We're as guilty of it as anybody. When we say talk radio- it's Dave, or Rush or Sean, or Bryan.
But behind those brands, are the producers: The harried, under-the-gun pros, who daily and minutely, dream up the topics, screen the calls, keep the host in the know, in the moment, in the room, and sounding good.
Sometimes they need to be parental- holding a hand, wiping a nose, or acting as a protector or buffer between hosts and listeners, who can be demanding, or crazy, or threatening.
Good waiters makes more money than most producers in local AM news talk radio.
The stereotype of a host is an asocial, physically unattractive, insecure, bombastic dweeb who hides behind a microphone overcompensating for self-doubt with arrogance, overbearance, and prolixity.
This stereotype has the added advantage of being true.
OK, OK, most stereotypes are fact-based; and talking with a half dozen of the city's top producers, we found, of course, hosts are way more complicated than that, and the producer's job is ever so much more than the handling of hosts.
We learned more about radio talking to producers than in anything we've done on Blatherwatch; these professionals are, smart, extremely hardworking and a little bit nutty the way creative, overworked people tend to be.
We decided to divide this into two parts, the second to come next week.
Our subjects have between four and 15 years in the radio business; they all agree- there's no real training or organized prep to become a producer. KIRO's Tina Nole, producer for Dave Ross and Ron Reagan was a drama major at Evergreen College and before ending up at KIRO had co-hosted with celebrity mice on Mickey and Minnie's Tune Time on Disney Radio.
KOMO's Travis Box, veteran producer, now in Fisher management, worked graveyard in a Portland convenience store, won a KGON morning show on-air talent search for having a good Irish accent, and two months later was producing the show.
Syndicated Ed Schultz's producer James Holm worked at what he calls joe-jobs like selling insurance, and as an assistant manager at Walgreen's. He was a caller to Schultz's regional show; and kept thrusting his resume at Big Ed in a Fargo radio station until Ed gave in and hired him.
Most came in as interns: KMPS's morning's Stephanie Rose, now Ichabod Craine's on-air gal-pal and traffic girl was 17 and did an alternative high school trades internship at Everett's KRKO. She was producing KIRO's overnight for Lou Pate when Craine heard her on his way to work. Soon she was producing the #2 morning drive in town. She was 19.
Interning after college are such as Dave Boze host/producer of KTTH's Sytman & Boze who'd done such petty labor as picking up rocks at a Christmas tree farm, and research for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation before becoming KVI's quirky bombast, Peter Weissbach’s sidekick, “The Grasshopper.”
Fellow Hillsdale College (the Reed College of the right) alumnus, syndicated Michael Medved Show Jeremy Steiner ran boards, screened calls, worked in promotions, edited Huskies games at KVI before breaking into producing for John Carlson and Brian Maloney.
Matt Haver who produces KVI's morning Kirby Wilbur Show was a star on the WWU station KUGS, and impressed Carlson during a radio production internship enough to hire him.
Luke Burbank, now a national reporter on NPR's Day to Day, and public radio up-and-comer in LA, did UW work study at KUOW, then Metro Traffic reporting, until he talked his way into producing for Weissbach, who'd been blowing through producers at a fast clip.
"They were pretty desperate…" says Burbank. "I had no real qualifications for the job... Weissbach literally made me take a quiz on how Congress works. I failed miserably. They still offered me the gig." Dave Ross also had a civics exam for his producer applicants, but didn't make Nole take it. "Thank god," she says.
Most local producers are the entire show staff. "Listeners always think there's a large research department behind every host," says Haver. "We have a joke," who produces KVI's Kirby Wilbur Show, "He's 'Kirby Wilbur,' and I'm 'The Show."
What are the prerequisites to this glamorous life? Having a hunger for news is key. the producers we talked to read upwards of 10 local, and national newspapers daily plus websites, and blogs: Huffington Post, Town Hall Daily, The Nation, OrbusMax, Drudge, Horse's Ass, World Net Daily, Daily Kos, etc.
"I look at what hosts are talking about on the East Coast," says Nole. "I go to the KIRO news desk and ask, ' is there anything I don't know?'"
"[All that reading] gives you a firm foundation when you’re trying to sift through the 300 or so half-baked topic ideas that will be coming your way each day," says Burbank.
Haver says," There are slow news days, but they're few and far between." And slow news days, can be even more stressful, says Box "... because it’s not an excuse for a bad show."
There's a classic Limbaugh line that good producers all relate to: “My life is show-prep.”
Burbank, who says he always considered himself a crappy producer, says "Good producers (like Dan Sytman and David Boze were… and Jeremy Steiner of the Medved Show is) make it a lifestyle. They are always on the lookout for a good topic, or guest, or piece of tape that is going to make for good radio the next day."
Not all hosts need basic research. "What's great about Dave [Ross]," says Noles, "is that he has a depth of knowledge. He'll come in and say, what are we doing today? I'll say we're going to talk about these three things. He'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Sometimes he'll have three stories- and we'll plug them all in together. It's only because he already knows. By now- we both know."
Noles: "You've got to be a multi-tasker with a sense of emergency- it's a way of life."
But if you're a host who's not Dave Ross, or Michael Medved, you'll need more. Says Rose, "you must be to be the host's brain. You lay out 20 different articles along with notes and bullet points; give him two sides he can take each story. Meanwhile, you're booking the guests, taking the calls, dealing with listeners.
("It may shock some people," a producer told us. "but I hope for a day when someone asks me who the Secretary of State is or what’s the status of light-rail on I-90 and I can honestly answer, ‘I really don’t know.’")
A producer needs to be interested in everything. "Become a jack of many trades," says Box. "Learn about music and politics, pop culture and human struggle. Think like a listener. Put your ego aside. ... Learn to anticipate and always have a contingency plan."
All agree you must have a thick, if not Teflon skin.
Boze says: "Producers have to juggle (and bear the brunt of) the demands, frustrations, emotions and egos of staff, management, guests, politicians- it can be draining... And you have to say “no” to so many people, all of whom want on the air."
PR flacks want to get their stuff on the radio, callers want onto the show, self-serving hosts want to do what they want to do- even if it makes for bad radio.
"You really have to have a sense for what makes good radio, and be willing to stick to your guns as much as possible," says Burbank.
"Hosts pretty much come in two flavors- aggressive, and passive aggressive," he says, "Either way, you are going to want to throttle them at least 40% of the time. The key is having a thick enough skin that you can still do your job even when they are giving you a hard time for not booking that interview with Saddam Hussein from the execution chamber."
"I can't tell you how many hosts defer their non-compelling e-mail for their producer to answer," says Stephanie Rose, "you're supposed to be their day-timer."
One producer told us: "Don’t let them make you their bitch. They will want to, and it will be tempting to just go along with it… but your life will suck if you do."
Hosts want you to be their friend. You have to be that guy on the other side of the glass, cracking up at their jokes and telling them good show when it’s over. You are sort of a proxy for all the listeners out there… so you have to make them feel like it’s going pretty well.
Stay tuned for The Producers, Part 2: screening the wild caller