Radio producers are not seen and usually not heard, but without them most
radio programs would never reach the airwaves. Producers work behind the scenes
to make everything come together on the air.
It's fast-paced work, with looming deadlines and often limited financial
rewards. But radio producers say they love the creative and intellectual opportunities
they find on the job.
Producers fill a number of roles. Some producers research topics and find
just the right guest for live talk-radio programs. Others collect taped interviews
and natural sound, and mix the two together in a packaged report. Radio producers
also write commercials and oversee the mixing of voice and music for those
catchy 30-second advertisements you hear.
Producers at stations with all-news formats will sometimes edit and write
news stories, using information gathered by reporters.
Whatever their duties, radio producers are always working with deadlines.
Programs air on tight schedules, so packaged items must be ready when needed
for both program and commercial air times.
Most radio producers work for public or private radio stations. Public
radio includes National Public Radio stations (NPR). NPR receives financial
support from listeners and some government grants. Private radio, including
Top 40, rock or talk-radio stations, makes money through the commercial time
it sells to businesses. Producers in these stations often work to bring great-sounding
commercials to the air.
Other radio producers work independently, rather than for one program or
one radio station. These independent radio producers have the additional skills
(beyond reporting) of being able to do the audio editing of pieces so that
they're ready for airplay. "You need to know how to edit your own tape," says
Hillary Frank. She's an independent radio producer.
Radio producers must ensure their end result sounds right. Radio listeners
don't have the opportunity to read something over again if it's unclear the
first time, and they can't look at pictures to help them understand a story.
Producers must know how best to set up a story so someone can hear it once
and understand it.
Some items require field production work, but most research is done over
the phone or through a news wire service. The creative work of mixing interviews,
natural sound and music is done in a studio at the radio station.
Many radio producers begin their careers as production assistants or associate
producers. These jobs involve helping the producer create the programming
and assisting with research.
"The producer sort of guides the programs, has the overview, the general
sense of the show," says Robyn Burns. She's an associate producer. "They'll
do a lot of writing, but they also vet most of the scripts."
At larger stations, associate producers like Burns write the scripts. At
smaller stations, or with programs that air only once a week, the producer
might also do the script writing.
Scripts are used for long interviews. These interviews are usually part
of "current affairs" programs. Producers or associate producers pre-interview
sources whenever possible to get background information. Then they write the
intro to the interview along with a list of questions for the host to ask
"You learn the full background on the person, so the host is not going
in to the interview blind," says Burns. "You draft the questions and your
producer vets the whole script and maybe makes changes.
"One question has to lead in to the next," Burns adds. "It has to make
sense to the listener."
Burns often writes two or three scripts a day. She alternates between working
as an associate producer on a current affairs show and working as a reporter.
"As an associate producer, you're trying to figure out the story from your
desk because you're drafting scripts, whereas the reporter is out in the field,"
says Burns. "As the associate producer, you rely on the reporter in the field.
"As an associate producer, I come in with ideas for stories and I pitch
those ideas, but they don't necessarily make it on to the show," Burns adds.
"The producer decides what gets on the show."
There are also opportunities for radio producers at English-language radio
stations around the world. If you want to start out in North America, you'll
probably start at a small station outside of the major cities. This is because
job competition is very strong in major centers.
The hours a radio producer works depend on the time, length and complexity
of their program or shift. For example, the morning drive, starting at 6 a.m.,
is a major listening time in radio. That means some producers have to be at
work at 5 a.m. or earlier, and they may work until late afternoon.
Independent radio producers can set their own hours. But they also have
to find their own work. They often end up working more hours than someone
with a full-time job on a radio show. Nights and weekends are not uncommon.
"Shows that use independent producers are always looking for new people,"
says Frank. "It's hard to find people who not only know how to technically
put together stories, but know how to pitch interesting stories and not just
predictable stories. If you have that, editors at a program will come after
you and want you to work for them again and again.
"Surprising stories are key," Frank adds. "If you can answer the question,
'Why should I care?' and the answer is interesting, then you're ahead of most
people who pitch stories to public radio shows."