Today’s column begins with a story from my short run in news talk radio. I was hosting the morning show at Talk Radio 850 in Raleigh. My producer was a guy named Jason Kong, who to this day remains one of my very best friends. Jason was presented with an opportunity to take over as general manager of the ACC Sports Journal, a magazine our parent company owned. There was no doubt he was going to be leaving the show.
Jason and I worked well together because we got each other’s senses of humor. We made time to hang out outside of the office. Most importantly, we knew we could trust each other to hold up our side of the equation. Our personal relationship predated our professional relationship, and I knew I could rely on him to make my ideas sound better and to show up with ideas of his own.
When I met with my PD to discuss the next step and how we replace Jason he told me “We’ll just promote one of the part timers. Don’t worry about it.” It was such a misunderstanding of what the show needed. The show’s new executive producer was a good guy that was eager to learn, but it brought the show to a screeching halt, because he wasn’t properly trained before getting the promotion.
He wasn’t creative off air. He didn’t know how to hold a conversation on air. The show suffered because our PD didn’t view the producer’s role as being at least as important as the host’s. This guy was good at hitting hard outs and firing the traffic bumper. Those were his sole qualifications for running my show.
I have been thinking about this a lot lately in the wake of BSM’s various top 20 lists, as I have received texts from friends in the industry asking “How did ___ not make the list? He’s the future of the format!”. It’s great that we look at young hosts and can recognize if they’ve got “it” and it’s great that PD’s invest time in turning a young guy that’s got it into a great broadcaster.
But is that enough?
In order to secure a prosperous future for sports radio, we have to nurture young producers and make sure anyone we put behind a board is properly trained. Honestly, this is more important than recognizing talent in young hosts.
A producer shapes a show’s identity. The producer chooses the show’s soundtrack (both music and production elements) and thus sets the tone for what is to come. Is the show fun or even funny? Sure, a charismatic host is going to play a role in that, but the drops a producer chooses and the timing with which he interjects those drops or a comment is just as important.
We also have to make sure that producers are confident when they step behind a board. Recently I filled in for a friend and he texted me the night before to “take it easy” on his producer. That was discouraging to say the least.
I am not someone that yells at producers. I used to be a producer myself. I understand that they have a lot going on behind the glass, but like any other human, I can get frustrated when my success depends on the competency of another. It doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence to have someone essentially imply that the producer you’re going to be working with cannot be trusted.
A producer needs to have the confidence to know that even if one segment is a disaster, the show isn’t lost. Producers are the last line of defense. They’re the ones making the call on when to wrap a segment or if a show rundown needs to be shuffled, so we need to empower them to challenge their host when necessary.
Our format also puts a lot of emphasis on a producer’s rolodex. This idea is a little misguided in my opinion, but let’s take a long, hard look at how this jives with the idea that if you can press buttons on a board you can also run a show.
It goes back to confidence, right? We deal with egos a lot in this business. A producer has to be ready to have his own ego kicked around a bit and get back up again, because when it comes to booking guests, or even getting your ideas on air, it’s not just about knowing you’ll hear the word “no” a lot. It’s about being able to change minds.
Finally, consider the power flow of an on air product. In sports radio, the daily product is the result of the efforts of two people: the host and the producer. Is the power flow a 50/50 split? Well, sort of, but think about this. How much can a good host do to elevate an untrained producer?
Not much, right? The producer actually has way more power over the day-to-day success of the show. If you have a host that is still coming along, a good producer is still capable of elevating the overall product through production elements and good guest booking.
Now let’s switch levels. A good host can absolutely be dragged down by a bad producer. Imagine you took Colin Cowherd out of his regular surroundings and paired him for just one day with a guy that is good at running a board for minor league baseball games, but that’s it. Do you think Colin’s takes would hit as hard or his opinions be as quotable if he is having to work around misfired elements or staring at an emotionless blank slate? Even a host who builds his show largely around monologues can be thrown off if his producer isn’t properly engaged.
So to secure the future of sports radio we have to put a focus on producers. I don’t mean to diminish the role of a good host. Obviously that is really important. But the attention we give producers has fallen to the point that a former PD recently told me that even in major markets he had trouble finding producers that were ready to hit the ground running.
It seems like the days of kids coming out of school wanting to be producers is over, and look, that is okay. Someone that wants to eventually be a host can still make for a really good producer. We just have to do a better job of showing them that this is a legit stepping stone whether it be to hosting or programming. Ryan Haney at WJOX in Birmingham, Tony DiGiacomo at WFNZ in Charlotte, Chris Kinard at WJFK in DC, these are all examples of guys that used the skills they amassed as a producer to climb the programming ladder.
If programmers truly care about the sound of their station, and I know most of them do, they need to take the same interest in the people behind the board that they do in the people behind the mic. Training producers to understand how to listen to their own show and the role they play in the station accomplishing its goals empowers them. Empowered people are more engaged and engaged people are better able to learn and grow. If every program director approached their producers this way, we wouldn’t have to scratch our heads in wonder at the lack of quality candidates whenever an opening is posted.