by John Pellegrini
This article is, in fact, the result of another article that I wrote, the subject of which has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this article. Capice?
The article that I had written, entitled "Radio Is Not Immediate" (RAP, October, 1997) generated an e-mail from an Operations Manager at a radio station (note to the person involved, I omit your name out of professional courtesy and privacy, but you know who you are!) in the RAP Network. He mentioned that he was originally the Production Director and had been promoted to Operations Manager. And that, mein freunds, is the subject of this month's rant.
Why the heck is it, he wonders, that the very notion of a production person being promoted into some form of real management such as Operations Manager, or Program Director, or even General Manager, such a rare occurrence that when you actually hear of one, it's enough to inspire an awestruck article such as this? Sure, some production guys go into sales, and, if they stick around long enough, they might even get a Sales Manager's post; but that usually requires being retrained and forced to forget all or most of the stuff you learned about programming and production. And even then, this type of promotion is also a very rare occurrence.
Yet, I must ask rather loudly, why is this so? Who, of the entire staff at a radio station, has more experience with straddling the fence between programming and sales? Who, of the entire staff at a radio station, best understands the real job and purpose of a radio station than the Production Director? Think this over carefully, and I'll give you some hard, solid facts.
Fact: only one person on the staff of a radio station has to make daily (if not hourly) decisions involving programming and sales, even more than the General Manager or the Business Manager. That person would be referred to as the Production Director.
Fact: only the Production Director has daily (if not hourly) feedback from clients and listeners on the results of his or her efforts, and only the Production Director gets immediate results-oriented feedback ("The promo was great; the spot sucks.") instead of the kind generated by "studies, surveys, consultants and focus groups" that take weeks and months to assimilate, digest, and interpret. "Okay, the focus group said our listeners hate us, but what it really means is.…"
Fact: no one else on the entire station staff is required to think faster and with a higher level of creativity than the production person. And no one else on the entire station staff is required to produce more excellence with almost no substance or information supplied for idea generation.
I could go on, but you get the picture. The point is, if the ideal candidate for the Program Director or Operations Manager position includes such qualifications as the ability to think creatively beyond the routine, the ability to make decisions quickly and implement said decisions just as quickly, the ability to work well with the sales staff and clients in developing promotional ideas that gain huge ratings along with additional moneys for the station, and the ability to work well under tremendous pressure, then the question is, why aren't more stations interviewing their production personnel for these management positions?
Yet, for as long as I've been around the business, most of the programming and operations managers have come from the music side of the biz. That's a natural progression, because Music Directors are usually the ones who work closest with the Program Directors. After all, most stations are music stations, and that's still the most exciting part of the business--being on the phone with record industry types, talking to the big music stars when they roll into town. Let's face it, for many stations, music is over seventy-five percent of the programming.
Now comes the time when I have to try to be as delicate as possible with this sledgehammer. Music, from a programming aspect, is secondary to a station's success. The real successes in programming come as a result of the presentation, not the music. In other words, the personality, not only of the air staff, but the personality of the station! You can find evidence of this fact in any market that has multiple stations in the same format. The fact is, the personality of the station is more important than the music, especially in battles between stations in the same format. That's why talk shows in rock formats, like Howard Stern, Mark and Brian, Mancow, and others, do so well against other stations in their identical format. The majority of dominant stations are personality driven.
We have a promo that runs on our station, courtesy of Lonnie Perkins at WIBC in Indianapolis, that among other things says, "If I want music, I can listen to my own records at home, and what do I need the radio for?" That attitude is apparent in the way the ratings rank up in each market.
Here's where I'm really gonna get hate mail. The fact is, the Music Director is not always the best candidate to judge or decide how to approach the personality of the radio station, ergo, not always the best candidate for the programming or operations gig. My apologies to all music people out there. I've known quite a few and some of them continue to be my best friends in the business, but the fact is, creative promotional brilliance is not their best suit. Securing first plays on a record, securing impossible to get interviews, getting the best music delivery from the record companies, those are their strong suits. However, those features do not necessarily make a radio station memorable in a way to really generate the almighty big ratings. And, we must also consider what happens when the music dies? What happens when the music goes away and the station changes to a totally different format? Does this ever happen?
Might I suggest that the best people who can successfully switch formats and still remain creative, still remain excited, still understand how to reach an audience, is the production person. Because to most production people, the goal is to reach the biggest audience. As Stew Herrera pointed out about John Frost's production (RAP, February 1998), what John is doing could play on any station. The same holds true for all great production and image work; if the concept is clever, it can play anywhere.
Now I'm not saying that if I was working in Country, that I'd do things that didn't flow with the country audience. Hell no! But, what I am asking, pointedly, is how many other programming people could switch from Rock radio to Talk radio like I did and have little trouble with creativity? I also know that I could easily do what I do for a Country station, and it would be just as effective. In fact, when you think about it, how many times have you seen format changes in radio stations resulting in virtually everyone on the programming side getting the ax, with the singular exception of the production personnel? This happened with our FM sister station. Out of the entire staff of the old country format, three people stayed. Two were on-air part timers and the third was the production guy. What does that tell you?
How many programmers have to quit when the station changes format, even though they're good programmers, but they just can't program anything else except whatever the music format is? This is a direct result of music people getting the programming jobs. It wouldn't be that way with a production person in programming. Which is the more cost effective method: keeping your Program Director during a format change or having to go out and spend more money to find someone who can handle the new format?
There are even situations out there with one company owning multiple signals in one market with different formats on each station, and each station has their own programming and music directors, but one production person handles all the stations. Some may say that's terrible that one person has to handle it all, yet I also say that's remarkable! It's remarkable that only one person on the entire staff is talented enough to do work for all the formats. Why doesn't this then get translated into making that one person the programming supervisor for the entire chain? I would be real concerned with anyone who would try to challenge that line of thinking and to suggest that the only one talented enough to work all formats is not capable. That's a person who exploits more than inspires.
This article is designed to serve one purpose: to inspire production personnel to seek levels higher for themselves. We are, at the very least, as qualified as anyone else, if not the best qualified candidates for the roles of Program Director and Operations Manager, hands down. As much as I like the music people, I have seen way too often how the loss of a competent production person can undermine the station's sound far greater than the loss of a Music Director. If this article can also cause a couple of General Managers to think of another angle when it comes to filling the role of the Program Director or Operations Manager and take a good hard look at the qualifications of their own production people, so much the better.
Of course, there are many who will find this article to be self-serving and ridiculous. Who are we, they will shout, that we should think that we are better qualified than the music people and the system of promotion that's already in place? It's very simple. We are the ones who survive the formatics and the changes better than any other programming staff member at any radio station. No matter how many times a station changes format, they almost always are somehow able to keep the production person. It's not because it's cheaper, and it's not because we're mindless goons who don't need to know anything. It's because we in production really do understand how and why a radio station achieves an audience, how and why a radio station keeps it's audience, and how and why a radio station keeps the revenue coming in the door, regardless of format and music content, or lack thereof. (In fact, if we're being kept while Program Directors are being let go, then who's the expert on attracting audiences? Hmmmm?) Besides, no one else seems willing to make this issue known; you certainly won't read ideas like this in any other trade publications. Thanks, industry people!
The production people understand the concepts of winning programming strategy better than any other person on the programming staff because we do it every day. Every radio station has advertisers who normally wouldn't buy the format, but because the production person does such a great job for them, they get results that keep them coming back, because only production people can adapt ideas outside formats and still get the results necessary without causing listener loss. Only the Production person is called upon to create images that not only work on their radio stations, but on other stations and formats throughout the market, and sometimes several markets. Only the production person can do stuff that will generate results in any format. Isn't that the ideal Program Director and Operations Manager's job description?
Unfortunately, time and time again, the credit for our efforts goes to other people. Take the difficult client who never bought radio before but loved the commercial we created for their business so much that they signed a huge contract. Well, that's the result of the salesperson's efforts, not the production department. The promotion that became the biggest attended station event of the year…that was the Program Director's wonderful job, with special thanks to the promotions department and not the production person who created the killer promo that got everyone's attention away from the other clutter on the air.
To General Managers everywhere: please stop ignoring your production department. You're missing out on some of the best people in the business because we're the only ones who face the entire sales/programming conflict every day and make it work! In fact, we're the reason why it manages to work. We're the ones who placate both sides, and we're the ones who, more often than not, turn some ridiculously stupid idea that was dreamed up after several hours of drinking with the client into the best promotion that ever came down the pike. And, we do it in spite of some of the other nameless managers whose original ideas were rejected out of hand by the clients. If you don't think this happens, ask your clients.
To my many production brethren (to cop a phrase from Dennis Daniel): don't hold back! Don't just consider what you do as production and nothing else! You are perfectly capable of going into programming or management. If your current station won't recognize this, then go somewhere that will. No one else is going to look out for your career except yourself, so make the most of it!
Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to go to the socialist/unionist rally. "What do we want? Management! When do we want it? NOW!" (Repeat as necessary.)