by Sterling Tarrant
I had half a Quarter Pounder with cheese hanging out of my mouth, trying to read about Tiger Woods win at the Masters when my assistant, Justin, popped his head in the door. "Mr. Tarrant, sir...?" he politely said. "Whumtphhbb?" I responded, with a dollop of ketchup drooling down my chin. Justin continued, "Should I just replace Rick's read on tracks seven and eight, or just insert the updated parts into the middle of one and two?"
Repeating the Nike mantra that often doubles as an excuse for a management style of mine, I said, "I don't care, Justin, just do it!" I returned to the paper with the picture of Tiger Woods, his club aloft triumphantly. There was his Nike hat emblazoned with the swoosh, and as I stared at it, my mind was immediately swooshed back ten years to the costuming department at Walt Disney World. Barely scraping by, I was there trying to get my foot in the door. I took anything, hoping to get some kind of audio or video production job. What I got was costuming. Ultimately, I got nothing. I did get a supervisor who one day told me the words, "I don't care, Sterling, just do it!" All in all, I guess I did get something out of that Disney experience. I was using it today on Justin.
We all have people or things who have been influences on different areas of our lives. They are often called mentors. Usually, it is a person who takes us under his wing and guides us in a certain area. That one supervisor at Disney was not a mentor of mine, but ultimately, all of my supervisors there taught me about attention to quality and detail. One mentor of mine taught me about how you can be chewed out professionally one minute and the next be taken out to lunch as a personal friend. Another taught me to fly on my own by standing behind me as I cued up the first song of my first professional air shift, and then walked out the door, leaving me to fend for myself. Yet another taught me, "Cover your butt; double check every dub before it goes out the door."
You, no doubt, can think of instances as well. How about in the area of radio production? Did you have a mentor? Here are the answers from two producers. First, Lonnie Perkins, Creative Director at WIBC in Indianapolis:
Two guys come to mind, one was in my hometown of Glasgow, Kentucky. His name was Benny Shipley. He did afternoon drive and lots of character voices. This was back in the early '70s. Then, a little later, a guy by the name of Gary Burbank, who at the time was at WHAS in Louisville. He was a master at character voices, too. When I was fifteen, I actually wrote him and told him a sob story about how I had no one to give me direction in radio. He actually called back and we developed a neat little relationship. He'd give me stuff to do, and I'd work on it, call him back a few weeks later, and let him know how it was going. Finally, after a while. he'd let me call in anytime. He said, "We're friends now, you call me whenever you need me." He'd let me spend time looking in on his air shifts, and I would see how he'd work the mike and do the characters and create theater of the mind. I was two hours away from where he was, so I didn't get to spend a lot of time watching him in the studio, but he definitely mentored me.
Lonnie Perkins was lucky. He had someone who actually helped teach him production. Rich Van Slyke from WKLS in Atlanta, tells an all too common story:
The way I learned is just by listening to records and other people's commercials. Dick Orkin and a lot of the great funny radio commercials influenced me. After a couple years out of college, I got a tape that was circulated by Radio & Records that had the works of a lot of great AOR Production Directors from stations like WBCN, WEBN and WYSP. That tape completely opened the door for me. On there were things that I had never really heard before, but are now pretty standard. Things like song parodies and comedy bits done just for the sake of comedy and to be funny on the radio.
The only other training that I had was from some courses that I took at a recording studio in town. I learned a lot from there. I learned EQ, reverb, multitrack and how the sounds on records are achieved. Things like double track vocals, miking techniques, the relationship between the instruments, and stuff.
The experiences of Perkins and Van Slyke seem to be commonplace in radio. You observe, you learn the basics, maybe take some classes to get you started, but the real education comes by teaching yourself. I asked Lonnie and Rich about their thoughts on kids learning radio today.
Lonnie says: I don't see as much interest in kids having an interest in radio like there was when I and my friends were young. I think a good part of that is because the nature of the industry has changed. Soon after that time in the late seventies, you stopped getting personalities on the air and you started getting guys just reading idiot cards and liners. So a lot of the old talented guys started disappearing, and the passion dwindled from a lot of young upstarts like myself who wanted to get on the radio and play. There is a guy or two around the station who started here in college. He's clamoring for time in the production studio, but that's so rare anymore, in fact we even have trouble getting good interns here.
Rich says: I think that is one of the problems of the radio industry...there are no teachers or mentors. I seldom find anybody who wants to be into production enough to learn the intricacies, which is good and bad. Good, because it gives us job security. If I was someone who did want to learn, I know that there are producers who would love to teach it. Why? Because most of us love to talk about what we do. If someone shows a lot of enthusiasm and is impressed by what we do, by all means, teach them!
Finally, I asked what makes a good mentor, teacher or role model. Lonnie Perkins simply replied: "Time. Someone who has the time to give and understands that the world is bigger than himself. Someone who cares enough to pass along the blessings that he's got and share it with someone else instead of being absorbed in his own self-important world."
Rich Van Slyke then offered this parting word, one that will inspire those, like myself, who feel like they could be doing more to bring up the next batch of producers. Van Slyke says, "I've learned a lot from the RAP Cassette. I can point to quite a few commercials that were directly influenced by the RAP Cassette."
So, you never know. A production shared with others, or an indirect comment, or a bit of positive feedback, perhaps a snippet of constructive criticism...any or all of them may help you to be a mentor. Just recently a former intern of mine, who works for one of my clients, showed up with a DAT. On it was a spot I had written that he had produced. As I listened, I heard him take the copy and go beyond it, adding in sound effects and elements that weren't on the written page, elements that made it come alive. When it was over, he asked me, "Is that what you heard in your head when you wrote it?" I told him, "Yes, indeed it was." In fact, the finished dub was even better. It was a great feeling. Remember, this industry needs teachers and role models. Take your expertise and just do it.