Content Creation and the Genesis of a Curmudgeon

Content creation is supposed to be fun. Yet, for a ton of people who do it at a high level, it’s anything but. Why?

Here’s an audio version of this column for your dining and dancing pleasure.

In my case, I can trace back to almost the precise moment that the seeds of curmudgeonry were sown. (Curmudgeonry is not a word. I made it up.)
I was a teenager, still getting my feet wet in the radio industry, when I walked into Bob Humenick’s office. Bob was what, at the time, was called the “copy chief”. Every piece of advertising that ran on the radio station went through Bob before it went on the air. Even material written and produced by the biggest ad agencies in the world. As a result, Bob knew every word of every commercial we ran. (You learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t when you’re exposed to content creation on that scale.) And it was Bob Humenick who started my copywriting journey. It’s not Bob’s fault, but the downward slide started right then.

Copywriters have a heightened awareness of the economy of words. You get about 75 words in a 30-second radio commercial, for example. And most copywriters use a stopwatch. You sit with your script and work your tail off to squeeze everything into 30 seconds. You become critically aware that every word takes time. And in broadcast, time literally is money. Wasted words become the enemy. Throwaway phrases belong to people who just don’t care.

The Life-or-Death Relationship Between Content Creation, Time & Money

That approach to content creation isn’t exclusive to the advertising world. Twitter reminded me over the weekend of a great interview with Jerry Seinfeld in the Harvard Business Review. Jerry says, “The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.” I carried my copywriting sensibilities over when I started working as a standup comic, too. I recorded every set for later review, listening for ways to make the punch lines funnier, or the setups more efficient. If your plan is to actually make money doing standup, laughs per minute is a pretty critical metric.

When I moved over to morning radio, things just got worse. Comedians get real-time feedback on whether their stuff is going over. Radio DJs, though, have to wait up to three months to find out how they’re doing. If you want to keep feeding your family, you become the ultimate self-critic. Plenty of comics and DJs alike assume they’re terrible, and success comes as a pleasant surprise. Even material that appears to be generated on the fly – improv, for example – takes a ton of work. The best improv comics have mastered the art of content creation to the point where, like a skilled chess player, they’re thinking several moves ahead. They know the art lies in making it look effortless. Great interviewers, too. When they ask a question, they’re usually choosing from a menu of follow-ups that will come next.

Why It Matters

Content creators like live hosts know: Keeping their attention is everything.

That awareness matters because for live performers, it’s crystal clear: Your audience has other choices. Bore them and you lose them. Comedians find it tougher to get laughs. Musicians find the crowd talking during the songs. And for radio DJs, you find out people punched over to a different radio station. DJs in particular have that drilled into their psyches. Every moment you’re not holding the audience’s attention is an invitation to punch over to your competitor. And they leave without you knowing until it’s far too late to get them back.

And therein, my friend, lies the rub.

Curmudgeonry is Rarely a Choice

When you devote a chunk of your life and your career to the economy of words, wasted words become irritants. Suddenly, every use of words passes through the “content creation” filter. You agonize over every tweet. You scan your emails fifteen times before you hit “Send”. Maybe you even rehearse important conversations. That’s not crazy, it’s being efficient.

Then you start to bristle when you realize that other people don’t treat words the same way. They don’t try to avoid wasting people’s time and attention the way you do. Quite the contrary, they seem to be winging it. And if your livelihood has, at any point, depended on your ability to hold somebody’s attention, you can actually feel yourself start to brace, like you’re bracing for impact, when you see someone beginning to meander.

From Rotten Tomatoes, actor and content creator extraordinaire, Rick Moranis.
Actor Rick Moranis
(Photo: Rotten Tomatoes)

I worked with Rick Moranis a couple of times on a series of radio commercials I’d written for a car dealer in Toronto. One night after a recording session where Rick did the voices for the commercials, I invited him to the comedy club I was performing at that night. He told me that although he was confident in my chops as a writer and performer, he’d stopped going to live comedy years earlier, because being in the room when a comic wasn’t doing well made him physically ill.

News flash: It feels that way for a lot of the audience, regardless of whether they’re comedy legends like Rick Moranis.

Where Content Creation Is Failing Me

You might know, if you follow me on social media, or listen to this show regularly, that I offer coaching to broadcasters and podcasters at all levels. And I’ve been working with everyone from the smallest podcasters to the biggest radio morning shows. And without turning this into a plug, I made a conscious decision right at the outset to be a low-cost option. Talent development, I figured, should be accessible for everybody.

What I discovered is that I priced myself for a market where there are virtually no customers. I can’t tell you the number of coaches and consultants in both podcasting and radio who told me they saw it coming. There seem to be vast numbers of content creators who don’t care that their stuff is just okay. Ask some podcasters why the streets aren’t paved with gold. They’ll tell you they need a better microphone.

What’s funny is, most of my current roster of clients said they’d happily pay more, because they get how important it is. Don’t worry, the price isn’t changing, although as of today I’m happy to tell you that we’ve introduced a new price for ongoing coaching. Because that’s the answer, Neil, if people aren’t going for the low price option, offer them even more and charge them even less. The bottom line on that one is that rather than critique a single episode of your show, I’ll spend three months or a year listening to every episode you do, and making notes along the way. You get the guidance and the development end, but you also get accountability.

The Bottom Line

The whole thing is meant to move that content creation needle back toward where the money is. Comedians who get more laughs get more gigs. Advertisers who write better commercials sell more stuff. DJs who do better shows get bigger contracts, or get jobs in bigger markets. Podcasters who do higher quality shows make money.

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