by Andy Capp
It was a dark and stormy night.... (Rip! Crumple!) It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.... (Rip! Crumple! Crumple!) There was a young man from Nantucket.... (Rrrrriiiiipppp!!! Crumple! Crumple! Crumple!!!) Of all the agonies of writing and production, I find that nothing sucks more and wastes more legal pads than looking for a good beginning. In fact, trashed beginnings for this column alone account for thirty-seven percent of the post-nonhumor waste in the private landfill that is my cubicle.
This was pointed out to me when a reporter from our sister television station recently interviewed me for "National Clean Up Your Desk Week." As we discussed the legends my dubious housekeeping skills had spawned (as God as my witness I never thought a mug warmer could get hot enough to start a fire), Lois Lane pointed to a corner of my cube and snickered, "You know, that pile alone must account for thirty-seven percent of the junk in here!" "That's nothing," I chuckled as I kicked over the Betacam and threw her out of the building. "You should have seen the piles I made when I was completely clueless!"
It's true. When I started writing and producing commercials, I would go through redwoods of legal pads trying to get beyond the "Attention Mr. Farmer" beginnings I grew up hearing on local radio. Eventually, I realized that to be effective, a good beginning needs to hook the listener without tuning them out, be provocative, yet relevant to the basic message of the commercial. With this revelation my beginnings now only use up maples of legal pads.
Imagine the trees that could have been saved had someone just explained what makes a good beginning to me when I began my tour with this sideshow! Alas, I stumbled in the back door of this business, beginning as a part-timer in college at the local "Attention Mr. Farmer" station, where on-air training consisted of "There are the records; you're on in five minutes," and production training earned even less discussion. As I worked my way up to full-time, it was only my fascination with knobs and switches and pretty lights that made me, through trial and much error, somewhat familiar with production. Even as I moved onward and slightly upward, I learned new tricks by listening to others and experimenting in the production room. Before I knew it, I had my first real Production Director title, even though what I didn't know about production and writing could fill libraries. That was some years ago, and I'm still filling in the blanks.
Enough digression down memory lane. The point is, beginnings are a bitch, and without a good one, the problems compound as time goes by. So why, in a business that spends so much time training and retraining the sales staff, do the production people find themselves without guidance? Why are the people who manufacture what is sold forced to teach themselves how to produce the product?
Before we go any further, a disclaimer. I know there are many wonderful college and technical school broadcasting programs that do a fine job of teaching production. You may have gone through one yourself. Perhaps you teach for one. There are also stations with great intern programs and production training for incoming pros. There are even individuals who find it in their hearts to be mentors to fledgling production folk, to show them the ropes and point them down the right road. If you fit in any of these categories, I salute you. The problem is, for every person who is lucky enough to be shown the Yellow Brick Road, there are another ten out there who sound like they're stumbling down the rocky path alone.
This "hands off" approach to training confuses me. I suppose I can understand why those of us who wander into radio with no broadcast training (the warm body who fills the weekend overnight shift) and then move up the ranks by default get no formal training. After all, these "newbies" work the worst hours--hours when no one else would be caught dead in the station. Even when "Newbie" is in the station in the daylight, everybody is too busy to waste time teaching them. Again, I understand this--up to a point.
Here's the situation I'll never understand. Some people shell out thousands for an education in broadcasting and still hit the job market virtually clueless. I once had a new kid fresh out of a well-known broadcasting school ask me how to change the reel-to-reel speed from 7½ to 15 i.p.s.. Mind you, this was not a stupid person. He had worked with the same machine in school and had never been shown this basic. I remember thinking at the time that this must be an isolated case. Sadly, I was mistaken. What grads aren't taught is sometimes appalling.
I'm sure there could be a million excuses for poor training in both cases, but all the excuses in the world can't cover up the general apathy some broadcasting programs and entry level stations have for radio. The broadcasting school assumes that all their students want to be a TV star ("Hey, who would want a job in that dying radio medium?!"), and the stations think that the salesperson who has been there for three hundred years will sell any piece of crap the fresh, lowly-paid DJ produces; and, if said DJ doesn't like it, there's always somebody else who will want that five hundred dollar paycheck next month. There's the door!
These horror stories have been a running serial in radio for years, and, while changing these scenarios may be beyond our power, we can help those who have lived through the nightmare. No, you don't need to spend months writing some massive training manual. You don't have to spend hours standing over the rookie's shoulder. It's the little things that are important, and little things that sink a ship. The DJ who showed me how to create tape echo and the PD who pointed out that tape echo on all my spots sounds stupid both took me miles in the beginning of my production career.
It really takes so little to teach. We had an intern at the station last summer who liked to watch me put together promos. He didn't ask many questions, he just sat there and watched. Creepy? Yeah, but I got over it, and some of the projects I gave him proved that he was learning by observing.
Now, if I was reading this, the burning question in the back of my mind would be, "What's in it for me?" Good question, Andy. Well, there is a certain satisfaction in seeing someone you help along progress, but it goes deeper than that. Teaching something that we normally do automatically forces us to think about the processes we use, and this re-examination can lead to new ways to work, new ideas to try. Helping someone else grow becomes a great way to grow ourselves.
The fact that a magazine like Radio And Production exists, the fact that computer forums like Production Room BBS exist, proves that there is interest out there in improving the quality of production in radio. I'm suggesting taking that interest to the next level, to start thinking globally and share the wealth of our experience with those who had a crummy beginning in the business. Then maybe, little by little, we can begin a new age in radio, an age when crummy beginnings don't happen, and the perceived "second-rate" status some people give radio goes away.
By the way, if you really get in the spirit of teaching and see someone who needs some lessons on organizing their work space, give them some tips if you would. I know that I'll...er...they'll appreciate it!