by Sterling Tarrant
The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?
--David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urging for investment into radio in the 1920s.
Way back when, telephones and telegraphs were the limit of some people's dreams. Ah, but then came radio, and Sarnoff's associates just didn't have the imagination of wide-eyed ten-year-olds who now could ride with the Lone Ranger in living rooms across the country! Radio brought big bands, big announcers, big heroes and big drama from big cities zillions of miles away. ...And every kid wanted to be a part of it!
Today there's a place called The Disney Institute that's letting everyday people experience their dreams. It's at Walt Disney World, and it lets you learn what it's like to be a chef, or a mountain climber, or an animator, or much more. If you want to fulfill a dream about being on the radio or on TV, you go see Michael McLean, Managing Instructor of Broadcast Arts. It's his job to make sure that people's dreams of being on the radio become reality. I talked to him about what they do at the Institute and about how "outsiders" perceive the wonder of radio.
McLean says: "Our guests come in with wide eyes, and they have no idea what they're getting into. I would say that the majority of guests leave with a feeling of 'Wow, I never knew that's what it takes to do radio.'"
Just what exactly can the guests get themselves into? Says McLean, "D.I.D.J.s is one of our programs. Guests walk into what looks like a live D.J. on-air. He's talking over a piece of music, then he reads the weather, hits the post, goes into the song, and then all of a sudden he looks over at the guests and says, 'I need you three.' The three chosen people will look at each other almost in shock. The D.J. is saying, 'Quick, quick, quick, we only have a minute and a half.' So we give one guest a weather forecast, one a traffic report, one something else, and they're looking at us like, 'What, are you nuts? I've never done this before.'"
McLean continues, "They think they're on air. We run the studio signal through compressors, we have jingles, and our own closed circuit radio station that goes over cable just within the Institute. Later in the program we'll talk about radio history and what's going on today. We'll talk about formats, ratings, and music research. Then they actually write and produce a radio commercial, and they do some more D.J.'ing."
There's also a "Radio Drama" program. "The guests come in and within two to three hours they are participants in a radio drama," says McLean. "We get them there by having them do various exercises to get their imagination working. We have various scripts. Guests may be characters or do Foley work, or perhaps even work in the control room. We record everything digitally into Roland DM-800s and then play it back for them. Any sound effects that we didn't get recorded get played back live off of a 360 Systems Instant Replay."
"At the conclusion of their program, we'll go into post production, sweeten it, clean it up, and then mix it down on cassette, and the guests will get it in the mail three to six weeks later."
McLean explains that one of the new plans for the Radio Drama program is a holiday theme. "We're planning on having our guests actually do a presentation of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. It'll be a staged radio drama, just as it would have been done back in the thirties and forties. Prior to the performance, we'll have workshops where guests will learn how to do Foley, how to work the microphones, how to be a radio actor, how to work with scripts. Then we'll have a rehearsal, and then they'll actually do it on our stage here in front of an audience."
"We'll probably have a set cast where our instructors will play key roles like Marley and Scrooge. Our guests will play more minor roles. One of our instructors will probably be the head Foley artist and will direct the guests to step on the snow and walk on the graves, make the wind, that kind of thing. There's two reasons for having the set cast of instructors. First, so that we can put on a presentation that's professional, and second, because the guests don't want to be embarrassed or put in a position they feel they can't do. The one nice thing about radio drama, unlike any other kind of drama, is that we as directors can actually be on stage directing them where to go. The audience will be able to see that part of the action, as well."
What about standard radio production procedures of today? I asked McLean, how does it compare to real life? He gave this example: "In our radio commercial production program, we'll have formats displayed around the room. One says Top Forty, one says Adult Contemporary, one says Country, etc. Guests sit in seats under each format. As the program continues, they find out that everything they do has to fit into the theme of their format, including their commercial."
"For instance, we may hold up a tiki torch. We'll say 'This may look like a tiki torch, but take that out of your mind. It is not. Instead, we're going to create something for our audience.' We'll help them to get creative. One guest may shout out that it's an item used in the laundry. What's it used for? Someone will shout out, 'It's a diaper cleaner!' Then we tell them it's for country radio. So they'll end up having to write and produce a spot for a diaper cleaner for country radio."
As I spoke with McLean, I kept thinking. "People are paying for the opportunity to do what we as Production Directors do every day?!? Plus, they are loving it?!?" McLean says: "I don't think I ever heard a bad word from people leaving. They end up with a greater appreciation for not only the business, but also for the talent."
Michael McLean is a man who is helping the general public appreciate what we do. He gets to show others our job. The glorious job that can truly be defined as The Magic of Radio, magic that people would pay to participate in. So go...be creative, teach others, and remember, you are why that wireless music box has unimaginable commercial value, and why people pay for messages to be sent across it each day.