by Marshall Such

money-bagAs Bob Dylan so aptly stated, “The times they are a changin’.” And while you may cringe at the thought of Bob Dylan’s vocal stylings, his prophetic phrase can mean a whole new world to you as a production person.

Many of the articles in Radio And Production over the past few years have lamented the shoddy treatment of production departments at radio stations--overworked, underpaid, ungrateful AEs, indifferent management, etc.. And one of my favorite observations came from contributing writer, John Pellegrini, who made the case that you can’t learn radio production at any college. Sure, there are classes in audio basics like how to scrub a cart, but a comprehensive course in creating great commercials, pulse-pounding promos, and scintillating sweepers is simply not available...yet. (John also went on to point out that degrees were available in television production, graphic design, etc..)

So what has caused production to become the bastard stepchild of radio? While I have no actual proof of my theory, I’m convinced there’s some validity to this conjecture:

The radio production department evolved (much like sea urchins) and was not created “in the beginning” of radio.

Flash back to the ’60s--boss jocks, puking delivery, PAMS jingles. During that time, many stations didn’t have a production department, per se. When jocks got off the air they were off to the production room where the Traffic Manager had left copy for the local advertisers’ spots, and maybe a half-dozen agency tapes to be dubbed. The jocks would cut and produce the spots and dub the agency tapes. Then it was “Miller Time.”

And station imaging back then? There was always one DJ who loved to tinker in the production room. While he was the de facto “production person,” staying up until three in the morning creating the contest promos, he (“she’s” weren’t into production back then) is undoubtedly our early ancestor.

Meanwhile, down the hall sat the station engineer, God of All That Is Electronic. His knowledge of radio production could fill a business card. But he had the degree, the coveted “double E” degree from East Waxahachi Tech. And his attitude toward the jocks (and our early ancestor) was one of total disdain.

Now, fast forward to late 1997. How much has changed? Okay. So you guys in the major markets have got your DSE-7000s, but has the attitude changed in thirty-some-odd years? Has the production department earned the same respect as programming? Or promotions? Or sales?

Yes, a vicious cycle was established years ago, and we’re fighting an uphill battle every day to change owner/management perception. And the modern production person is more than a jock who tinkers--he/she is often a copy writer, a voice talent, an engineer, a producer and a director. And sometimes even a musician!

And if we’re going to have radio production taken seriously and make it evolve into a respected and sought after profession, we’ve got to convince owners/managers that we’re not just a bunch of jocks-who-like-to-play-in-production. And the only way to get management’s attention is this:

Create, operate and manage a profit center for the station. Charge!

This is what we’ve got to do--all of us! We need to start charging local clients for production. We need to set up books for the production department and keep track of what we do. We need to sit down with the Local Sales Manager (if your station has one) or the Sales Manager and establish a station policy that includes a charge for locally produced spots.

I can hear the collective “right ons” and an equal number of moans and groans. I know, I know. If we at WXXX start charging for production, the guys at WYYY will still be giving it away free. Well my production brethren, isn’t your production better than WYYY’s? Don’t you have the best creative department in town? Isn’t the investment the company made in your production room, music libraries, effects packages, outside voice talent and writers substantial? And most importantly, won’t WYYY charge the client if the spot they produce leaves the station and appears on your station?

Think of it This Way

Nearly everyone of you guys I talk to charges the client when a dub leaves the station. What I’m proposing is this: the client is charged for the spot you produce, but he will also have the freedom to run it anywhere in town.

If every station in your market were to adopt this policy, the end result would be American free enterprise at its best. You would be competing for the client’s creative as would the guy from WYYY. This is the way ad agencies do it, and it provides the client with the best of the best.

To Spec or Not to Spec

Ad agencies often prepare elaborate (and expensive) new business presentations. So would you do a spec if it meant the possibility of revenue for your department? Could you ask for a modest creative fee? What will your competitor be doing?

When I think back to the hundreds of spec spots I’ve written/produced over the years, I’d suggest looking at three things: 1) Is the account exec a “solid citizen” who generally wins new business? 2) If it’s a new AE without a track record, could he invest $50 (for example) in the spec? 3) How much time/effort will be involved in relationship to the potential revenues from this client?

If the AE is someone who generally nails the sale, I’d say go for it. I’ve got some great relationships with AEs all over the country, and we have created some great stuff over the years. And yes, I’ve busted my ass for a week on a presentation (a regional campaign) and didn’t win.

When there’s a “questionable” salesperson (and y’all know exactly who I’m talking about), get them to put up a little “seed money” for the spec. That will make them really think through what they’re doing and give them a vested interest in selling the spot.

And be sure to evaluate the client’s potential for future business. If it’s Mom and Pop’s Card Shop making a Valentine’s Day buy and they want you to create a theater of the mind “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” spot with four voices, special music, and tons of sound effects, you may want to pass. (Oh! They’ll also be changing the copy after you’ve had them sign off on it and produced the completed spot.)

But if the AE is trying to sign the biggest car dealer in the area, and you know that they require new spots every week, you may want to pull out the big guns, put on your suit and tie, and accompany the salesperson for the initial meeting.

Stop the “Just Brakes” Cycle

Here in Dallas/Fort Worth we have a radio advertiser called Just Brakes. These cheap-ass SOBs have sent nearly every station in town a 2-voice script instead of paying $500 to one station to produce a solid commercial.

In the spot, one of the voices (a woman) is supposedly calling Just Brakes to get information about prices. A male plays the part of the Just Brakes employee who extols the virtues of their “$99.88 for all four wheels” deal.

Now, imagine you’re a radio listener who scans four different stations during your drive. On station A, you hear the woman’s voice filtered like she’s on the phone and Just Brakes Guy is in the forefront. Station B has it reversed with the woman being in the foreground and Just Brakes Guy being filtered. On station C, the male voice is the weekend news anchor, and sounds like Ted Baxter instead of Just Brakes Guy. On station D, there’s a hip hop music bed running under the dialogue!

Give me a brake! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Does this make for believable advertising? Do they think that people only listen to one radio station and that they won’t get confused or find the whole premise silly? Why didn’t they have a competition for the best version from the various stations, pay the production department, and be done with it?

Under this new system I’m proposing, they would be paying for it. And the production guys here in town would be motivated to give it 110 percent because they would want the money for their department.

A Success Story

Meanwhile, we’ve got a station, WQXB in Grenada, Mississippi that we provide with outside voices via the Internet (the Radio InterNetWork). This little coffee pot AM/FM charges their clients for every spot, has expanded into doing A/V work for the local hospital, and is showing a profit from their production room!

Do other stations in the area try to sell clients on “free production?” You bet. But the clients are so happy with the quality that WQXB provides that they just say “no thanks” to the competitors.

I’m sure Mark Margulies of BENMARadio has similar success stories. (BENMARadio also writes and produces spots for their clients.) And if you’re a regular RAP reader, you know of lots of other independent producers out there who are increasing the bottom line at stations.

Value Added

If you’re not familiar with the term “value added,” it’s a buzzword your salespeople use every day. For example, if an advertiser sponsors an on-air promotion, the mentions that run in the promo are a “value added” above and beyond their regular spot schedule.

Your production department will need to provide some form of “value added” to make the leap to paid production a reality. By using professional outside voices, free-lance writers, client jingles, a super production music library, or a new digital workstation, you will find advertisers much more receptive to this new policy. Believe me, the local advertiser has the same concerns in his business or service and will generally commensurate with your situation.

And as I had suggested in a previous article, it may be up to you to shoulder some of the cost to make the production department profitable. But take the long-term look. Your investment can pay off handsomely down the road.

Structuring Fees

If you’re in Poughkeepsie, you are not going to be able to charge the same rate as New York City. And if a client signs a one-year contract at twenty grand a month, you will need to work out a system with the Sales Manager where you can build in the cost of production. But most often, when a client makes a big buy, they’ve got an agency producing their spots, and this will be a moot point--unless the client is Just Brakes!

So for the occasional local advertiser or the regulars who spend a minimal amount of money per month (in Dallas, I’d say that’s around $2,000), we need to establish a rate card and stick with it.

How do you do that? If any of you run a business on the side, you know how to figure costs: add up all your expenses and divide it by the number of units you sell or you’re projecting to sell. Then you add on a profit, and voila! You’ve got your cost-per-spot, or cost-per-hour.

Flat Fee vs. Per Hour

But we’ve all had the dreaded client who has to “help.” And what would normally take an hour is now up to two and a half hours! And what about re-do’s or last-minute copy changes? Or the ad agency who brings the professional voice into your studio to record a spot?

This is where some brainstorming with the GM can be really helpful. As much as I like to bust GM’s balls, I gotta tell you that these folks are generally pretty sharp business people. And since you’re on the same side in this issue, the GM may have some good ideas on how to structure the department.

I think you will find that you can give clients (or the AEs) an estimate on what the spot is going to cost. You can use a per-hour figure as a starting point, then add in additional costs like outside writers or voices, a jingle, or maybe the purchase of a special production music CD that will be required for the spot.

If you do an estimate and allow for Murphy’s Law (or the client “helping”), you can put an addendum like: “Based on two hours of production time. Additional time will be billed at $40 per hour,” or whatever.

Additional Benefits

If you want to give a copy of this article to your GM and SM, please highlight this section.

Besides the obvious benefit of cash flow into the production department, this system will make your on-air personalities a value added commodity. With a personality-based radio station, it’s ridiculous for the midday girl to be hawking a client’s product without being compensated! If the client hires this person to say, “Hi, this is Midday Minnie, and I just love the great food at Client Cal’s Cafe...,” that’s cool. But to have Minnie reading a dozen spots and thinking that your regular listeners don’t know it’s your midday gal is ludicrous. And the client’s message will suffer since it’s “just another commercial with Midday Minnie.”

When you design your rate card, have a special rate set for on-air talent. Companies like ours and others can provide you with professional voices for clients who can’t afford the extra cost of the station talent. And the end result? Your stop-sets will sound super, the clients will have an out-of-market pro voicing their spot, and your station’s personalities will be elevated to a higher stature which will lead to increased demands and higher fees for remotes.

Wrapping It Up

Charging for production and delivering the quality of production that keeps clients coming back for more will make you an integral part of the station’s money-making process. There is no reason your production room can’t be turning a profit every year which could lead to big bonuses for you and your staff.

We need to change the perception of production. And a unified movement of this magnitude can lead to radio production being viewed in a whole new light. With multi-station deals becoming the norm instead of the exception, there is a potential for enormous revenues in nearly every market.

And with revenues comes respect for the department. And with respect, we may actually see some colleges and universities offering Bachelor Degrees in Radio Production. We may be able to tell the next generation of producers, “Yeah, there used to be a time where the Chief Engineer hassled and taunted us. Now, I’m making twice his salary!”