by John Pellegrini
Is the job of Production Director merely that of someone who writes commercials and voices them, or is it something more? Is the job of Creative Director the same? Or is it something more? Is there an audience for radio beyond just playing the hits, or shooting off your opinions in talk radio? Is there, in this day and age of TV, movies, virtual reality, any possible hope for something approaching a return of “Radio’s Golden Age?”
“Good God, Mildred, what the hell is he babbling about now?”
Back in December of 1996, while I was just beginning the process of negotiating my eventual job here at WLS, I was fortunate enough to attend a rather special performance. This article will be a sort of review of that performance and the possible implications of what it could mean for people in radio production. Here’s how it happened.
Saturday, December 21st, 1996 my wife, Sarah, and I, along with her parents and her sister and brother-in-law, loaded up into our mini van and drove two and a half hours from Grand Rapids to Ann Arbor, Michigan, home of the University of Michigan and for this occasion, Hill Auditorium, where we had tickets to see a live performance of A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. The show is a sell out--no small feat considering the 4,000 seat capacity of the place and that more than half of these people paid $50 to $75 per ticket!
In fact, the show sold out so quickly and there were so many requests for more tickets that the PHC cast did a special early “rehearsal” performance for those who couldn’t get tickets to the live broadcast--something they never do anywhere else! The rehearsal was also a sell out. (Side-bar: the tickets for the rehearsal cost as much as the live performance.) As we take our seats for the live show, my father-in-law jokingly said to me, “Well, it seems those TV experts were right. Radio is dead.”
The show was great. Everyone had a good time. The humor was wonderful, and even though Garrison Keillor isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you use the phrase “Biting Satire,” I’ll have to say that much of the skits he performed had quite an edge to them. If you ever get a chance to see a live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, kill whomever you must to get tickets! I came away from the show more than a little astounded. Many months later, as I write this article, I still am.
The stage setup was simple enough, plenty of mics everywhere, and all the guests took up different areas of the stage and came in while other guests were performing. The whole performance was quite flawless, and, while you might not expect it, Garrison Keillor did a splendid job of not only keeping things moving, but keeping the audience under control. For a radio guy, he’s quite a master of stage direction. The close of the show found all of the musical guests and participants joining on stage with the audience singing Silent Night. Quite a finale. You should have been there!
In speaking with my father-in-law many weeks later, we both discovered that whenever we mentioned to people we know that we had seen PHC in performance, neither of us had encountered anyone not saying, “Oh GOD! I wish I could have been there!” The reaction was almost entirely the same from everyone we talked to, no matter the age, race, or gender.
Ask yourself something right now: why is this reaction occurring so frequently? Is it because PHC is so unbelievably well done? I doubt it, although it certainly is well done. No, I believe that people are so excited about the idea of seeing PHC in performance because of its uniqueness.
Sure, anyone can see a movie, anyone can watch TV, but when was the last time you saw a live radio broadcast of this nature? Yes, your station’s live remotes always attract a crowd (truth is, so do TV remotes and location filming for movies). But if you charged between fifty to seventy-five dollars a ticket, would your station remotes attract as many people? Of course not. But ask yourself, why?
There are those who would say that Garrison Keillor’s talent is unique to radio. So? Why? Is there anything unique about his talent? No. There are other great writers and story tellers the world over. There are other great singers and comedians, too. Is it because you can’t make any money in radio? Not true at all. Garrison Keillor makes a great living. So do many other radio performers (especially the syndicated ones). There is money in radio.
Yet the question I keep coming back to, the one that nags me to no end is, after nearly twenty years, why is PHC the only live radio show if its kind? Oh, all right, you could include “Whadda Ya Know” (with Michael Feldman), but technically it’s supposed to be a game show; they don’t do skits. Regardless, there clearly is an audience and a lucrative market for it. Surely the market can bear more support of this kind of programming.
Here’s where I’m going to piss some people off. I believe that the answer to this question lies in something known as MUSIC. Music, you ask? How could that be? I answer with these questions: have there just been too many music geeks in control of radio for too long? Have we become so brain fried into selling music formats that we’ve forgotten what radio is supposed to be? Talk radio, believe it or not, is an outgrowth of music radio, not radio theater. Talk radio is the result of the disk jockey and the Program Directors realizing that what they said was more entertaining and got bigger ratings than the music they played, so they kept cutting back on the music until, lo and behold, it became talk radio.
The majority of the talk radio superstars of today were lowly disk jockeys a decade ago. Only a handful of the big ones started with talk radio as talk show hosts. What does this mean? It means we still have a mind set among programmers and personalities that believes radio theater type shows like PHC and the rest are of limited appeal.
Plus, there’s the added question of economics and creativity. A Prairie Home Companion is only heard once a week during the regular season, and there’s quite a lot of reruns. Why? Because it takes a lot of work to write and produce a show like that. I don’t know of anyone insane enough to try to make a show like A Prairie Home Companion into a daily show. There aren’t enough writers in the world. Also, when you figure that writing for a half-hour weekly television show will pay you ten times what you’d get writing a weekly two-hour radio show, the choice is clear.
But, and I cannot stress this enough, the reason why there aren’t more programs like A Prairie Home Companion IS NOT DUE TO LACK OF AUDIENCE INTEREST!!!! And no one should ever be allowed to make a claim that it is! A Prairie Home Companion continues to be one of the most popular public radio programs in the country. Hell, it’s one of the most popular radio programs of both public and commercial radio.
Here’s what’s driving this article, kids: radio theater isn’t dead. Radio theater is alive and doing quite well. But, very few people in the biz are still practicing it. We, in fact, are the only people working in radio who are among the living legacy of radio theater. Sure, we mostly use it to do commercials and promos but, nonetheless, that’s where we come from. We, the production people, are the keepers of that flame. Don’t ever let some narrow-minded programmer or air talent or manager tell you otherwise. The theater of the mind is alive inside production people around the world. You don’t have to keep your bits to under a minute or your promos to under thirty seconds. Radio audiences will sit for two hours listening to A Prairie Home Companion. They will listen to whatever you create for as long as it goes, provided (and this is the key) that you’ve done something interesting.
Remember, when people claim that the air personalities talk too much, what they’re really saying is the air personalities are BORING! An air talent whose sole shtick is to open the mike and laugh at how funny he or she thinks they are, or as the radio show on The Simpsons calls itself, “Two guys who just can’t get enough of each other,” is not interesting or compelling to listen to. That’s the kind of show that “talks too much.” In truth, they shouldn’t be allowed to talk at all. The audience will listen to whatever interests them. And they will keep listening for as long as things stay interesting. Talk radio proves it. A Prairie Home Companion proves it. People will listen forever if you’ve got something interesting to say.
Radio theater allows us to talk about a variety of subjects in very different and interesting ways. Herewith lies your credo, o keeper of the radio production flame: “Theater of the Mind is a terrible thing to waste.” And by the way, that flame is not for lighting farts! Now, there’s an idea for a theater of the mind bit--some weirdo trying to light farts off the Eternal Flame at the Kennedy Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery. What kind of theater of the mind do you get off that suggestion? Who would do such a thing? Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh? Heck, I’m getting too political now.