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 What Exactly Does a Producer Do?

I have found a perfect solution to the party problem. You know the party problem -- you're at a party and don't know anybody; the strangers either seem so dull that you want to avoid conversation, or so interesting that you want to engage your fellow revelers; how do you accomplish your goal? The solution comes in your answer to the inevitable question: "So what do you do?"

If I want to be left alone, I reply, "I sell insurance." Turns 'em off every time. On the other hand, if I want to intrigue my interlocutor, I say, "I write and produce cultural programs for public radio." This works unless the questioner is in professional sports or commercial broadcasting, or a Republican. I never tell them outright that I make radio plays because the quizzical looks I get depress me. Lately, "I make audiobooks" often leads to further pleasant chat.

But not always.

"Why I loooooooooove audiobooks," a Beverly Hills matron told me at a recent poolside cocktail bash. "You act in them?"

"I produce them."

"Really." She took a sip of her fifth double margarita of the afternoon. " I've always wondered what exactly does the producer of an audiobook do? What's his function?"

"I suppose it's to get a listenable performance out of the narrator."

"You suppose? Don't you know?"

"Not really. I can only tell you what I do."

"And what you do is try to get a listenable performance out of the narrator?"

"Sometimes. Mostly I try to stay awake."

"It must be very easy work then."

"Far from it. I've got a colleague, Stefan Rudnicki, who works with some of the same actors I do. A few of them I can't squeeze an intelligible sentence out of, while he makes them sound like Olivier clones. I don't know how he does it."

"He must have an easier time staying awake than you do."

"Much easier I imagine," I agreed.

"So, those producers who stay awake direct the narrator, do they?"

I thought about this as I gnawed on a canapé. "Those that know how and who are given the opportunity. Some of my most sought-after colleagues are techies who haven't a clue about directing actors. Some publishers couldn't tell or care about the difference anyway. I've been hired just to make sure that the narrator finishes on schedule, or to see that every word of the original book is
heard in its proper place and properly pronounced, or to mark a script to facilitate editing.

"In a dramatic production," I continued, "things are clearer. The producer normally hires the cast, director, engineer, composer - oversees the whole process. Although, in one instance, the L.A. Theater Works, the sound guy, who's excellent by the way, would rather be called 'producer' than 'engineer.' In America, we have many auteur audio dramatists who write and direct as well, such as the legendary Norman Corwin and the not so legendary me.

I explained. "The publishers of audiobooks do things differently. Some only hire narrators who have their own recording equipment and who can therefore produce, voice and edit their assignments. Some freelancers make a living offering package deals, recording, directing and editing performances on their own equipment and in their own facilities. Many of the smaller publishers are producer owned and operated.

"When I make audio plays," I concluded, "I am firmly in control. When I make audiobooks I often think no one's in control. At any rate, the definition of a good job changes with the publisher and doesn't seem to have much to do with artistic quality."

"But I've heard some wonderful audiobooks," the lady protested.

"Probably due to the narrators and authors. Even in the theater, a director or producer is only as good as their actors, who, in turn, are only as good as the material their given to work with."

"You sound very cynical," she sympathized. "Have you never been satisfied with an audiobook assignment?"

"One in particular leaps to mind. An historical thing involving several narrators reading excerpts from period documents. It was all being done in New York except for one guy who had to be taped here on the Left Coast. The producer sub-contracted me to handle his session. I was working with a well-known actor who, though very gifted, had a lisp and an ugly voice. He was reading from the journal of a great explorer. At any rate, the job presented stimulating challenges. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The production won a Grammy and critics singled out my guy as particularly noteworthy."

"Your publisher must have been very happy then."

"No. You see, right after the session, on an Internet chat board, I mentioned the gig and how gratifying it was. The publisher got mad at the colleague who had subcontracted me for not having told me that the whole magilla was to be kept under wraps until publication. That colleague never hired me again."

"So you really don't know what is expected of a producer, do you?"

 "No," I said as I swallowed the last drop of my Shirley Temple. "But then again, if I knew anything, I wouldn't be in show business."


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© 2002 AudioFile magazine. Used by permission.