Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Fatal Temptation for Radio Personalities

Today I was reminded of a temptation that can be fatal for radio personalities and artists of all kinds. It's a frequent temptation for those who haven't made it yet and are struggling to survive and be recognized. It's a temptation that prevents them from exploring who they really are and discovering and presenting their best ideas. It's a temptation that keeps them from being distinctive and truly original. It's a temptation that won't allow them to achieve their full potential and leaves them feeling unfulfilled.

It's the temptation to create content to satisfy others and not themselves. It's the temptation to try to predict what the audience wants and create it for them. It's the temptation that leads to following conventional wisdom and known success formulas. It's the temptation that leads to creating something very much like something that already exists. It's the temptation, at this time of year, which leads nearly every music radio morning show in America to obsess about American Idol because, "it's the number one rated television show and everybody watches it". It's the temptation that destroys originality and limits choices for listeners. It's the temptation that is likely fatal for radio personalities who succumb to it because they'll get lost in a sea of sameness.

Please allow me a quick digression to present a couple illuminating facts before I go on with my story. For the week of March 10, Nielsen reports that American Idol was watched in 16.9% of American homes with televisions. The next highest rated program, "Law and Order" was watched in 7.9% of American homes with televisions. That means 83% of American homes with televisions were not watching American Idol. Hmmmmmm…

Now, back to my story. Here's what reminded me of the big and potentially fatal temptation faced by radio personalities and artists of all kinds. I discovered a special collector's edition of one of my all-time favorite movies, Braveheart. It contains a 20 minute special feature titled "A Writer's Journey". It's a conversation with Randall Wallace the screenwriter who created Braveheart. He talks about his inspiration for the movie, how he wrote it, and how he met Mel Gibson who produced and directed the movie. The story is inspiring and instructive throughout. I was particularly moved by Wallace's description of how he overcame fear and the temptation to change the story he wrote, loved, and really mattered to him.

One day Wallace got a phone call from his agent who said, "Are you sitting down? I just got a call from Mel Gibson. He wants to have breakfast with you tomorrow." Wallace had never met Mel Gibson. He had no significant screenwriting credits. He never imagined Mel Gibson would read his screenplay and be interested in it.

Here's what Wallace says happened after he hung up the phone. "I walked around my neighborhood and I prayed sincerely to God that I would not kiss his ass. And in those words, 'Dear Lord please don't let me kiss Mel Gibson's ass.' Because when you're around movie stars who have the power to launch massive budgets in movies and massive script development, the tendency of everyone is to try to figure out what they want to hear and try to give them what you think they want to hear rather than what you really believe. I really needed to get right within myself about my commitment to try to be true to what was true for me and that only in that could I be true at all to him or anyone else.

I went the next day and met him. Very close to the first words out of my mouth were, 'Look it's this way. Every movie has a message. The message of most movies is the guy with the bluest eyes, the cutest dimples, the biggest biceps and the greenest money is the one who prevails. Most movies say that. This movie says that if you’re faithful to your heart, even if they cut it out of you, you prevail. Now that's the movie I want to make. That's the movie I want my sons to see. If you want to make that movie, I’m your man. If you don't want to make that movie, life is too short.'

He looked at me like he thought I was insane and he couldn't wait to make a movie like that. I saw that he was that guy. Probably, to tell you the truth, I wouldn't have said that if he hadn't been that guy. You know there's something about the magic of people coming together who are of like spirits. I might not have been able to say that to another actor, but I could say that to Mel Gibson."

This story illustrates the constant temptation that radio personalities and all artists face. The temptation to give in, to compromise, to change what really matters most to them and will ultimately matter most to the audience it attracts.

This temptation is very real and very normal. It's rooted in fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of being unproven. Fear of being new and different. Fear of challenging the GM or PD to overcome their fears and present something truly original. Fear of rejection and, ultimately, fear of failure -- the fear of finding out if what they've created will actually find a significant audience.

Randall Wallace overcame his fears. He wrote an original screenplay that rang his emotional bell and turned him on. He didn't try to predict what the audience would want to see. He was willing to risk losing Mel Gibson's power, influence and money in order to make the movie that satisfied him and he believed in. Randall Wallace was true to himself. He followed the Artist's Secret. He made a movie to satisfy an audience of one. He made a movie to satisfy the only audience he knew well enough to know he could satisfy -- himself.

Randall Wallace wrote a story about one of his ancestors who truly inspired him. He wrote dialogue that gave him "goosebumps". He created the movie he wanted his sons to see. He wrote a screenplay about a character he said, "I hope to be".

Braveheart found a big audience of people like Randall Wallace who liked what he wrote. One of those people was me. The story and its message brought me to tears. The dialogue in the movie gave me goosebumps. The main character in the movie is a character "I hope to be". The movie won five Academy Awards including best picture of 1995.

There are no guarantees for success for any radio personality or artist. However, the most successful radio personalities and artists follow the Artist's Secret. They create stuff that matters to them. Stuff that turns them on and rings their emotional bell. They create stuff to satisfy an audience of one -- the only audience they know well enough to satisfy every time -- themselves.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Believable or Karaoke?

I was watching American Idol last night. It was Lennon and McCartney song book night. Contestant Brooke White had just finished singing "Let It Be". With tears rolling down her cheeks, she approached the judges. Ryan Seacrest reached out to grab her hand. He said, "you're shaking aren't you?" She nodded and told him how much the song and the opportunity to sing it on the big stage that is American Idol meant to her. She quietly repeated the lyric, "Let it be. Let it be"

The crowd gave her a standing ovation. The judges loved her performance. Simon told her, "There's a difference between karaoke -- which we've seen tonight -- and making it believable. It was one of the best performances of the night." High praise from Simon and an interesting comparison.

Simon often refers to performances he doesn't like as "karaoke". I hadn't heard him use the comparative, "believable and not karaoke" before. I know the British to be quite literal and precise with language having spent lots of time in England the past few years. This caused me to consult the Wiktionary for the meaning of karaoke. Turns out the word is derived from two Japanese words, kara meaning empty and oke meaning orchestra. What a brilliant comparison.

So what made Brooke White's performance extraordinary, "believable" and "not karaoke". Certainly Brooke has talent. She can really sing. But all of this year's final 12 contestants have talent and can sing. What made this performance great was Brooke’s emotional connection to the song. "Let It Be" clearly resonated with Brooke somewhere deep in her soul. That's what made the difference in her performance.

There is a great truth here for radio personalities and artists or performers of any kind. If you don't have a strong emotional connection to what you create and present you're likely to be karaoke, an empty orchestra.

By the way, for your enjoyment and emotional connection, here are the lyrics to "Let It Be".

When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted there is still a chance that they will see, there will be an answer. let it be.

Let it be, let it be, .....

And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light, that shines on me,
shine until tomorrow, let it be.
I wake up to the sound of music, mother Mary comes to me,
speaking words of wisdom, let it be.

Let it be, let it be, ...

Friday, March 7, 2008

How to write comedy for radio

"Few people probably realize the preparation that goes into Bob Hope's flip treatment of jokes..."

So begins an amazing piece of work by Johnny Carson that I discovered on the Internet today. It's his 1949 senior thesis created at the University of Nebraska. Johnny recorded it on real-to-reel tape. It's entitled "How to Write Comedy for Radio".

Johnny explains and illustrates "the most often used and most widely adaptable forms of gag construction and various speech forms that are used in creating and building comedy". It's all based on his analysis of the most successful and widely known comedians at the time including Jack Benny and Bob Hope.

He covers lots of comedic devices including running gags, insults, exaggeration, repetition, misunderstanding, the painting of a silly or ridiculous picture in the listeners mind, choosing the right words to strengthen a joke, intonation, abrupt vocal change and "topping", where a punchline is followed by a punchline. He examines the "three departments of humor to which a radio program can lean:" gags, situations, and comedy characterizations.

This is a great stuff. It's timeless. The audio quality isn't so good. No big deal. I'm just grateful Johnny had the foresight to record his wisdom.

One of my favorite moments in the 45 minute presentation is a comedic dialogue between Jack Benny and a car salesman. Johnny uses it to illustrate the "two-way gag". It had me laughing out loud. It must be heard to be fully appreciated, but I think it works in written form, too. Here is a sample of the exchange between Jack and the car salesman:

Jack: "Gee, the more I see of this car the more I like it. But, tell me, Mr....
Car salesman: "Just call me plain Bill."
Jack: "Well look, plain Bill, what are all these other buttons for?"
Car salesman: "Well, they are for the heater, the radio, the light, and the top."
Jack: "Uh huh. What's this red button for?"
Car salesman: "That red button is for emergencies."
Jack: "Emergencies?"
Car salesman: "Yes. Like if you stall the car on the railroad tracks and the train is coming at 100 mph, you press the red button."
Jack: "And, that gets the car off the tracks?"
Car salesman: "No. It makes a reservation for you at Forest Lawn (funeral home and cemetery in Los Angeles)."

Johnny's thesis is a must listen for aspiring comedy writers and radio personalities who want to improve the comedy on their shows. It's a reminder of what skills, techniques and practice can do to enhance natural talent. Clearly, this was Johnny's recipe for success.

Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and the other comedians Johnny chose to highlight in his presentation also reminded me that great comedy does not have to be vulgar and base.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Do you have to change your life?

I received an e-mail today from a talented young woman in London. I met her a couple of years ago when she was a promising radio breakfast show presenter in the UK. She gave up radio because she felt, "it left no room in my brain for creativity".

She was hired because station management loved her standup comedy show. Her material was all based on personal observations and reactions to her own life. It was good stuff.

She was enthused and excited about bringing her life to the radio. That was lost quickly when station management immediately began asking her to change her life. The PD told her she must watch "Pop Idol" (UK version of American Idol and the original) and other TV shows he said, "all your listeners watch". He insisted that she talk about news stories he proclaimed, "all your listeners care about". He suggested magazines for her to read and talk about.

Her life changed so much she said, "I got to the stage where I was lying awake all night worrying that I had missed 'Pop Idol' or the local news. I was terrified I'd missed a vital piece of information that would make the show successful." She said she felt like management didn't trust her, "they wanted to fiddle with the show every day". She couldn't take it anymore so she quit.

Now she's started a new career in journalism. She writes for a magazine in London. She is excited and enthusiastic again. Management lets her write about her life, her observations, and her reactions. They haven't asked her to change the way she lives. In her e-mail, she said proudly, "They really like me. They are pleased with my work."

She attached her first article for me to read. It's about breast-feeding. She has a 13-month-old daughter that she has been breast-feeding. Her observations, insight, and humor on the subject are smart, original, and fun.

Here's a little sample:

"I remember in the last weeks of my pregnancy rehearsing my comebacks to anyone who dared to ask me to stop (breast-feeding in public): 'I don't like watching you eat either' or 'if I were 10 years younger and blonde, I bet you wouldn't mind'."... "As I undid my shiny new maternity bra, my milk shot across the room onto a man's lasagna. He didn't notice, I didn't tell him. I often wonder if he benefited from the immunity boost."... "I have a particular soft spot for cemeteries; nobody bothers you and there's something quite spiritual about nurturing a new life among those passed."

It's too bad no one got to hear any of this on the radio.

This young woman's story is sad and all too common in radio these days. I hope I can convince her to give radio another try. If I'm successful, here is the advice I will give her.

Don't make big changes in your life just because you are on the radio. Don't change who you are unless you don't like who you are. This goes for everything you do. If you're not a big television viewer, no problem, don't watch television. If you're not a magazine reader, don't worry about it. If you don't go to a lot of movies and aren't interested in Hollywood gossip, no big deal. Occasionally, you'll need to watch a television program because a majority of your listeners will -- something like the Super Bowl. The same goes for the rare movie. However, this should not happen very often. Few events are experienced by a majority of your listeners and that number is shrinking every day.

The key to being successful on the radio is getting the most out of your ordinary everyday life, whatever you do. Like breast-feeding. It's about truly experiencing life. It's about you being aware and curious. It's about your instinctive reactions. It's about the stuff that turns you on and rings your emotional bell. That's the stuff that will attract the largest audience you can attract and give you the best chance of relating to them.

You don't have to change your life and your interests to be successful on the radio.

Monday, March 3, 2008

"Good talent is hard to find"

I hear this all the time from people in radio. "We just can't find enough good air talent", they say. But, what are radio companies and radio stations doing to find talent? Most general managers and program directors are now responsible for 3, 4, 5 or more radio stations. They really don't have time to develop the talent they have let alone look for more. Most are hoping the next Kidd Kraddick, Rush Limbaugh, or Howard Stern will walk through their door. I don't think that's likely to happen.

Gifted artists don't view radio as a place that welcomes what they do. They don't hear a lot of original ideas on radio. Instead, they hear lots of Howard Stern wannabes, Rush Limbaugh copies, sound alike morning shows presenting a narrow view of pop culture obsessed with Britney Spears and American Idol and voice-tracked liner card shows.

Gifted artists would much rather try their hand at blogging, creating videos for YouTube, or producing the kind of show they'd like to hear on BlogTalkRadio. Makes sense to me. Who'd want to face almost certain rejection by a radio program director fearing the loss of his job if he tries something new and unproven. How inviting is the typical radio station employment ad that screams "NO CALLS" and implies we don't want to get to know you? I don't think I'd be giving much consideration to radio if I were an artist seeking to do something truly original. It's no wonder radio is not exactly a magnet for gifted artists these days.

What to do. How about this for starters? Create a new position -- Vice President of Talent or Director of Talent. Find someone who knows how to evaluate talent and understands and appreciates the difficulty of working with artists. Make this person's sole job and only responsibilities to find extraordinary talent and create an environment where they will thrive and grow. Don't ask them to do anything else.

Next, announce to all employees that the company is now in the content creation business. Let everyone know they are responsible for helping create content. Encourage them to be on the lookout for interesting people and cool ideas that turn them on wherever they go and whatever they do. Ask them to report videos they love on YouTube, people and ideas that excite them on MySpace, or Facebook. Reward them when they help find people and ideas that can be developed and used.

Next, let the world know you are looking for gifted artists capable of creating extraordinary multimedia entertainment and information content. Recruit nonstop. Use the reach and influence of your radio station or stations. Run announcements on the radio and on the web that describe exactly what you want. Make it easy for talent to submit their ideas. Set up a special place on the web where ideas can be uploaded -- audio, video, whatever.

Finally, set up a talent incubator on the web. Create a website where artists you select can display what they've created -- audio, video, games, etc. -- and do shows. Make it a fun place where gifted artists will want to come to play and try stuff out. Promote the website on the radio. Send radio listeners there to check it out and provide feedback on this gallery of artists and ideas.

The Web provides a low cost and no risk place to test anything and everything. Radio people constantly complain about not having a "farm system" for talent. This is the ultimate "farm system". It's like having access to an infinite number of broadcast frequencies capable of reaching the entire world. What a deal.

Great talent is hard to find, particularly if you're a radio station or radio company hoping it will find you. However, there's never been a better time for a radio station or radio company to go looking for talent. There are so many places to search and so many ways for artists to put their talent on display. The primary requirements for finding great talent today are focus and commitment.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

"Emotion makes the world go 'round"

I just watched Randy Owen critique demo songs written by a group of aspiring singer songwriters. Randy knows a thing or two about writing songs. He wrote 42 number one country hits. He was also the lead singer for Alabama. The group sold over 80 million records.

Here's Randy's reaction to one of the demo songs he heard and its writer:

"I'm surprised how good that is. The thing that I see from you is emotion. That's the thing we write from. It's OK to be emotional. Emotion makes the world go 'round -- good emotion, bad emotion -- that's what speeds up the universe and makes it go, you know?"

I got to thinking, isn't emotion the inspiration and measure for anything really good that an artist creates? The greatest songs, movies, books, TV shows, and stuff radio personalities create always seem to be a reflection of some real emotion.

So, here's an idea for radio personalities and program directors everywhere inspired by what I heard from Randy Owen. The next time you listen to and critique what you've put on the radio, ask yourselves one simple question. "Do I feel real emotion coming out of the radio?" I suspect if the answer is yes, you'll like what you hear and so will your listeners.