R.A.P.: So you're writing scripts for John Madden around these sound bites, and John comes in and reads the scripts, not really knowing what he's going to say about one thing or another until he sees the scripts. Writing for someone like John must be a challenge.
Dennis: I think the thing that has helped us continue with the show is that Gary and I sort of know Madden-speak. We know how he talks, and we stay in contact with John. Gary produces the Quiz and I produce the Calendar. and we pretty much know how he feels about things. If we have a question, we call his office and say, "Hey, John, how would you react to this?" Or at a session we'll say, "What do you think of this guy?" or, "How do you feel about this?" Sometimes he'll stop us in the middle of a script and say, "I wouldn't say it that way. This is the way I would say it."
The guy has forgotten more about football than I'll ever know, so you don't want to mess around with getting the facts wrong. That's probably the hardest part of writing the show, staying on top of what's happening in sports. And then you have to make it silly, wacky, and amusing. We try to look for the weirdest sports stories we can find. Some days are weirder than others, but that's been sort of the goal of that show, to be date specific and create a fun show that sort of features John's personality and also goes beyond the newspaper stories and gets to the watermelon seed spitting championships and the outhouse racing and the Midnight Sun Golf Classic. We cover as much silly stuff as we can.
R.A.P.: You teach a radio class at the Art Institute of Philadelphia. What are some of the things you try to teach the students?
Dennis: They have a division there called Music and the Video Business and they teach audio production, video production, and music publishing. I teach Radio Programming and Production -- that's what it's called. I bring them in, and the first thing I tell them is that they already know a lot about audio production because, by the time I get them, they're in their second last semester -- it's a two-year course -- and they're learning ProTools, they're learning multi-track audio, they're learning video and syncing things up to video. They're already pretty sophisticated by the time they get to me.
What I do is I try to teach them things they can't learn in books, like how radio works. I try to pound into them that radio is about revenue and ratings, and that's basically what makes radio work. And you can't have one without the other, and that's why radio sounds the way it does.
A lot of kids tend to come into my classes with a chip on their shoulders about radio -- you know, the old REM song, Radio Sucks. A lot of people feel that way, especially kids like them. A lot of these guys are musicians, wear a lot of black, have pierced noses, and they come in with an attitude that radio is sort of alien territory. They ask, "Why don't they do this, and why don't they do that?" So I tell them why, and we talk about it. And by the end, I think they have a pretty good understanding of how radio works.
From a production standpoint, I stress writing. Writing, writing, writing. If you can't write a declarative sentence, you're not going to be able to communicate. I stress that radio is communication, and it's communication via the human voice. And you have to create word pictures because it's theater of the mind. Really, I'm teaching all the stuff I learned from working with the 'EBN people, how to make radio interesting just using words and word pictures. They have projects they have to turn in, and we try to have a lot of fun. I try not to be boring.
Our radio production facility there is not very sophisticated. It's simple stuff. I say to them, "Everything you want to do in radio, you can do in this room, but you have to use your imagination. You can't rely on all the things down the hall in the multi-track studios." It's basically a 2-track operation. It's got one Otari, a compressor, one equalizer, a CD player, and a couple of cart machines. It's very basic, but I try to stress that they know how to do basic production already, so let's make some interesting, creative radio. I try to get them to think creatively. I also teach them the fundamentals of editing sound bites into a project, making music work with a piece of audio, and we do a little documentary and a telescoped air check. We try to go to at least one radio station for a tour every quarter. I bring in friends of mine -- Account Executives, talk show hosts, and guys I know from town -- and we get into arguments. It's kind of fun. Most guys who come in aren't going into radio, but I think when they go out they like radio more than when they came in.
R.A.P.: What do you try to teach them about theatre of the mind production?
Dennis: I try to give them nuts and bolts. You can't really teach creativity. I mean, you've either got it or you don't. You either think creatively or you don't. I don't think you can teach somebody to be funny or be creative. But if you're creative, then you can learn how to channel it, how to get down to the nuts and bolts, what to do and what not to do.
From a writing standpoint we try to teach the basics: Who is your audience? That's the first thing. Who are you talking to? I try to teach them that radio is a one on one experience. When you're listening to the radio, you're not usually sitting by the radio listening to it. You're usually by yourself doing something else. You're in the car driving. You're at the beach sunning yourself. You're doing the lawn. So think about what people are doing when they're listening and then communicate one on one. And the words you're using should have a "you" kind of involvement and a one on one involvement. So you avoid words like, "Hey, guys" or, "Hey, everybody" because you're not talking to guys or everybody; you're usually talking to one person.
We talk about demographics. We talk about lifestyles and how radio is a lifestyle medium. I tell them to try to avoid slice of life commercials that are very hard to pull off unless you have (A) great actors reading your copy, or, (B) you're doing a parody on it because most slice of life commercials are so awful. The location...nobody ever says, "what's the location?" "What's that number again?" I also tell them never to write phone numbers in a radio spot unless they absolutely, positively have to.
I only have them once a week, so I don't have a whole lot of time to get too deep into any one thing. We've got eleven weeks; basically we have forty-four hours to teach them the history of radio, all about announcing, all about writing, all about equipment, all about ratings and research and how stations make money. So it's really an overview.