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From the Notebook: Hiring and Producers

Okay, so, there’s a question that I’ve been getting a lot more lately. Sometimes, it’s the last thing said in a conversation I’m having with a source. Other times, it comes as a text message sent out of the blue. (This has happened five times now.) Once, it was shoved into the first paragraph of an email that was carrying a press release.

The question is this: “Do you know a good producer I can hire?”

Indeed, producers most definitely seem to be a premium these days. There’s some variability in the actual skill-set being pursued when the word “good” is evoked in these inquiries, depending on the type of people making the ask. Occasionally, the question comes from podcast companies run by people who themselves came up through the audio world, in which case there’s a workable amount of specificity in what they’re looking for. Maybe it’s a producer who can confidently step into edits, the kind that can save the structure of a troublesome story. Or maybe it’s a person who is able to take the managerial reins of a weekly interview show, leading a stable of producers already on payroll.

More often than not, though, I get the inquiry from folks who are, let’s say, relatively new to the audio business, but are nonetheless very eager. In these situations, there tends to be a lack of specificity in the type of producer being pursued, which is a sticky wicket, because it almost always suggests an operating situation where the eventual hire will, often unreasonably, be made to do All The Things.

And there are quite a few things to be done in these jobs. There is, of course, the ability to cut an episode together effectively and efficiently — a prerequisite, presumably — but there’s also some mix of, among other things, being able to creatively conceive an episode, write a competent script, build out a sustainable booking process, manage producers (where applicable), and managing up (almost always difficult). To lay the entire bundle of those responsibilities on one producer, or even a small group of them, without an informed plan of how to scale up over time (often the case) is the height of unreasonableness, and yet I suspect it’s still a realization that’s slow to catch on in a number of workplaces.

A podcast exec — who I trust with having good judgment — recently offered an interesting analogy the last time I checked in. A veteran of the technology world, she pointed out how the growing hunt for audio producers feel a little bit like the hunt for programmers in the startup world. (“Do you even Pro Tools, bro?”) That analogy really works for me on a few different levels. To begin with, yes, the fever does feel vaguely comparable. But the similarities go right down to the lack of specificity often embedded in these hiring pursuits. What kind of developer are you talking about? What language? What area specialties, or background? What problems are you trying to solve? Just as front-end development expertise is different from database management, so too is rapidly turning around chat podcasts versus threading together narrative docs with scenes and heavy scripting. Also: Pro Tools vs. Reaper vs. Audition vs. Audacity?

(An aside: I imagine the parallel also suggests the opportunity for pop-up producer training programs in the style of these “coding bootcamp” operations that were all the rage a few years back. By the same token, the associated risk of borderline scams apply. Coding bootcamps continue to have somewhat mixed results, and there is always the possibility of pop-up programs that over-promise, ask for buckets of money, and ultimately don’t provide an audio production skill-set that can actually make you useful for a hiring operation. Just… be careful out there.)

Anyway, I realize I’m not making a particularly novel point in writing all this, but I feel compelled to reiterate the idea back out loud. While there continues to be some debate, at least in some circles, over what the atomic unit of podcast content is supposed to be — is it the episode? The segment? The show? The RSS feed? — there shouldn’t really be any doubt as to the atomic unit of podcast production. It’s the Producer, duh.

Given that, it bothers me how, despite this apparent increase in premium on hiring producers, I still get this sense that the specific contours of their value continue to be misunderstood. While I can’t speak for production conversations that are happening everywhere (obviously), I’ve heard enough stories where various decision-makers with the money still seem to be overvaluing the person in front of the mic and undervaluing the person on the production side. I’m still hearing producers being talked about as if they were interchangeable commodities, instead of operators whose very involvement in a segment or project can fundamentally change the feel and nature of the thing. It’s frustrating.

Much of this, perhaps obviously, can be pegged to the fact that the work of producers tends to be invisible. (Relatedly, you can apply this entire rambling brief to that other important but undervalued and invisible operator in podcast production: the trusty audio editor, an overlapping species.) In times when producers are being talked about, it’s typically because they’re two-way players, both producer and talent: think, like, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Avery Trufelman, Lina Misitzis, Jody Avirgan, Paul Bae, Lauren Shippen, and so on. (A counter-argument I got when work-shopping this column: narrative hosts historically come up as producers. Plus, if you wanted to do some adventurous stuff, you typically had to cut it yourself. For what it’s worth, I think that used to be the case, but isn’t necessarily so any more.) Yes, I’m aware there’s a narrative lean in those examples. On the talk-side, I’d like to believe that WTF with Marc Maron’s Brendan McDonald holds currency in ~The Culture~, but, broadly speaking, known talk producers tend to bubble up into the (podcast) public consciousness if they get enough play as side-kicks to the main talking head. (Think The Ringer, essentially.)

But for every one of those known individuals, there are so many producers without front-of-mic presences whose names should be better known — and valued accordingly as a line item on the budget — by the people who make the decisions with the money, because those are kind of people whose involvement in a project could very well bump up its survival (and success?) rate.

I guess what I’m advocating here is more structural visibility of the producer, such that the achievements of the productions they work can be theirs too. We should talk about them more, think about them, increase audience understanding of them. Some of these producers are genuinely stars, in my opinion, and while I’m somewhat reticent to advance the concept of a “star producer”… because it’s cheesy as hell… I do believe in some sort of discourse framework where these types of producers can be elevated and exposed to a point here they can valued by people both inside and outside of the business in the same way that front-of-mic talent is. I imagine there will some downsides to this proposition; feel free to share them with me. But I really do think the collective community gains will work out on the aggregate.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I give the same reply to the “do you know a good producer I can hire?” question almost every time: Buy a Hot Pod Classified, man.