by Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.
Less than two years ago, radio production was a different job. Production Directors worked for one, or at the most, two stations. Generally, Production Directors were responsible for both imaging and commercials. They usually worked on four or eight track analog systems. There were rarely more than six or eight Account Executives or one Program Director with whom to work. In short, radio production was a simpler, less dynamic work environment.
Contrast that with the duopoly era. Production stress seems to be at an all-time high. In major markets, Production Directors are often responsible for three or four stations. They have taken on digital workstations, more hours, two or three Program Directors, up to thirty salespeople, divergent formats and increasing specialization. One word that certainly doesn't apply to radio production in 1994 is "boring."
One of the positive trends in radio production is the widespread use of digital workstations. They are helpful and precise, but they perform no tasks by themselves. Unfortunately, management has often viewed workstations as time-savers and quantity enhancers. While certain tasks are performed far more efficiently on workstations, they are primarily desirable for their sonic quality and precision in editing, time-scaling, etc.. Still, getting the right gear for the wrong reason is better than not getting it at all.
Duopolies have produced a second, unintended benefit for Production Directors. That would be the opportunity to work in different formats than in the past. While many observers thought that duopolies would be concentrated on similar formats (i.e. AC stations banding together or rock stations consolidating), most duopolies combine dissimilar formats, such as News/Talk with Classic Rock or Country with Oldies. Creatively, this can be exciting. Mechanically, it's often a nightmare.
Where one Production Director usually served one Program Director, the lines of communication were easier. Now, there are often separate Program Directors for the divergent formats. Program Director A likes intricate, cute promos while Program Director B likes hard-hitting, straight-ahead stuff. Station A uses three outside voices, two production libraries, and a different audio processing chain than station B. Meanwhile, the company is licking its chops for station C, a third "bonus" for the overwhelmed production department.
Production Directors who have specialized in commercials rather than imaging fare no better. They are generally paid less than imaging-based Production Directors and are required to deal with hordes of Account Executives. Several triopolies currently boast more than thirty Account Executives. Does "now serving number 26" sound appealing to you?
The madness needs to stop now. The experiment of overworking talented people has not been successful. It is producing, instead, stressed-out technocrats whose creative charms are lost in a maze of non-glamorous meetings, memos, procedures, disputes, and equipment hassles.
Why are there separate sales staffs and Program Directors? Why do disc jockeys still work only four hour shifts? Why hasn't the size of production departments grown with the tasks they've been assigned? Quite simply, it's the dreadful denouement of a nasty trend. Certainly the esteem of being a Production Director has dropped since the emergence of duopolies. Many in radio management apparently think production is some kind of manufacturing job. It is neither as intricate as engineering nor as menial as being a custodian. Radio management has clearly evidenced a blackout when it comes to the real world of production. The desultory salary statistics were cited here several months ago.
What does this mean to the dedicated, increasingly knowledgeable people who toil in the trenches of radio production? Is this a passing fad or a blueprint for the future? Is this the reward for years of loyalty, for staying late and making sure there are no mistakes?
If there is no rebellion, no change in mild-mannered acceptance, then the future will be more of the same. Some talented Production Directors will leave, others will stay unhappily, still others will try to get out of production. Right now, there aren't any tougher jobs in radio.
The optimistic view of the future is to hope Production Directors will get "mad-as-hell" and not take it anymore. These conditions spawned "blue flu" for cops and work stoppages for union members. The myth that scores of young, eager, talented production people await this glamorous lifestyle is the stuff of radio management fantasy sessions. The implied threat of being replaced if you confront management with serious problems is more posturing than reality.
Radio production is not manufacturing. Production Directors are not an interchangeable low-end commodity for the '90s. It's time someone told management that slavery is not coming back, even for duopolies.