnRamp, Inc., a company that designed websites for major companies like Continental Airlines (now part of United Airlines.) Today, many in the podcasting business call him the “Pod-father,” as he was a pioneer in the concept that has since expanded into a whole new world of media outreach. In between, he started numerous companies, some successful, others not so much. Music, radio, computer software, perfume and makeup, even a helicopter shuttle service were all his doing.

Adam is also the guy who convinced me that Digital Audio Workstations were a thing. The only commercially available system at the time was from New England Digital, with a basic, bare-bones system selling for $110-thousand dollars. For an extra $500-thousand, they’d throw in a Synclavier Digital Recording Tapeless Studio setup, keyboard and all. (It was all the rage in the early 90s music business.) I actually had Z100 management halfway convinced to go for it (the basic system) when Adam walked in and introduced me to a little company called digidesign, the proud purveyors of what we now know as Pro Tools by Avid. That day, my life changed completely and…so did yours. So did all of our lives.

If you’re waiting for me to get to the point, it’s coming. Be patient.

Earlier I said I’ve known at least one Renaissance man or woman, but that’s a little misleading. Besides Adam, I’ve actually known several. I happen to know that many of them read this column. Chances are good that you are one too. I believe that to be a great radio producer, you almost have to be.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in these pages (on this site) talking about the importance of filling the creative well. Well, a funny thing happens when you do that, you become an outstandingly versatile, well rounded person. (Hmm…something about renaissance comes to mind.) Over the years of writing this word salad, I’ve gotten emails and letters from a few people who have taken that advice whole-heartedly and over time they each have discovered an amazing new self-awareness.

One Canadian woman told me that she’d gone through 4 years of university level learning and only realized some 12 years later that she had learned nothing about life and really, precious little about radio. It wasn’t until she picked up the gauntlet of “filling her creative well” that she developed a love for reading. Based on my saying that a radio producer who is serious about what we do should be reading a minimum of one book every week, she picked up Tom Clancy’s Hunt For Red October and finished it in 4 days. She was exhilarated by the experience and went on to read Cardinal In The Kremlin and ultimately all of the Jack Ryan books. She moved on to Dale Brown, Patricia Cornwell and John Sanford, knocking off one series of books after another. During that year, her fortunes as a producer started to take off as she also became a voracious consumer of movies and TV shows, regularly attending local theater productions and becoming a full-on hockey maniac for her son’s team. Today she is the Creative Services Director for a big cluster of stations and coaches new producers for the company. I find her work today to be deliciously creative and fun. She is a renaissance woman, without question.

One intern of mine at Z100 came to me with a creative well fairly brimming. He loved reading, knew every story on the previous night’s TMZ, and was up on all the latest films and played lacrosse and hockey. His contributions to MY learning were tremendous, as often is the case when a student challenges a mentor/teacher. Immediately after he finished his school, he landed a large market production gig, moved on to a major market gig just a couple of years later and then went into programming where he continues to burn his mark into this business deeper and deeper every year. A renaissance man for sure.

Mike Rowe has made a regular cottage industry of getting kids to skip the big, expensive university route and go to a technical training school for career training, and I’m right there with him. Most of what you get in the big school often is MUCH less than what you can accomplish on your own. Let’s face it, going to school to learn this business doesn’t make much sense because the skills you need can be learned in a few, short weeks. It’s the OTHER stuff you need to learn to be the best damned producer on the planet. While the university environment can be a good jumping off point, the real education happens on your own.

A week or so ago, I had a lovely conversation with a High School English teacher here in the Austin area. I complained about so many people’s lack of understanding of grammar and the near illiterate level of so many kids today. I thought I would get pushback but she surprised me with a tacit agreement. Then she explained how they’re trying to fix those problems by assigning one book to each student to study in depth. The books all come from an approved reading list so they’re not all Harry Potter fare, but the range is impressive. Her specialty is dystopian literature, something I suspect a LOT of students can relate to quite easily. She also said that most of the books are the first in a series with the hope being that the student will have enough interest to pick up the next book on his or her own. My Canadian friend would approve, I’m sure.

Our field is pretty specialized. Not everyone can do it, at least not without some good training. But to be really good at what we do, we cannot make that our only interest. The listener doesn’t care one whit about radio and much less about production. If you want to reach that listener, you have to make what we do about things they care about. Saving money, being a trendsetter, feeling safe, being adventurous, winning, caring, being of service and building a future are just a few of the things your listeners care about. You need to be in tune with those things and so much more.

My favorite Sci-Fi author said it quite well:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. ~ Robert A. Heinlein

One of my earliest mentors, Brian Capener, today a movie producer, put it this way: Schools spend the bulk of their time teaching us how to select a song, cue a record and turn on the mic, but they give us precious little about what to say once the mic is on. Too true.

So my plea to you is to become a renaissance man or woman. Read, watch, experience and LIVE life. You will know when you’re there. Nobody has to tell you. When people refuse to play trivia games with you, that’s a good hint. When people seek your advice, that’s a clue. When you can make literary, TV or movie references without blinking, you’re pretty much doing it right.

Always be the smartest person in the room, but never make anyone feel stupid. Let them feel like they’re in on the joke and be absolutely kind. Adam Curry is an American boy, raised in Amsterdam, so he speaks fluent, accent-free Dutch. I remember introducing him to Dutch singer Amber once and the two of them struck up a conversation like two long-lost High School classmates. The look on her face when he started speaking her native tongue like a native, was one of pure pleasure. (She had been on tour in the US for several weeks and was feeling pretty homesick.) An hour later, after she’d blown off a couple of other radio station visits, she was in my studio recording liners for Z100. She thanked me for giving her a small gift of “home.” I just smiled. The renaissance man came through. I knew he would.

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Love this! Thanks Dave (and RAP) Some of this is common sense but too often it's the common sense stuff that we forget or never really get in the first place. Maybe there's hope for this wheezin' geezer to learn a little bit more. I have [itched manure and was around when my dad and his brother slaughtered hogs (can you say home grown bacon?!) but there's plenty for me to learn yet. Thanks for the encouragement!
Scott

Scott
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Thanks man...this is priceless info.....I can really relate to the part about going to school and learning everything there is to no except what to say after you turn on the mic...The first time I turned on the mic in Broadcasting School, I felt like someone was pouring cold water down my back..My mouth was wide open and my brain was going (wow...what do I do now)(Smile). Thanks and keep up the good work.

Ernie

Ernie
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