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The Message Is The Medium

This will be my last blog of 2018. The week between Christmas and New Years Day is my one week of broadcast exile, when I don’t even think about radio, announcing or production. During the year, my weekends are pretty much my own and now that I’m no longer grinding production for Z100 or WKTU in New York, my average workday is light. Enough so that I typically don’t take time off during the year from the VO business or my writing. I just throw my trusty MacBook Pro and an RE-22 in my backpack when we travel. A couple of short sessions each day in my hotel room or ship cabin and my clients get what they need with little or no interruption. Indeed, several clients have told me they didn’t even know I was in Paris, Punta Cana or Sydney until I mentioned it in our emails about their sessions.

OK, I probably fibbed about not even thinking about radio during the last week of the year, but that IS my intent. As a parting shot to 2018, I thought I’d chat about keeping production simple. When one has all of the raw power we have to make sounds and convey ideas, it’s very tempting to bring the entire nuclear arsenal every time. The fact is, in this battle for the listener’s mind, a single sniper’s bullet is often much more effective. (I know…messy simile.) A producer friend sent me a promo last week, looking for ways to give it more impact. When I started it, I thought my earbuds had exploded. I literally pulled them out of my ears and looked for scorch marks. Once I took the gain down a bit and listened critically, I counted 5 rather large booms/explosions, 4 distinctly different music beds, two announcers and 3 different filter effects, ALL in a single 30-second promo. My first thought was that it was a joke…on me. Then I decided it was just over the top and was not meant to make me laugh. Production, at least creative production, isn’t about the screaming sliders and explosions, the soaring guitars and deep tympani. It’s about reaching the heart. Taking things to their ultimate basic level, it’s about communicating with our listeners. Communication is the process of transferring a thought from one mind to another. Successful communication is marked by how accurately the thought in the receiver’s mind matches the original. When we speak on a personal level, we have visual cues like nodding and aural clues like “Uh-huh,” that we depend on to know whether the message is getting through. If the person we’re talking to keeps checking their watch or looking over your shoulder, you know you’re not getting through and you adjust the delivery to make sure you do. When you’re giving a lecture or speech you have clues as well. If the audience is doodling, or worse, snoozing, you have to tell a joke or step out from behind the podium to get their attention back where you want it. (I’ve been known to play a promo very loudly at this point.) Broadcasting over the air or on the web means there IS no direct feedback. If the client calls on Monday morning to rave about the success of her weekend sale, you know you scored a home run on her spot. If she calls to say she’ll never buy your station again, you missed the mark. But you can’t adjust a spot or promo while it’s running because you don’t know the reaction you’re getting until it’s done. That’s the ‘gotcha’ we all face every day in this business. That’s why you have to be ‘on your game’ every time you power up your DAW. The message must be transparent. That is the benchmark of great production. I know it might seem like heresy to say this, but adding a bunch of whiz-bang effects and a super-tweaked-out music bed is definitely NOT always the answer. We, as a group, spend WAY too much time worrying about the tools we use. Questions about the tech are way down on the list of importance. The overriding question should always be, “How clear is the message?” In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions Of Man, Marshall McLuhan described the content of the medium as being, “like a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.” If you spice up that juicy piece of meat with too many or the wrong kinds of spices and herbs, the watchdog of the mind will never take the bait. Your message will never touch the listener’s heart and you will fail. Miserably. Remember that radio is linear, one sound follows another. When you stack up music and effects that don’t compliment the message, it becomes impossible for the listener to decipher. You’re forcing the him/her to wade through a big swamp of stuff, just to get to the nugget you’re supposed to be imparting. Some of the most powerful radio I’ve ever heard had NO music. NO effects. Just the raw human voice telling an emotional story. If you can add to the story with the perfect bed…that’s a win. If you can emphasize the emotion of the story with a simple sound effect…that’s a win. If you can’t…don’t. Once I explained this all to my friend, he reworked the promo with a single female voice, a high-tension sustained bed and ONE sound effect. It KILLED.

If you celebrate Christmas, may yours be the merriest. Happy Kwanzaa too! And a very successful and joyful 2019.

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