Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to Produce a Show for Public Radio

Recently I wrote a post about how to engineer a show for public radio, and thus make your show more "friendly" to pubradio stations, and thus make it more likely that your show gets carriage by said stations.

Here I'll write a bit about what I know for producing a show for public radio, with an eye towards the same goal: getting more carriage on more stations. I admit, I don't know nearly as much about producing as I do engineering/tech stuff. But these days, there's a lot of overlap between two, so I'm not a total noob. :-)

  1. The Catch-22 of Program Directors. PD's look at two main things when deciding whether or not to add your show to their lineup: how long have you been on the air, and how many stations are you on? In other words, if you're a new show with few (or no) affiliates, nobody wants to risk their precious airtime on your show. This means you need to do your homework and find smaller stations in smaller markets...especially LPFM stations...and approach them about carrying your show. Don't use the hard sell; expect that it will take several gentle hints and reminders. E-mail is your friend. Set up a simple and clean website with several recent episodes of your show (preferably in the same format that you would ultimately be distributing to them if they pick you up) so the PD can check out your show on their time, not yours. Also, thanks to the magic of podcasting, you don't need a radio station to get listeners to your show. If you can demonstrate that you've got hundreds (preferably thousands or tens of thousands) of regular listeners to your podcast, then that will go a long way to demonstrating to a PD that you're both around for the long haul and a good show that will get his station listeners.
  2. Remember that there are only two kinds of shows: shows produced for ONE station, and shows produced for THOUSANDS of stations. By which I mean that if you're producing a show for just one station, and then another, different, station wants to carry your must then produce the show as if hundreds of other, different, stations were going to carry it. There's not really a "gradual" progression here. What does this mean, exactly? Kinda hard to say, it's just a different way of thinking. For example, if your show relies heavily on local issues to provide something to talk'll have to re-think that if you get an affiliate from outside your local area. Maybe you'll have to start tackling national issues and not talking about the local issues. Or you'll have to find the national angle about a local issue. You also have to almost completely get rid of any references that are specific to your "home station" since they won't apply to your affiliate stations. I say "almost" because many national shows will sometimes say "From WXYZ in Anytown, this is My Amazing Schmo - I'm Joe Schmo. Today we're talking about..." and that's pretty much it. No promos for other shows, no promos for the station website, no local PSA's, etc etc etc.
  3. Your first station may air your show on Saturdays at 8pm. Your next station might not. Now what? This is not difficult, but it's something you have to accommodate: different affiliates will likely air your show at different times. This means you can't, for example, give specific times or weather updates during your show. But you can say clever things like "it's 22 minutes past the hour" which will be true for your affiliate regardless of what "the hour" is. You also have to watch out for dated references...if you record on Friday, and you talk about an upcoming concert on Saturday, what happens to the affiliate that airs your show on Monday? That's sounds really bad to have dated references. Manage what you say appropriately.
  4. Make it easy to identify your show to stations and listeners. A regular theme music to start off the show is a very good idea. Precious few shows can get away with This American Life's no format style...and they've turned it into a style of its own; even though every TAL episode starts differently, they almost all have a very distinct sound and style that makes them easy to identify. By the same token, you want to have something distinct/unique to each episode very early in the show...within the first thirty that stations know they've got the right episode playing. For daily programs, especially newscasts, I like Free Speech Radio News's approach of saying what day and date the newscast is for right in the first 15 seconds of the broadcast. For weekly programs, make sure that week's topic(s) are identified quickly so a station can refer to your calendar/rundown easily. Don't make the filename of an audio file the unique method of identifying the episode except as mentioned in point 14 of "How to Engineer a Show for Public Radio"
  5. Have good transitions in and out of your breaks. It's surprising how many shows do this badly. A good break starts about 30 seconds before the actual cutaway. It has a gentle transition out of whatever the actual conversation is, and then it has a bit of a forward promo to tease the listener with what's coming up after the break (give them an incentive to stick around!) and usually an action item of some kind...for more info about tonight's topic, go to our website or something like that...and then a clean end with 0.5 to 1.0 seconds of silence for the cutaway. After the break, same thing, say what the show is, who you are, who your guest is, what today's topic is, and any action item for listeners to get involved (adjust as needed for live or delayed shows).
  6. Similarly, have a good wrap-up at the end. It's PATHETIC how many shows do this badly. Way too many programs don't leave enough time at the end for everything they subsequently try and shove in there. Democracy Now! is, sadly, a prime offender here...Amy Goodman is notorious for waiting until there's only 10 seconds left before the end of the show, and then she abruptly cuts off the speaker and speaks at the speed of light to shove in a bunch of "our show is produced by" credits and, inexplicably, a list of all the places she'll be visiting this week. It sounds awful and is, usually, impossible to understand...and most unforgivably, it usually runs several seconds over time, leading automation systems to cut it off in the middle (which also sounds awful). On the other extreme is a show like The Infinite Mind or Marketplace which typically have well over a minute (sometimes two or three minutes) of credits and underwriting at the end. Jeez Louise, enough already! Leave some time for the meat of the show! Okay, admittedly Marketplace is quite adroit at mixing in real content and a tease for tomorrow's show amidst all that fluff, but they're one of the few. Here's the deal, your entire wrap up should be between 30-60 seconds, depending on how much time you need to gracefully get a guest to stop talking. Here's a hint - don't ever say "We've only got 10 seconds left, but you get the last word!" No guest ever knows how to sum anything up in 10 seconds, and it almost always sounds lame or ends up with the host cutting off the guest mid-sentence. So figure about 10-20 seconds to get the guest to pipe down, and another 10-20 seconds (balance against the pipe-down part) for goodbyes to the guests. Keep your employee credits short...if you can't do it in 10 seconds then don't do it at all...and leave about 3 to 5 seconds at the very few for your theme music to play in the clear and then end/fade out to silence. The remainder of the time is for you to forward promo tomorrow's/next week's show topic. What about underwriting? Well, if you can pull off Marketplace's clever approach, then by all means go for it...but otherwise I recommend you actually end your show 10-30 seconds early and then put in 10-30 seconds of your underwriting to fill out the remainder of the clock. Most NPR shows follow this model, with Frank Tavares doing all the national funder spots.

1 comment:

Felipe Mathias Castello Branco said...

After reading this text I have extra material to work with my students here in Brazil - EFL (English as a Foreign Language). I'm gonna provide them with quotations from the text (with its reference, of course)so that they can work it out in order to create their own "radio program" in class.
Thanks, Aakon.