Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Quality v. Quantity

I’m convinced that some high profile radio decision makers are suffering from severe hearing loss.

When radio listeners ask for quality programming, the decision makers hear quantity programming; hence HD Radio and its smorgasbord of insipid formats.

When listeners, weary of pitiable audio processing and pitch escalation on their terrestrial stations, ask for quality audio – radio execs hear it as quantity audio and cram in more HD side channels of auditory mediocrity.

When listeners ask to hear quality music, radio execs hear quantity music, so listeners have to suffer through the many variations of “classic hits.” The nearest thing to a radio industry ideological dispute is what to name the format - Jack, Jill, Mix or Magic.

When listeners ask for quality news, they hear quantity news, convinced that they’re fulfilling those needs with truncated, facts-optional, newscasts with murder on the ones, weather on the twos, traffic on the threes, sports on the fours, and armed robberies on the fives.

When listeners ask for quality (fill in your own suggestion), they hear quantity and (fill in your own favorite embarrassment).

We could go on for days, weeks, months, years.

Let’s single out production for a moment.

Remember when radio was considered the last great illusion? That, like the written word, you could play on one’s imagination? In radio’s case it was about creating audio with imaginative production and proficient writing.

Some of you may even remember Stan Freberg’s testimony to radio’s cinematics. With skillful writing and sound effects to match, Freberg drained Lake Michigan of all water, replacing it with hot chocolate and a mountain of whipped cream. It ended with a group of helicopters in formation dropping a giant maraschino cherry on the summit of that whipped cream mountain. The promo, which was for the advantages of advertising on radio, closed with, "Let's see them do that on television!"

Here’s the kicker. This was 1957! Fifty years ago today! Freberg produced that one with a reel-to-reel, tape, a razor blade, and round pots. No multi-track, no digital read-out – and, back then, a description of basic Pro Tools would’ve sounded like something out of The Jetsons.

That’s what radio should be doing today. Bring back the creative. Bring back the art of playing on one’s imagination. You want to save radio? Have it to what it does best.

Instead – and I’ll site an example from a few months back - when a highly talented production director (I won’t tell you the market; it’s too obvious) who had created some memorable spots for local clients was replaced by an automaton. This automaton produces local spots at a slightly quicker clip, which is why the other guy got downsized, but he also has zero production creativity. As a result, all spots on this cluster of stations now sound alike and it’s not uncommon to hear his wearisome voice on two, three, even four spots in a row. Quality control? Are those two words supposed to go together? Now, a few clients – including one major player – are making plans to place their business elsewhere – to TV and cable – because they need a“visual” for their product, which that cluster can no longer deliver. I ought to know. They called me to ask why an allegedly financially strapped radio chain would turn away business.

Let’s not even begin to delve into the some of the miserable copy these production guys have to deal with. In the days before radio sales departments looked like a Greyhound Bus station on a Friday night, account executives actually cared about a client’s finished product.

There are those born with specific predispositions that slant them to beliefs, which are foreordained and not in any way the results of logic and study that they think they bring to issues.

That’s the only excuse I can come up with to explain the many faux pas committed by several of the current crop of radio decision makers.

Or as Bob Dylan put it in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” That he not busy being born Is busy dying.

Nobody ever went broke underestimating the capability of these clowns to screw up.

You’d swear there are a whole lot of creative radio types that have been frozen in a cryogenic vault for the past 10 years.

Those who are working keep their skills under the radar and just do what they’re told.

Creativity. From an asset to a liability in just one decade.

That will, of course change.

I’m going to print up bumper stickers for just that occasion. They’ll read: “1996: I was a seller, not a buyer” and “Follow me to the Fire Sale.”

In the interim, is it even worth the effort explaining the difference between quality and quantity to those running the show right now?

Nah! This bunch? You can’t even confuse them with the facts. They couldn’t even buy a clue. It’s not in the budget.


JK USA said...

Another one - Dick Orkin's Radio Ranch. They did spots and syndication (remember Chickenman?). It's over thirty years old and I still remember "Fall in to the GAP." Still their best creative. Thank you for calling attention to Stan Freberg who is a true legend.

Anonymous said...

You left out the four key words: Theater of the mind. Otherwise, you wrote a piece that station management should read and follow. It is a major advantage radio could have over satellite radio. Thank you for acknowledging production directors. Please consult our station.

Anonymous said...

On the subject of "quantity", I see that Clear Channel was just granted approval to move WMRN from Marion, OH to Columbus. The FCC wouldn't allow this when the market had "only" 44 signals, but after WHIZ-FM moved in from Zanesville, Clear Channel got the go-ahead.

So what mediocre format will they choose? Is there room in Columbus for "Fresh"?

Anonymous said...

Thinking some more about that Clear Channel move-in -- it seems that the only "creativity" in today's radio business is found in two areas:

1) The legal arguments which attempt to explain why suburban bedroom communities like Dublin and Baltimore, Ohio desperately need a "local" radio station.

2) The production skills needed to "bury" the station's suburban community of license in the legal ID.

John said...

I'm sure many of you are aware of but this entry had me thinking about the creative programming I often find on there. Reel Radio is an audio archive of top 40 from yesteryear. Some are scoped and some are full recordings with songs included. The archive keeps growing as people find old reel to reel tape at flea markets and the like that contain radio recordings. It used to be free but now run about 15 bucks a year. Well worth it.

Anonymous said...

John: Thank you for recognizing production as an important element of the sound of a station. Clear Channel is calling production a needless waste and not renewing production package licenses. Radio's only saving point is that when production is done well it can play off of one's imagination. To do it on TV costs millions. When will these idiots running Clear Channel, the National Assoc. of Broadcasters and others who got sucked into deregulation realize that this is the only thing that can save them? Someone should tell Clear Channel clients of their idiocy.

Anonymous said...

After years of tightening playlists some dumb consultant or programmer figured out they went too far and reacted by coming up with a format that played 1,000 or more titles most of which sound randomly picked. It should be called Jack-Ass.

ray radio said...

I work for a McVay Media consulted station. When the Jack format mania began my GM asked him what he thought of it. Our format a hot leaning AC has not been doing well. Mike told the GM that it was not well-tested or thought out and that it would be a bust. A few weeks later he suggested a syndicated format from JRN for another station in our chain. It was called Jill. I listened to the Jill package and it was Jack only with some slightly female leaning tracks. I found it odd that he would reject Jack but push Jill. Then I found out that he consults Jill for JRN. McVay was late on Jack and their brand of classic hits so he dissed it.

Anonymous said...

i never really thought about it until you brought it up about news stations. what i notice is that most news stations that do specific weather or traffic on the twos or threes are usually a minute or two late. these stations don't realize that commuters have digital clocks on most of their car radios and can see that the actual time does not match with their time check and feature. radio stations should view this as something that will put doubt in their minds about accuracy and quality. if you can't even get the time right how can we trust your news?

Jim Haynes said...

John Gorman. Love your blog.

I heard you on NPR a few years back talking about the "unsung heroes" of WMMS and you mentioned Jeff Kinsbach when he was production director, Steve Lushbaugh (who I know from WMMR & John Debella) and Tom O'Brien. You played some of their production and it was inspirational and I mean that sincerely.

It is rare these days that production is taken seriously in radio. It is another one of those needless expenses. Do we really need this upgrade? Do we really need to renew this production package?

I used to do commercial production at a station (don't want to say who or where.) and my guys and I were considered the work dogs. We were not even allowed to participate in meetings with the group PD or the GM/GSM. We were the drop off point at the end of the day for the salespeople.

I left radio and I do miss parts of it but not the lack of respect. Now I work for a recording studio and the use of my talents are encouraged and rewarded.

I have that Stan Freberg Marichino cherry promo on an old vinyl album and an old reel I need to dub of his Salada Tea gypsy 'soap opera' spots from the late 50s.

I'll send you a copy if you don't have it.

Thank you John for another killer blog.

Anonymous said...

This question is for John Gorman.

Why would you want to help save radio?

There is no upside.

Anonymous said...

I hope the fire sales come soon. It will put the value of radio back to where it belongs.

Anonymous said...

Clear Channel stations are sounding like a jukebox. I listened to one CC country station and didn't hear a jock for almost 25 minutes. Just an artist drop and dead segues.

This is how terrestrial radio expects to win?

Anonymous said...

Too many producers have fallen into the trap of thinking that "more sound effects" means "more creative". If you don't start with quality writing, no number of zips, zaps, and swooshes will save your promo. If CC and other radio companies are dropping production/imaging libraries maybe that's a good thing. It might force those less creative producers to be MORE creative.

By the way, can we stop referring to it as the "Production Department"? Creative Services Department is more appropriate, don't you think? That is, of course, assuming you're doing it properly.

Anonymous said...

Why do we have to choose between quality and quantity? The Beatles often put out several albums in a year, and still managed to have higher quality than some people today who do one album every 4 years.

I think that if you're at the top of your game, and are firing on all 8 cylanders, you should be able to deliver both quality and quantity. Whenever I hear an artist tell me they took a lot of time off to make their latest record, I know it's a dog. Woof.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points - couldn't agree more. But two corrections: Freberg created the Lake Michigan spot for the RAB in 1965, part of his series "Who Listens to Radio?" (I have the 7" 33-1/3 in my library.) And, he told me himself, they used eight Ampex 351's in a row and ran an engineer ragged as he scooted from one machine to another to start the sound effects. By the time they finished the spot, the engineer was breathing hard and sweating, he told me.

Anonymous said...

An Aside - Orkin and Freberg..we need! When copy comes directly from sales, goes through production and doesn't even get proofed, the results are painfully obvious. One other note here: I sincerely appreciate the blog for venting purposes but how about "solutions" over all the negativity and complaining? I too want radio repaired but you don't fix without solutions.

bobyoung said...

I am visting in Lima Perú at the moment and guess what I've seen a bunch of? Yes, Clear Channel billboards. Is this a back up exit strategy for when they finally realize HD is a joke and a bust or are they going to try to dominate and completely screw up radio here too?
I don't think they've saturated the market here yet, as there are still live jocks on many of the stations here. I have noticed 800 commercials in a row on TV here though on some stations so maybe they're getting into TV here?

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