JV: One thing about today’s radio that must be an advantage to your students is the fact that you don’t have to have that big, deep voice to get into radio anymore, or into voice-over for that matter.
John: It is nice that radio has evolved to where normal people are okay on the air. I rarely have the traditional, old-fashioned, giant-pipe radio voice in this class. However, I actually have one in the class right now. I have a guy who sounds like Gary Owens all the time. It’s almost frightening because I get a voice like that maybe once every three or four years.

I always have a wide range of voices, and it’s somewhat neat from my perspective because this is a lot higher turnover than you’d have in a professional setting. If you tried to run a professional station with the staff turnover that we work with, you’d be out of business. I mean, we can’t fire anybody, but they leave anyway. So there’s a never-ending parade of different voices through here, both male and female, and the variety is just endless. Some people take to it quicker than others. Some people read better than others. But there’s room for many different voices, and I’ve been happy about the way radio sounds when it’s not all giant, scary radio voices. I kind of like the idea there are lots more women on the air now, too, because I think that lends a real variety to what we’re listening to as well.

JV: Does your course get into anything that can prepare a student for a career in voice-over work?
John: Well, it is an entry-level program. This is not the only thing you need to do if you’re going to have a career in radio and production and voice-over work. You’re probably going to need to do some more things and learn some more things beyond what we do here. This is really a launch pad that can send you off in a variety of different directions. We talk about working with different kinds of microphones and getting them placed right and getting the most out of a microphone for whatever your particular natural sound happens to be. We talk about pacing and breathing and phrasing and how to mark up copy. It’s pretty basic stuff.

I try to get people to find out just how broad a range they have. Some people don’t need to do this because it comes to them naturally, but somebody who is struggling to find a range, I’ll ask them to force themselves to record a piece of copy at extremes of different emotions or extremes of pace or level. Then I’ll go back through the playback with them to see how they hear that difference.

When I first did college radio, I was on the big carrier current AM station that went to about four buildings. I sat down there, put those headphones on, and started to speak words into a microphone. And I thought I sounded pretty cool. Then I played back the tape, and I sounded like a dead person. It took a long time to calibrate the inside of my head to hear me the way other people heard me. Again, going back to the beginning, the first on-air work that they do here is news because it’s really structured. I have them record every single newscast, and they have to sit there and listen to themselves with the copy in their hand before they leave that room. That way they get a feel for the difference between how they thought it sounded and what it really sounded like.

JV: You mentioned having both analog and digital equipment in the studios. What are you using?
John: An incredible collection of stuff, both in terms of its capability and its age. On the analog side, we have quite a collection of tape decks. I’m thinking of charging admission for people who like tape decks because we have them all. We have one Ampex 350 transport still in use in the lab—I’m probably going to retire that this year, but it breaks my heart to do it. Most of our on-air production work that’s done on tape is done on Sony MCIs, which are very capable but a little temperamental because they have a few years on them, and the logic circuits are beginning to go nuts. We do a lot of plugging circuit boards in and out of those. We have Ampex and Crown and MCI tape decks, and I have a couple of ITCs that are actually in storage that we just retired. These are the 2-track decks. And we have half-inch 4-track capability on the analog side as well.

On the digital side, we’ have 360 Systems’ Short/cuts in the air studios for doing phone editing. We have a 4-track workstation built around an Akai DR4, which is no longer in production. They make an 8 and a 16 now, I think. We actually built a digital workstation in the big steel roll-around console that used to have an MCI tape deck in it. That’s made out of a DR4, a Yamaha SPX1000, a Soundcraft Spirit eight-channel mixer, and a couple of powered speakers that are on board. It rolls around on those big casters, and we can take it in the classroom, take it in the office, put it in the studio, and patch it into any control room with patch cords. It’s a pretty utilitarian device. Then our 16-track is a SAWplus workstation that’s PC based. As the students work their way through the various pieces of equipment, that’s where they’re going. They start out in a production studio with analog, then multi-track, and then 4-track digital and the hard disk recorder. Then we go to the SAWplus computer-based workstation.

JV: How do the students take to the SAWplus once they finally get to it?
John: They love it. But there’s a funny learning curve. There’s this big entry barrier initially— unless I have somebody who has been playing with computer audio at home before they ever get here. But usually, they’ll sit down in front of it, tear their hair out, look at it and get very frustrated for about an hour. Then after that, it just takes right off.

The IQS people have put together some very good SAW tutorials that are easy to work through. And if you’ve cut tape before, and you’ve already been through the hard disk workstation getting all those tracks up on the screen, once you get used to where to click the mouse, it just opens up like watching a flower bloom.

JV: What’s one of the hardest things to teach about production in the course?
John: Overcoming inertia, I think. People are sometimes afraid of the equipment, and they’re afraid to try something because it won’t work. Then once you get them to realize that it’s not going to explode when they touch it, then they start to take off. I think the other thing I run into is so basic and yet, it’s been a real stumbling block, and that is maintaining consistent audio levels. I mean, that is so basic that when you’ve done it for a while, you don’t even thing about it anymore, but beginners don’t think about that at all. And the worst—and I hope I don’t insult anybody here—but the worst are the people who have done mobile DJ work and club DJ work. I’ve never done that, but, apparently, when you do that, levels are not an issue at all. So the guys who are really good mix DJ people are sometimes the ones who come into this setting and have the toughest time maintaining the technical standards on the thing, and they just don’t understand why all that distortion is in there. And they want to know where the magic box is that removes it, and they’re very disappointed to find out that we don’t have one.