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The Incredible Shrinking Planet

Dear American Radio Producers:

There was a time, not so long ago; that our brothers and sisters in broadcasting overseas, looked to the U.S. for inspiration and even set working in an American market as a professional goal. European, African and Asian broadcasters have taken what used to be state-run, mostly bland, sometimes pure propaganda machines and turned them into real commercial juggernauts. The days of “Pirate” radio stations beaming their signals from the rooftops of homes in Amsterdam, basements in Moscow and from ships in the Baltic are done. Now, radio has evolved far beyond that in countries as diverse as Kenya, Lebanon, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Many of the radio stations I’ve become familiar with in just the last few years stand shoulder to shoulder with most stations here. And their secret to success is Production.

Listen to RTL in Berlin and you’ll hear it. Try Mix-FM in Beirut, Lebanon and you’ll hear it. The Voice in Denmark, The Edge in Sydney, Australia, 98FM in Dublin, NRJ in Paris, all have stellar production people who have taken what they’ve heard on American radio and made it their own, very often improving that sound a LOT. Flowing, rhythmic, musical production that informs and entertains, sets the image of their respective stations indelibly in the minds of their listeners and frankly delivers the goods as well as any I’ve heard anywhere on this side of the ocean.

Over the last several years, I've been speaking in many of these cities about imaging production and have had the chance to not only listen first hand, but meet most of the producers. Like most American radio folk, these guys are crazy interested in improving, making things bigger, better, faster and louder. The absolute best part about any of my presentations there are the questions I get afterward.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Great. More competition for my job,” and you are partially correct, but that’s not why I’m writing this blog. What I really want to pass along are the questions these producers are asking to give you a sense of what they see as being important to our craft.

How much compression is too much? How can you use EQ to add to the impact of a promo? How important is matching the beats? How can silence make my production stronger? Which plug-ins will give me the biggest bang for the buck? (Or dirham, if you’re in UAE.)

It would be silly of me to think that you think every thing I say is gospel, because it certainly isn’t. For every producer who agrees with me that a lot of compression is almost always a good thing, there will be a dozen others who whole-heartedly disagree, and that is as it should be. All I want to do here is pass along the little tricks of production that have helped me. What is truly important is that you be asking the right questions, and the producers from other countries are definitely asking the right questions.

So, based on the questions I get the most, I’d like to share with you the essence of what makes a truly superior piece of production, in decreasing order of importance. This will perhaps explain my long rant about how really good production has gotten, particularly in the world outside of the United States and Canada.

  1. Does it deliver “the message?” This is the single most important question you need to answer about every piece you do. You would be amazed at the number of promos and commercials I hear every day that fail this litmus test absolutely. Usually it’s because there are too many “messages.” You have to know exactly what the message is before you cut anything. Dominoes Pizza does NOT sell pizza. They sell service. Z100 does NOT sell music. Z100 sells fun. Even if the promo is about the music, the real message is that Z100 is a fun place to hear your favorite hits.

  2. Does it flow? Even when I listen to a promo from NRJ, which is all spoken in French, I can feel the flow. Every piece you do should be like a little symphony, establishing and growing throughout, transitioning from segment to segment smoothly, holding the listener’s attention like super-glue. There is a rhythm to everything, even dry speech that has to be consistently on track, never letting go and always pointing to the message you’re trying to deliver.

That’s pretty much it. All the questions about compression, EQ, beat matching and the rest, are about the mechanics of doing those two things. At the end of the day, if you can honestly answer, “yes” to both questions, you have an excellent promo or spot. After you’ve heard a promo or commercial, you should be able to say what the message is in 5 words or less.

Radio stations in the US were the Kings and Queens of production for decades. That’s a major salute to the people who do production here. But if you want to be a major player in commercial and image production in the future, know that the playing field has grown considerably beyond the U.S. borders. Does that mean more competition for jobs here? Yes. But the really great news is, it's also opened up a whole new world of jobs to you. You really need to stay on top of your game. Keep asking yourself these two questions and you’ll have nothing to worry about.

Just don’t be terribly surprised if you hear that the new production wizard across the street is named Coco Sobu Moto who just got to town from Mombassa.

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