TWO executives were arguing about their company’s radio program. “There’s something radically wrong with it,” said one.
“There can’t be,” objected the other. “We have a great orchestra. We have famous guest artists. And every one likes our announcer.”
“All the same,” said the first executive, “the program doesn’t sound like anything.”
Probably the trouble with this program could have been diagnosed in one word: production. The elements of an effective air show were present, but they never had been blended to make a performance. The program had been put on the air; but it had not been produced.
Production is the business of translating your radio program into sound. It is not an art, although observance of literary and musical niceties is desirable. It is not a science, although there are a few principles that may guide the production man in his job. The production man must take his script and his talent and persuade them to emerge through the loudspeaker as they sounded in the client’s internal ear. And that, mes amis, is business !
A production man need not be an engineer by profession, but it is fatal for him to be an engineer by halves. The station in which your program originates supplies the services of skilled workers who know the mysteries of broadcasting paraphernalia. If your production man thinks, for instance, that an orchestra is too powerful for a solo voice, he may consult with the engineer to find a method for correcting the discrepancy. If, however, your production man attempts to remedy matters with little lectures about radio activity or the Einstein theory, he merely adds to the atmospheric disturbance. Rarely can unsatisfactory sounds be charged to equipment; almost invariably they may be traced to incorrect set-up.
Set-up is the placement of performers and microphones to obtain the maximum of faithfulness in reproduction. Many production men have reduced set-up to a routine, but adherence to any routine necessitates the sacrifice of quality for the sake of convenience. When there is an orchestra in the studio, it is simple enough to place the strings in the first row, the winds in the second, the brasses in the third and the percussion in the fourth. This arrangement, which puts the instruments before the microphone in inverse proportion to their penetrating characteristics, is reasonably certain to effect an approximation of blended orchestral tone. You can’t go completely wrong with it, and yet . . .
A symphony orchestra with a full complement of musicians includes about seventy strings. A radio orchestra of twenty-four includes only seven or eight. Frequently there is only one second violin and only one viola to supply the important “middle” for a string section. The production man must design his set-up to compensate for this unbalanced instrumentation, especially when the scoring is a reduction, but if he attempts to build up string tone by bringing his fiddle almost into the micro-phone, there will be a shrill, strident quality. All of the instruments must be placed strategically so that the strings retain their beauty without undue loss of power. Some producers use a second microphone to pick up the strings . . . an apparently rational procedure which often flattens out the tone of the orchestra as a unit or gives the effect of two orchestras in different parts of the room. If the conformation of the studio makes it possible to pick up the entertainment with only one micro-phone, let the other microphones be regarded only as reserves. Every microphone supplies a noise of its own; the more microphones, the more extraneous noises.
Frequently I have worked out a set-up which seemed perfect for a given orchestral unit, only to discover that subsequently it no longer yielded sufficient richness or roundness of tone, or that certain instruments had become strangely faint. Sometimes atmospheric conditions in the studio accounted for these acoustic vagaries. At other times, the deviations were due to new men in the band or even new instruments. I know of one tuba player who plays so lightly that he must be placed on a line with the violins; another booms so lustily that he must be deposited far back, with the percussion. When Bauchschneider is in your orchestra, the set-up you designed for Pisangelo won’t work! There is a violinist who owns several fiddles, one of which is valued at $15,000 and bears a famous name. Oddly enough, this glamorous instrument has a peculiar tone which registers weakly on the microphone. Another of his violins is worth about $55 and comes through with extraordinary beauty and power. When the artist plays his $35 bargain basement masterpiece we have to move him away from the micro-phone so that our string section doesn’t sound like a solo; when the old Italian violin has its turn, we place the maestro a few paces ahead of his colleagues. When something sounds unusual, it’s a good idea to investigate the presence of a new instrument somewhere in the ensemble.
I have gone into this detail to indicate how important one factor may be in the set-up of an orchestra, but there are dozens of others. It may be necessary to have a solo clarinet stand up to make audible a certain passage; it may be imperative to have a muted trumpet confide his wah wahs directly to the microphone; it may be worth while to place a quarter of saxophones on a platform at an angle of 45 degrees to the microphone. As for pianos. . . !
Singers and speakers cannot be broadcast by observing a code. Perhaps the most popular of all radio sopranos achieves her triumphs by standing within two inches of the microphone and intoning almost inaudibly. A famous crooner stands slightly to one side and murmurs so gently that you can’t hear him two feet away. One of the greatest of operatic tenors sounds best when he is three feet away and singing across the microphone rather than into it. Another comes through magnificently when he sings a bit above the microphone. The most eccentric technic I have observed is that of a soprano whose voice sounds hard unless her microphone is near a wall. She sings into the wall, and somehow the result is a clear, mellow tone. Speakers, of course, are not so difficult to reproduce as singers, but often there is a deal of juggling required before the enunciation comes through with maxi-mum clarity.
Musical programs (and all others) invariably present timing difficulties, and it is the producer’s responsibility to confine the offering within the period for which the client has paid. This is not too simple a task. The pro-gram that fits exactly into its allotted time at the first rehearsal occurs accidentally. Only a time chart and a stop watch can tell the production man whether his show will be five minutes too long or three minutes too short. He must know where to cut or insert . . . and what. Certain studio-broken conductors are capable of making their own emendations, but in most instances, the producer must assist in revising the program. Only too frequently, the producer faced with an overlong program, attempts to put the time back in joint with an assortment of small excisions in a variety of numbers in the hope of bringing his entertainment down exactly to the allowance. The upshot usually is that the last item on the bill must be hurried, and it sounds not only as if the orchestra were trying to catch a train but as if it were the train itself. A wise producer leaves sufficient leeway for the “stretching” which is inevitable when the conductor knows that he is playing for invisible millions (hope springs eternal) and grows expansive in his tempi. It is no great task to draw out a program that is thirty seconds short; a pro-gram that is thirty seconds long is likely to be cut off abruptly by the station, and then there is acute grief for all hands. Radio annihilates space, but time annihilates many a radio producer.
Too few production men remember that radio drama is not intended for a large theater in which broad strokes only will reach the last rows. They forget that radio has its own idiom, that a play on the air is not seen but eavesdropped. The first thing to consider when a radio sketch is rehearsed is the fact that the audience, if it listens at all, listens intently. It is impossible to listen to radio drama casually, as one might listen to dance music. Any one who pays attention to a radio drama gives to it a concentrated aural attention which he does not bestow on a stage piece or a talkie. His ears compensate instinctively the missing physical action … and any exaggeration in speech becomes far more obvious than it would if the listener could see the show. Naturalness is the desideratum. Underplaying frequently is advisable, for it is much better to compel your listener to “reach” for the entertainment than to hit him over the head with it.
The employment of sound effects rests with the production man, and here the best practice is that of Mr. Abbott K. Spencer, a singularly skilled director, who holds that sound effects should be brought into action only when their absence would be ludicrous. If a character says, “Let’s go into the next room,” nothing is gained by elaborate clankings, rattlings and slammings to indicate the action. If, however, the same character announces his intention of smashing a window, and makes good his promise, the sound must be transmitted. Generally speaking, the director who permits his actors to turn a domestic skit into “The Lady of Lyons” is the one who has telephone bells. sound like fire alarms, type-writers detonate like riveting machines, and rain fall like bricks. Sometimes I think that he produces best who produces least.
Don’t let anybody convince you that the creation or operation of a sound effect has to be a devious maneuver. Most of the “large” effects, such as trains, waterfalls and automobiles can be had ready-made. If the station permits it, use the sound effect records which may be purchased for a few dollars. Small effects . . . a man drinking water, the clash of swords, tearing of paper and the like are produced most faithfully by the rather exotic device of having a man drink water, two swords clashing, and tearing paper.
It is part of the producer’s duty to supervise the de-livery of commercial announcements, and this is of no small consequence. After all, the commercial announcement is the part of the program which justifies the sponsor’s investment in time and talent, and the financial success of the hour may hinge entirely on the few minutes which are devoted to the product. It is not enough that the text be read correctly and pronounced accurately. It must be sold, and the production man must work with his announcer until the commercial announcement becomes a persuasive appeal. He is responsible for the interpretation of the text which is designed to pro-mote sales. A production man who does not regard the commercial announcement as the raison d’etre for the broadcast, who does not treat it at least as sympathetically as he does the music or the dramatics is not fulfilling his obligation to his client.
So far, I have touched on two elements in radio production: mechanics and interpretation. There are two others: pace and diplomacy . . . and these are far more difficult to acquire than the first two.
Pace is not speed. It is movement. A radio program must have an initial impetus to capture attention and it must maintain its activity. It cannot begin rapidly, lag, stop, pick itself up again, hurry and drop once more. Everything must blend smoothly into everything else. A program may move at high tension throughout, or it may proceed with leisure . . . but it must go on with-out jerks, without bewildering bounces from mood to mood. Even a musical program which swings from allegros to adagios requires connecting links in the form of well-timed announcements or appropriate modulations. Every correctly constructed program has an underlying rhythm which the production manager must recognize and hold intact. Often, when the script or the sequence of musical numbers is maladroit, the director must re-shuffle his material to establish a rhythm. But without rhythm there can be no unity of impression, and with-out unity of impression there is little by which the listener can recall the program.
Your production man may be a master of mechanics, a subtle interpreter of script, a sensitive worker in pace and still be a failure, for he may be deficient in the fourth dimension of radio presentation . diplomacy. Clients, agency representatives, network officials, musicians and others contribute their thoughts to a program when it is in the process of construction, but when it arrives in the studio for rehearsal and performance, the production man is the plenipotentiary who must fuse all of these frequently divergent ideas into an entity that combines entertainment with sales persuasion. He must win the cooperation of engineers and station production men. He must have the respect of his talent. He must pour oil on troubled waters and water on overheated participants.
Young production men usually rush from place to place as if the soles of their feet were afire. They leap at the musical director while he is conducting and whisper to him that he is twenty seconds behind time. They shove actors closer to the microphone and pull singers away from it. They belabor the engineer with commands to “raise the level” or to “bring in more brass.” They bran-dish a stop watch in the faces of musicians and actors as if it were a subpoena. A production man of this variety becomes, like Gilbert’s King Gama, a most disagreeable man and he can’t guess why!
Perhaps the most severe strain on a production man’s diplomacy is the celebrated guest artist, who may be an opera singer, a musical comedy star or a public eminence. Guest artists, unless they appear on radio programs so often that their innocence has been corrupted, are likely to be nervous. I know a production man whose technic for dealing with a jumpy guest is to tell him that John McCormack almost died of fright the first time he faced a microphone and that somebody else fainted at the close of his first broadcast. Another production man overwhelms renowned newcomers with a scowl and the dictum that “This isn’t like anything you’ve ever done, so just watch me.” Still another seems unable to recall any-body’s last name. That, at least, may be the explanation for his habit of addressing the great folk whom he never has seen before by their first names.
The fact that the program must be completed within a strictly circumscribed period creates a degree of tension, even in the most experienced producer, but there is no necessity for additional agitation. Frivolity in a studio is not especially helpful, but it is better than an impersonation of Laocoon struggling with the serpents. The most successful frame of mind for a production man is: “Here’s what we have to do. Let’s do it with a minimum of fuss.” Correct preparation is the best insurance against mishaps, but if anything goes awry when the program is on the air, panic cannot undo the blunder .. . and it leads to others. The production man who is fortiter in res, suaviter in modo, rarely suffers from things going awry.
It may be asked why an advertising agency should maintain a radio production staff. Is it not possible to delegate this work to the station in whose studio the program is performed? It is possible, of course, and in many instances the work will be done adequately. And yet … a radio program is the expression of a client’s campaign. It should be produced by some one who is thoroughly in sympathy with the client’s objectives, some one who knows the client’s requirements more intimately than an outsider, however well equipped he may be. It is a service which every agency must be prepared to perform. The agency may receive assistance from a broadcasting company, but the responsibility for the program is that of the advertiser’s own agent.
From an advertising point of view, the production man is virtually a radio contact man .. a contact man who, for the period that the program is being broadcast, be-comes “the works.” He is no engineer, but he must know the instruments with which the program is transmitted; he is no musician, but he must know the ways of music and musicians; he is no dramatist, but he must know how to achieve drama; he is no salesman, but he must know how goods are sold on the air; he is no celebrity, but he must know how to deal on even terms with the famous.
To the client, the production man is the broadcasting system; to the broadcasting system, he is the client. And to his agency, he may be the source of constant turmoil or the assurance of incredible tranquillity.