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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Back to School -- Yesterday was a pretty unusual day for me, as I was asked to take part in a local educational initiative inspired by The Apprentice TV show. Two groups of kids between 10 and 15 are competing to create a radio advertisement for a local car dealer, and I was called in to help them tweak the scripts they came up with, then record their commercials with a portable digital recorder, and finally bring the raw digital workparts back to the radio station to produce the final commercials with music and sound effects.

Amusingly, the scene of the recording session was the local community college, not only the college I attended 20 years ago, but we were in (I'm 90 percent sure) the actual room of one of my most dreaded classes, Mass Media. The course was a bore, and was one of those two-hours twice-a-week marathon snoozefests that was never anywhere near as interesting as it should have been, but yesterday's experience working with the kids on their commercials made up for that. The two groups, with six or so kids in each, were interested, excited and fully engaged in their project. I found it a great experience to go over the work they had done and show them where and how it could be slightly better. Both scripts were fine starting points -- God knows I've been handed worse by professional agencies working out of major cities -- but each had places where they could be made better, and as I proposed each change, I made sure each of the kids understood my point and had no major disagreements.

The tweaked points ranged from the bizarre -- I removed the term "suicide doors" from one of the car ads, thinking "suicide" is not a word I would want to associate with a motor vehicle -- to the mundane, as in my suggestion that a character in a brief three-person skit be named something other than "Mrs. Smith." I tried to convey that it's good to use a more realistic name, and even conceded that there are Smith's not that far back in my family tree, but something a little more unusual but real would bring the listener that much further in the story. I suggested "Pulaski" as one possibility (thinking of Ronette, not the doctor from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but, the nerd in me thinks they might be related over the centuries, like Robin and Spock), but the kids settled on "Mrs. Loomis," and that was good enough for me.

I tried to talk as much as possible about the rationale I had for every point I brought up as we went over their scripts, and the only point where any argument came up was when I pointed out that the possessive "its" in their script mistakenly had an apostrophe in it. That led into a brief debate over the spelling of that contentious word, but I finally (gently and in good humour) put my foot down on the issue. One of the kids asked "Are you really good at English?" I kind of threw up my hands in resignation and said "Apparently so!" That got a good laugh, and we moved on.

The actual recording went very quickly with both sets of kids; there were a few fluffed lines here and there that needed re-recording (nothing us pros don't have to do every time out, too), and one brief bit that required a change of voice talent when the group agreed that the needed enthusiasm was just not coming through. In all, though, I was amazed and gratified to see how immersed these kids were in their project. There was a real sense of teamwork among both groups, and if one was a bit more competitive within its own ranks (arguing over whether Harry Potter can really be killed off, for example -- I pointed out that it happened to Sherlock Holmes and Superman, too, and did neither any real long-term harm as cultural archetypes), each member of both groups clearly worked hard to do their part and contribute to the process.

Back at the station, it took me about an hour and a half to get both commercials fully produced and burned onto CD. The kids will hear the spots at today's session, and while I won't be there, I am seeing the gentleman who oversees the project later today when he comes in to record his own weekly radio show, and I am anxious to hear what the kids think about how their commercials turned out. For me, it was an unusual application of twenty years of radio experience and a chance to share that experience with young people interested in what I had to say. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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