March 14, 2014
One of the first precepts I was told when I was but a young talk radio program director was, "don't put yourself on the air." Actually, it was more like "I never want to hear you on the air," come to think of it, but the idea was understandable. You don't want a PD who thinks he or she can do the job better than the hosts whose job it already is, and you don't want the PD distracted by having to prep a show and host and still have to be the boss the rest of the day. Sounds reasonable, I thought. And, in many if not most cases, it still is.
Except for this: You can end up with a PD who has no conception, really, of what goes into making a good show. Maybe he or she can hear the end result, but the creative process and the resources a host needs to get to the best result are a mystery. Sure, you can sit and observe, but there's a difference between watching someone do something and actually having to do it. In this case, it's the difference between watching someone prepare and do a show and actually sitting in front of a hot mic and having to fill long stretches of airtime with something listeners will find interesting and compelling.
And if you've done the latter, whether it's talk radio or music radio that isn't just reading a liner card, you know what goes into making your show work. If you haven't gone on the air and done it (free-form stoner college radio doesn't count), I'd say that you should at least try it once, not because you want to replace anyone or become the next Stern or Limbaugh or Kevin and Bean but because you want to get a feel for what a talent needs to make a show a show. It's enlightening, to say the least, especially when you're on the air and alone and there's no help and you've burned through all your material and you have no idea what to do next.
Ah, right, alone. I'm aware that stations don't always spend the money to hire support staff for every show -- they never have, really, at a lot of stations. Even back in the ancient days when I was programming, the GM would tell you that you could use interns as phone screeners and phone screeners as "producers." I've discussed this before here, and I'll say it again: Radio show producer is a critical job, and it shouldn't be considered something to be assigned like getting coffee and taking out the trash. That's one big resource a host needs. If you're taking calls, a phone screener with experience is another necessity -- you need someone who does more than just pick up the phone, get a name, and put the call on hold. You need someone who can judge in seconds whether the call's worth airing, help the caller phrase the comment just right, and let the talent know which calls to take in what order. In other words, it's another producer job, and it should be someone other than the producer, who has other things to do.
Then, there's the matter of direction. The producer's job is to help the host make the show what the host wants it to be, and help steer it there. The PD is there to do that, too, although -- and I've mentioned this here before, too -- overanalyzing a show can be counterproductive, and aircheck sessions every day can turn into the kind of torture that demoralizes a creative person.
Wait. There's that word. Creative. It's funny -- there's always a tension between creative instincts and business, and radio is not alone in that. Television and movies always end up with studio and network executives interfering and providing notes and making changes for the sake of changes until the dark, introspective, intellectual pitch the creator made turns into a sitcom vehicle for Matt LeBlanc. Books have editors, some of whom are more constructive than others, who can hack Shakespeare into "Fifty Shades of Grey." The Internet has opened things up -- you can put stuff out unencumbered by editorial interference -- but that's also allowing stuff that NEEDS some direction and doesn't have it to get out there half-baked. Radio? Everyone has their horror stories of PDs and GMs interfering with content. Goes with the territory.
Which leads us to how radio could, if it chooses to do so, become the best of both worlds. Ideally, you hire talent who has a clear vision of what they want their show to be and let them do it. You'd just say "show up on time, don't lose us the license, play the commercials and legal ID, don't screw with the sponsors," and then let them do what they know how to do best, and provide the production support to make that happen. After all, the real direction comes in the hiring process, in hiring talent in whom you're confident. But since not every talent is at that stage when you get them, I always found it best to focus on how to make a show better rather than beating the talent over the head with what they're doing wrong. If you're on the same page with them as to what you want the end result to be, the things you need to look at is how to get there, not what they screwed up along the way. It's less "don't do that" and more "here's how to do that so it comes out better." Less Bobby Knight, more John Wooden, at least in theory. (You don't have rich alumni to help with recruiting, but you get the idea.)
And that leads me to another idea, but I'll hold that for another column. Again, that's contingent on me remembering what I meant by that in a week's time. That's never a given.
While we're on the subject of creating content, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else, is here to help you do that every day. Get there by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. Plus, this week, don't miss "10 Questions With..." Bryan Crabtree, morning host at WQSC in Charleston, SC, a radio veteran whose career change into real estate managed to merge him back into radio; he talks about having his dual careers and how he makes it all work.
Next week, if I remember, I'll talk about that Great Idea for talk radio. Or March Madness. Depends. I'm still pretty annoyed with my Alma Mater No. 2 losing in the Big East tournament.