At first glance, the title seems a little enticing, intimidating or even imaginary. The truth is that a perfect long-format radio program is not about perfection but has everything to do with excellence. When a producer approaches every program by keeping in mind a quality of excellence at every level, they may not attain the illusive “perfection” but they will reach a pinnacle of distinction.
Over the years I have seen this methodology repeatedly diluted for the sake of time management, carelessness, indifference or even inexperience. But this should not remove the producer from the responsibility of the highest production results. Believe me, I understand the pressure of deadlines and shortcuts, but don’t fall victim to the mindset that allows your craft to lay waste in lackluster contentment for any reason. The thing about radio is that it is so daily! It’s constantly changing. You work hard to produce a great program only to face the reality that tomorrow requires yet another one. And so on.
So where is the balance? Can excellence really be attained while at the same time harmonizing with an attention to time management? I believe it can. And in fact, as a producer, you are doing your client (or boss) a great disservice if you don’t. This article is not meant to drown you in a sea of technology but provide a list of good business practices to help elevate your production proficiency and achieve that perfect program. Fasten your seat belt, here we go.
Audio Content Quality
These days, audio files are delivered in a myriad of ways: cloud, file-sharing, attachments, etc. Some even still utilize CD. Doubtful that cassette or quarter-inch pancake reels are used anymore, but you never know. Once you get these files and import them into your desktop environment, the first thing you need to do is take an audio and visual view of the file landscape. This will help give you a good look at what may need to be filtered and corrected. Very seldom will you get a file where you basically aren’t required to do something to get it into an acceptable position. You may want to introduce some degree of leveling and/or compression to minimize the audio fluctuation. Integrate great restraint at this step while at the same time performing what is necessary to have a good starting place because everything is a domino effect from this point forward.
An inordinate amount of background noise and file hiss get in the way of the listener’s enjoyable experience. Maintaining the room ambience is important, but at the same time being aware of a distracting constant noise floor. The human ear can magically blend audio segments and phrases together, but will also reject this stream when the background noise level is above its natural filter. Take advantage of file cleaning software whenever possible to eliminate or at best minimize the excess of noise levels so the content does not become a distraction because of this unacceptable noise floor. You will be happier, and your client will be too. The domino continues.
Okay, soapbox time—this is one area that I routinely see completely ignored by program producers all the time. It never ceases to amaze me how many things are not corrected in the numerous national and local programs I listen to. If you don’t believe me, give it a listen yourself, you’d be amazed too. Lip smacks, long audio pauses, stutters, redundant points, ums and ahs, etc., etc.—these are just simply unacceptable. This is a dead giveaway of a producer’s inexperience, incorrect training or apathetic approach to content editing. I’m not trying to be overly harsh but this step should be one of the most important elements to your production steps. I can easily say that this one aspect takes the most time in my process, but it’s also intentional because the client deserves this high level of proficiency by cleaning up the content in order to achieve a seamless thread of congruency of the message without these distracting elements getting in the way. Remember, it’s about the highest quality that can possibly be attained. Approach this step with a great deal of attention and correction. It does make a difference. How to edit to take a full-length message and cut it down to a standalone program or a part one/two program is a completely different animal and requires an article on that all by itself. I can’t help but cringe and shake my head when I hear this repeatedly mismanaged on programs. There is a real science and skill to this and it takes great effort and time to do it right. But we can talk about that another time. Alright, I’m off the box…next.
Whether you’re using buyout or needle-drop music libraries, client-owned theme music, or creating it yourself, be careful to incorporate music that is in step with the delivery and preaching style or ministry of the client. Also, keep in mind the media outlet your program will end up on and utilize music beds that compliment that station or outlet’s operation. If you use 2-3 different beds within the program, make sure they are complimenting but also distinct. If they sound too similar, it will never feel like there is an intentional redirect from one segment to the next. Another very important thing to do is to take these music files and feel free to edit them so they match up with the voiceover parts. Hits and tags should come at the beginning or end of the VO, not in the middle. I hear all the time where music beds are played, then repeated when the announcer or host opens or closes are not finished in their delivery. This takes careful planning and skill but it is so worth it. If you are a producer, chances are you have a degree of musical aptitude, so use this talent to pre-produce or edit music beds that will be crafted to the content, not vice-versa.
Have you ever been in a conversation when someone went all churchy on you? You know, thee’s and thou’s and words you really only hear at seminary. Honestly, they just lost me. And yet, so many scripts are composed with all this jargon that it’s no wonder the program is ineffective. Great content that is tuned out because of ill-fated scriptwriting. If it doesn’t sound natural—it isn’t! Write in such a way that connects with the listener. Write from their perspective, not yours. What do they want to hear, or can hear? Go after that. With so many options people have these days for media content, you only have a short window to capture their attention and keep them involved. Write it, read it, correct it, and reread it—way before you record it. Get this right, your perfect program is waiting for it.
Back in the day, the deeper and commanding a voice was, the more effective they seemed to be. After all, they had the voice of God, and who is going to question that. Fast-forward to this century, research is finding that the more natural a person sounds as an announcer, the more relevant and believable they seem to be. Take time to search for someone who will be able to communicate in a way that you are very happy with. Just because someone or a friend speaks well does not necessarily mean they will be able to operate in this role effectively. They also may struggle with red-light syndrome where once the red light comes on to record they freeze, get nervous or all of a sudden their voice and inflection changes. Another important thing to consider is the audio file they send to you if they record from some other place beside your studio environment. Is it clean, good levels, acceptable file extension, performed well, sent to you in a timely fashion, doesn’t require having you do much editing, etc.? The right announcer is so key to the perfect program.
I’m about to enter into an area of great debate, but allow me a chance to help us achieve excellence in this section. I realize that offers are an important way for any program to help pay for itself. While at the same time this is often times abused through overkill. Once you tread in the realm of “But wait, there’s more!” you have effectively closed the door in the face of the listener. Trust me, you will erode at any credibility you may have worked hard to attain by simply reversing course and becoming a perceived infomercial. Take extreme caution with what you are promoting as a ministry complement disguised as an offer. People are smart will sniff out any attempt at being sold something that may not have any value to their lifestyle. Am I saying to not include offers of any kind? Absolutely not. Just make sure they are something useful for the end-user that they can use in their everyday life. Also, please be very restrictive when it comes to phone numbers, websites and address information. When in doubt, go with one. Multiple ways for a listener to reply means multiple ways for them to be confused. Sharing everything means they will not remember anything. Stick to one contact point, two at the most, but hold the reigns on this. Again, it’s about the perfect program, not the perfect way to offer things.
Now the fun begins from a creative producer’s standpoint. You have all the audio elements edited and ready for program development. Thank goodness for technology that makes this step so much easier than days gone by. Let me share a few things to consider when putting all the pieces of the puzzle together here.
- Work from the outside edges in of the program
- Do the In and Out first, including music beds and announcer files
- Segues are critical so make sure they appropriately breathe between elements
- Make sure fade-ins and -outs are smooth
- Music hits need to be after or before any speaking, not during
- Time stretching of content or VO should never exceed 5% either way
- Use compression and/or plug-ins when needed, but don’t go overboard
- DO NOT set a track volume at the beginning and then not adjust it depending on the volume or blend between music/voice tracks throughout the program
- Modestly swell any musical transitions between voice segments to help naturally blend them without it sounding like a drop-off
- When finished, periodically jump from various points of the program and listen to hear if audio levels are consistent throughout—adjust as needed
For producers, this is the most exciting stage, which allows their creative powers to kick in. This is your blank canvas—so paint a masterpiece everytime.
Program Levels and Mastering
This is an often-overlooked step in the process because it seems redundant. But in fact, this is critical, especially when keeping in mind the audio file from the station’s point of view. Most program producers usually bounce the multi session to a stereo file saved as an MP3 and send it on its way. Time out, hold the horses, there’s another very important hoop you need to go through first. Radio stations are generally setup with frontend compression, board compression, and just for good measure another set of compression for firewall purposes at the end. Overkill—maybe. But since they have audio files containing levels that are all over the map, as well as live on-air guests and hosts whose voice volumes run the variations of very soft to borderline obnoxiously loud. To control these levels the stations utilize these compressor/limiters so there is a consistency in their broadcast. Music stations are setup with controls that are many times different from talk format stations. There is tighter compression on teaching/talk stations because there is much more variance with those levels. This is important to know on how to master your stereo files before distribution, and most program producers are not aware of this engineered security measure. When you look over your bounced stereo file, see if there is a consistency throughout or if there are frequent volume highs and lows. Even spot-check the file to see if there is any noticeable difference anywhere. This is your last opportunity to fix any issue. Be very careful not to over saturate the file, leave room in your threshold ceiling. And at the same time, levels that are too low will come off unbalanced and awkward. Be aware that softer levels are raised and louder levels are usually restrained with station equipment. So find a good balance that sounds right in your environment first. Here’s a good suggestion: Listen to the program as it is played on the radio station. You may learn a few things on how to approach future program productions to attain a better result. It goes from this step to the listener’s ear, so check and double-check.
Finally, you can celebrate at this point. Be sure to use a proper file extension, most stations prefer MP3. And equally important is an appropriate file name. A program title in the file name is really not a good way to send it out. I would recommend an airdate and abbreviated program name or initials. Some systems ask for the file to be named a certain way while others may want them in a different way. This can be a nightmare on many fronts. Pick one titling method for consistency and go with that. It’s a lot less confusing on your end for sure. Once you have the program airdate identified, this helps the station know exactly what file to place where in their automation system. Build a good communication relationship with the person on the station end who is in charge of capturing these program files to ensure their distribution success and that there are no problems. You’ll find that they will reach out to you as well if they come up against any problems with the file. Trust me, that happens on rare occasion, so never assume anything. You’re done, give yourself a fist-bump, come up for air, and remember that tomorrow you get to start the process all over again!
The audio artistry at which you approach your production processes should incorporate and regularly practice these guidelines. They are not exhaustive but each one will move your needle to finally achieving a program you can be proud of, one that will be more effective, one your clients (and boss) will take notice, and one that will reach its full potential. Congratulations—you have just created the Perfect Program!
Tim Johns is the owner/president of Mountain Peak Productions, a full-service audio production and agency representation company, producers of national level programs heard on hundreds of stations blanketing the nation and world. Tim has nearly 40 years of professional production expertise in church, ministry and business environments of all sizes. His staff is strategically positioned across the states incorporating their unique talents and skillset producing the highest quality programs. Nationally recognized, Mountain Peak Productions is firmly established as the frontrunner when it comes to long and short-format programs, audio, media, social platforms and web-based production and distribution. For more information on how they can assist you in reaching your highest peak, contact Tim directly at firstname.lastname@example.org