by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
Once upon a time, audio production was locked into a series of niches. Every radio format demanded a different presentation. Production personnel were really an extension of the format. There were CHR, AOR, AC, Country and Urban production specialists. Television audio was a pretty stagnant place to be and offered little hope to those with a radio background.
The intriguing part of this once-upon-a-time scenario is that it still flourished a few years ago. In fact, the Production Convergence is gaining momentum as you read this. Not just in certain radio formats, but pretty much across the board. Not just in network television, but at the local level as well. Not just in America, but around the world, even behind the former iron curtain.
When radio Production Directors were jocks who didn't quite make it on the air, they couldn't wait to super-serve the stereotype of the format. In CHR, that meant an avalanche of lasers, for AOR an army of guitars and for AC, it was another opportunity to put the comatose set to sleep. The dominant production theory of the time was to give-'em-what-they-want. All thirty-six year old shit-kickers liked twanging guitars on country radio production. Urban listeners longed for an almost "jive" approach. Production was profoundly confused by lifestyle, not culture.
One mecca of cultural mingling was motion pictures. They didn't have a format. Soundtracks could trip the light fantastic one minute and give you a poignant violin the next. Star Wars and the genre it spawned provided a new context for electronic and symphonic sounds to coexist. Action movies were able to combine a delicate piece with something thunderous and menacing.
Radio listeners and television viewers were not living in a vacuum. "Horror music" evoked pretty much the same response in every listener, regardless of format preference. The same could be said of something pretty or something evil. During this period of the 1970's, there was a lot of lip service in radio about "theater of the mind." However, actual examples were more difficult to find.
The 1980's might have been worse, as Program Directors narrowed the target demographics and the focus of production as well. A CHR Production Director couldn't get a job in News/Talk and vice-versa. While segmentalization may have helped marketers, it robbed Production Directors of new and innovative ideas, of comingling different techniques and musical approaches. For television production, it was the same old ultra-mass appeal promos where music and effects were always secondary to the video.
By the end of the 1980's, changes were occurring. Once again, they were market-driven. The prime demos were suddenly younger, Baby boomers who had grown up on Stars Wars, Pink Floyd and other reasonably "hip" phenomena were the desire of virtually every advertiser. And these baby boomers weren't impressed or entertained by having their lifestyle stereotyped. The reaction of the smart people in radio management was to find a cultural lure that would hold forty year old men in any format. This necessitated a change not in lifestyle, but in cultural appeal. In a production sense, prime demographic listeners were being treated with more respect.
The change was first evident in News/Talk radio. Two of the biggest News/Talk stations in the country, KGO, San Francisco and WBZ, Boston, hired outstanding Production Directors with exemplary CHR credentials.
Now, the changes are equally prominent in Country radio. It has started embracing a much more contemporary production approach that has little to do with Country music per se. In fact, the recently named Country station-of-the-year, WAMZ, Louisville, is produced very much along the lines once presumed to be CHR. The station has been excelling at it for a long time and pulling consistent 20 shares. This process of change in Country radio is being accelerated by a host of new "young country" stations. As the format flourishes, the demand for creative production soars, and it is largely being filled by people from outside the format.
Mix-based AC stations have turned to production as an exciting element that gives the format needed momentum. Urban has replaced the "jive" approach at some top stations with a very sophisticated direction. AOR has done some stimulating point-counterpoint type of production, using humor to its advantage and not taking itself too seriously. CHR, which has perhaps the most aggressive of modern-day Production Directors, is the fastest-moving production on the dial.
Even television is changing. The stodgy music decision-makers of yesterday are sailing on a sunset cruise somewhere. In their place have come a new breed of excitement-driven promo producers who use many of radio's techniques to further the video cause. These younger men and women are advancing rapidly and paying much less attention to tradition. They demand audio that drives video, rather than something that stays in the background.
On a global scale, the same trends are manifest. Tradition slowly ebbs at BBC-TV. French radio appears to have taken the most aggressive production stance in Western Europe. Even Russia now has Radio Roks, which promises to take a state-of-the-art production posture. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have long been on the same or more advanced track than America. One example of the technology gap is Australia's ultra-successful Austereo group of stations. Two of those stations use $70,000 Soundtracs consoles, and 16-track studios are the norm.
What we are experiencing is the beginning of the Production Convergence. The format walls for Production Directors are breaking down. It's not whether you're AOR or Urban, it's whether you're great. It's not whether you're 46 or 26, it's how imaginative and productive you can be. The concept that a promo is "great for the format" just isn't relevant anymore. If it's great, it's probably great for any format. If it's great, it's probably great in any language anywhere on this planet.
The Production Convergence is not something to be feared. In one sense, it is inevitable, just like digital audio or electric cars. It will allow diverse artists to paint on the same palette. Similar tools and parameters will result in wildly different creations. Production Directors will be able to cross production boundaries between formats and into television and video. Culture will triumph over lifestyles. Is audio production the place to be in the 1990's?