Kurt S. Kaniewski, Creative Director, Clear Channel Communications, WMRN-AM/FM, WDIF-FM, Marion, Ohio
by Jerry Vigil
If you’ve been a follower of the Radio And Production Awards for the past ten years, you have probably noticed the dramatic increase in the quality of creative work presented in the Small Market categories, especially the Best Commercial category. The creative line between small market and large market has definitely blurred. The winner of this year’s Best Commercial – Small Markets trophy works in a town with just three radio stations and 64,000 or so people. Kurt Kaniewski is the Creative Director for Clear Channel’s three Marion, Ohio properties, and though this is about as small as “small market” radio gets, you wouldn’t know Kurt is in small market America when you examine his collection of awards and honors from the Radio And Production Awards, the Mobius Awards, the Radio Mercury Awards, the Silver Microphone Awards, and many others. If you think great creative can only be found in the majors, look again.
JV: Let’s start off with a background check.
Kurt: Well, I actually started off in a major market, at WZAK in Cleveland, which was kind of a sink or swim situation right out of broadcast school. I did on air and production there. I went on to work at a few other places in Cleveland, WCPN, WGAR. I even did some teaching at the Ohio School of Broadcast Technique. But I still wanted to do something a little more fun and creative, so in ’85 I put an ad in the trades, just one of those blind ads to see what kind of response I’d get. I got a call from a station, WDIF, in Marion, Ohio, and they said they had an opening for something called a Creative Director, which seemed kind of cool. I got the gig and moved down there, and that’s where I kind of whet my teeth on the whole creative production process. I left there when I got an offer from WAKR in Akron to be Production Director, which was one of my dream gigs. I worked there for a couple of years, and that fell apart when ownership decided to cut back. Then I wound up at WMRN as Creative Director, and I will have been here for ten years in November.
JV: Ten years at one station in a small market seems pretty rare. They must be treating you right.
Kurt: They’ve let me kind of bring my major market mentality down here and do my own thing, which is one of the advantages of working in a small market. And it’s working because sales are very good. We’re a very sales oriented company. We even have a print department. We had a print department and an NTR (Non-Traditional Revenue) department long before it was the thing to do. We’ve always been very aggressive, and it’s been one of those blessings. I would have never guessed ten years ago that I’d be in Marion, Ohio with more “accolades and trophies” than I could have ever dreamed of when I was working in Cleveland.
JV: Was this print department in place before you arrived ten years ago?
Kurt: Luckily for me, it was. Luckily for me, the gal who is General Manager here, Diane Glassmeyer, has a background in print. I knew her from when I worked at WDIF. They also had a print publication along with the radio station, and I got to know her there originally. Then she eventually got into radio at WMRN, and when she saw my tape come across her desk, she remembered me. She’s always been a very progressive, idea-oriented, not-sit-with-the-norm kind of GM. So that thinking was here when I got here.
She basically turned this station around. She came into what I would probably call a typical small market radio station and turned the whole thing around to where we’re doing billing that corporate can’t even believe. People can’t believe it unless they’re here and see what we do. And that’s one of the things that has kept me here because if it were just a typical small market station with a small market mentality, I probably would have hit the road a long time ago.
JV: How many stations are in the market?
Kurt: There are only three stations in the market, and they’re all in this building, WMRN-AM and FM and WDIF, which used to be the competitor before we purchased them. WMRN-FM is country. The AM is a full-service AC with Rush and Doctor Laura, and we have sports with the Indians, Browns and Ohio State. On WDIF, we’re doing the mix format with Clear Channel, which is a real nice rock blend, so we basically cover everybody here.
JV: Do you handle all the commercials and imaging for all three stations?
Kurt: Imaging comes from corporate. That’s one thing I don’t have to deal with. For the most part, I handle all the commercial production. We have another guy that I can farm stuff out to, but basically it’s got to come past me first. And if they want something way out there, that’s usually mine. And, of course, in a small market, under the umbrella of Creative Director you also have Production Director, Continuity Director, and copywriter.
JV: What’s a typical day like for you in terms of hours?
Kurt: I get here about six-thirty in the morning and leave anywhere from eight to ten o’clock at night.
JV: That’s a lot of work!
Kurt: Yes it is. Like I used to tell the students, it’s a heck of a lot of work, but it still beats working.
JV: The local advertising is probably very important as it is in perhaps any small market. Tell us a bit about the sales philosophy there with regards to the local advertisers.
Kurt: The local advertising is extremely important. We don’t have the luxury of getting a lot of agency buys, and we work hard for what we get. Diane is of the opinion that if you get good people, and the rest takes care of itself. Our Sales Managers are excellent. We have three including Diane. In a small market, it’s very rare that a GM just sits behind a desk without an account list, so she has a list. Our second Sales Manager has been in the business about thirty years. He knows everything inside and out. He was another one who was instrumental in getting the numbers up. And our third manager is in charge of the print side.
Our philosophy has always been to service the client; give the client what they ask for. And it’s really not brain surgery. I’m in a good position now because I’ve been here long enough, and they’ve heard my silliness for a lot of years. If they ask for something way out, they have an idea what they’re going to get. So it isn’t like I have to reinvent the wheel every time I do a spec or something like that. And what’s really nice for the salespeople is having all the awards. It’s nice for them to bring clients into the lobby where they can see trophies and stuff from London, Chicago and all over, awards they probably wouldn’t see in a whole lot of radio stations, especially in a market this size. So that’s a great sales tool.
JV: For many small market stations, getting the local businessman on the air is a matter of getting them at all costs. Whatever it takes. If you’ve got to give them a dozen spots for every dozen they buy, do that. If they want to get on in two hours, tell them you can do it. If they want to put their kids on the commercial, tell them that’s fine. You sacrifice quality for quantity on a regular basis. Do you have any policies or procedures that protect you from having to do that?
Kurt: Well, I am a firm believer in that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And everything you said, we do here. We have had children on the spots. We have had clients cut their own ads. But the thing is, I make sure I direct them. I make sure I produce them and that they don’t sound as bad as they might if I delegated that to someone else. I think one of our strongest suits on the local side is our client testimonials. We have had some very long-running clients and very successful campaigns with client testimonial spots. Yes, they may take a little bit longer because you have to sit down and really do some interpretative editing, which is why some nights I don’t leave until ten, but if you do the little extra, the caliber of what you’re putting out won’t suffer. This is just my interpretation of it. I have the luxury to do it, and I’m quite passionate about what I do. But just because you’re working in a “small market” doesn’t mean it has to sound like a small market. I’m of the belief that you can have a kid come in to do a spot with all the potential pitfalls that might pull down the production sound, and you can still keep the caliber where it should be. As a matter of fact, Dan O’Day was asking all the people on his e-mail list if anybody had some examples of working with client testimonials. He said if he heard some he thought were worthy, he would use them in some of the seminars he does. I sent him some of ours, and he took two of them. Yeah, it’s small market, but it doesn’t have to sound like it. You just have to truly want to do what it takes to make it better.
JV: What are some of your basic principles that you follow when a client wants to record his own commercial? What are the steps you go through to assure that it’s going to be as good as it can be?
Kurt: If it’s a testimonial, I try to make sure they have no script. I try to get them to talk to me. I try to just kick back and basically do a Q and A. Yeah, you may have twenty minutes of audio to go through, but once they settle down, it’s better. The guys who are very good pretty much know what to expect, and it doesn’t take as long to get from point A to point B. But, especially with testimonials, I do not want them coming in with a script, unless it’s one of these rare people who can read a script and not sound like they’re reading, which isn’t likely to happen. You can’t rely on that.
I believe you should go off the cuff and take as long as it takes with the client. In the back of your mind, you pretty much know when you’ve got enough stuff to put together what’s going to sound like a sixty-second complete thought from this person rather than just sixty seconds of voice bytes edited together. I think it’s as simple as that. You can’t take short cuts.
JV: What about the client who wants to go on in a couple hours? Is that pretty common there or do you have some standards that you enforce to give you time to do a good job on the spot?
Kurt: We’re pretty good at avoiding it. Obviously, it’s not a perfect world, and we’ve had it happen. We’ll do it if we have to, but our sales staff has done a marvelous job of letting the clients know that, hey, this is a real pain in the butt, and we’d rather not do it this way. The salespeople try to steer them away from it, and they’ve done a real good job of it. I’ve seen much worse situations.
JV: Sounds like you have a sales department that supports you.
Kurt: I’ve got a good sales department. I’ve also gotten a lot stronger in my Catholic Christian walk, which usually goes the other way in this business. And when you really grab onto that, you don’t throw things at your salespeople any more. You’re a little more tolerant. We’re here to service our clients, but you take it one step further—and this is all under the premise that your sales staff isn’t walking all over you—but I take it to the point that I should also be servicing my salespeople, and I try to bend over backwards for them. And the thing is, they see that I’m bending over backwards for them, and that’s why I’m not getting as many of the, “I need this in one or two hours.” They cut me some slack.
And I believe that in wearing all the hats, especially with continuity and copy and co-op, if you don’t let your pride get in the way and you can leave it at the door, things go a lot smoother and they get done a lot quicker.
JV: About how many commercials do you write and produce in the course of a day or week?
Kurt: It’s tough to gauge because the days kind of fall apart so fast. If it’s tournament time, I’ve written as many as fifteen to twenty in a day. Then there’ll be days where I’ll have a ton of testimonials to do some interpretative editing on, and I might write only one a day. It’s really tough to gauge, but on an average, I’d say maybe five a day.
JV: Do you go out on client calls often?
Kurt: When need be. My sales department knows that I’m usually up to my eyeballs in stuff, and they will not pull me out on a wild goose chase to a client just to show my face when they really don’t have to. If they have a client who really needs some brainstorming, then they’ll come in and say, “Hey, I hate to bother you, but I think we need you on this one.” And I’m like, “Okay, fine.”
JV: You have a ton of awards hanging on the walls, and those don’t come unless the commercial is worthy of it. Where do you go for all this creativity, and with such a volume of work, how are you able to turn out award-winning commercials?
Kurt: Well, panic is a marvelous motivator. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, and it is really true. And I know this may sound hokey, but I’ve also got to go back to my Christian walk. I really believe strongly that when you do give everything up to Jesus, and I dead seriously mean that, you all of a sudden have faith in your own creative abilities. The spot that won my last London award was a case of just putting out another fire. I had to get this thing done fast. The clock was running out. I put my fanny down into the seat at my typewriter and was just barely coming up with an idea, but I went from there. And again, I won a London for that one. You have to basically trust your talent, and you can’t try to plan too much. If you have the luxury to think about a creative idea, do a little research, or maybe mull on it for a while, that’s fine. But when you have those times where you’re not having an idea and it’s getting close to the deadline, you have to be able to let go and just know that when the time comes, something will be there.
Kurt: Yeah. And people knock the belief in Jesus, but it’s no joke. I don’t know if I could have done this ten years ago. The faith is very important, and the more you do it, the better you get. It actually works as your ally after a while. You use that little bit of a rush, that little bit of panic right up to the edge, you use it to your advantage. That’s probably where more of the cutting edge stuff has come from because if you have too much time to think, it’s going to be too predictable. It’s going to be the same old stuff, and it’s not going to have that little edge. Every production person, I feel, has their own sound, and my sound is going to be from those moments of not having time to think. I think I’m having more success now that I’ve gotten back on track. I’m a cradle Catholic, and good heaven, you want to talk about complacent…but once I kind of got back into it, it’s actually a great ally.
JV: The commercial that you won the Small Market RAP Award for was entitled “Warm and Fuzzy,” a spot for Carriage Town Chrysler/Plymouth. This is a spot that plays on an inside thing, two voice-over talents talking about their session for this client. Our readers obviously liked it…
Kurt: And I thank every one of them who voted for it. Bless them all. Thank you!
JV: Was that an idea that came to you very quickly while you were under the gun, or was it one of those that you thought about for a few days before writing the script? How did this spot come to be?
Kurt: I think the best way I can describe that spot is as a “smacking the chops with a two by four hard sell.” Rather than taking this hard sell and doing the predictable hard sell, I started giving this hard sell a personality. I was making comedy out of some guy who basically had no personality and was just a hired grunt. In the back of my mind I was thinking, you know, you always hear the guys who do this stuff, but you never hear a woman. That was one of those things that was just lying in the back of my head. Then, when this thing came about, I happened to meet some gal at church who was a fabulous talent. I asked her, “Do you think maybe you could do this?” And she said, “I don’t know, let’s try it.” And that’s where it all came from. I took what you could consider real good hard sell people and put them in a comedic situation and then just totally turned it around by having them transform like Superman out of a phone booth.
JV: You somewhat answered the next question which was where do you find the talent for your commercials? Obviously, this one was found at church. Are most of your voices for your commercials jocks at the station, or do you have a talent pool outside the station?
Kurt: Well, this gal from church is also an actress, so I was lucky there. I do have a few people I know who are either actors who are very talented, or are just good singers when I needed them for that. For a lot of stuff, I’ve done a lot of the voices. I do a lot of the character voices, too. But the majority of the talent is usually in house, and I’m very lucky that we’ve had a share of really talented people that I can pull from. Sure, it would be nice if you had more, but you understand going in when you’re in a small market situation that you’re going to have a limited talent pool It’s just like buying a house. If you can get eighty percent of what you want, fine. You can deal with the other twenty percent. And sometimes you go through periods where, talent-wise, you don’t have the folks you might have had five years ago. But I’ve still been lucky enough to have enough to perpetrate when I come up with something.
JV: What about the jocks? Do they do production as well?
Kurt: I don’t want this to come off egotistical, but I tried farming out to jocks. I’d give them a script and pick music. Oh my goodness. I heard stuff that just made me cringe. So what I try to do is write a script, leave for it a jock, and have him leave me a voice track. Then I mix it. And, being a small market station, our Program Director, who is the male on the Carriage Town Chrysler/Plymouth spot that won, and our other PD, are two of the best production people you’re going to find. But the trouble is, in the small market arena, they’ve got so many programming duties that I can’t dump production on them. So I do it. I’ll just give them a script and have them leave me a voice track.
JV: What percentage of the commercials on the air would you say are locally produced, versus the agency stuff?
Kurt: I’ve never thought about it, but I guarantee you it’s well over half. And we do a ton of thirties, which is great exercise for creativity. You can come up with a marvelous idea, but try to get the same impact in thirty and still get the message across. In fact, that Mobias International Advertising Award that I got in Chicago was a thirty. The one Addy Award I got was a thirty. And I find in some cases some of my best creative is thirty because it moves, and as you know, comedy is timing.
JV: Is all this work being done out of one production studio?
Kurt: For the most part. Paul’s air studio doubles as a production studio, and he’ll do a lot of his work there. But the majority comes out of mine.
JV: What's in the studio?
Kurt: Let me preface it this way. When Jack Smith came to bring the Best of Show trophy for the Silver Mics, I gave him a tour of the station. I took him to my studio and he said, “This is what you work in?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Man, I’m really impressed now.”
I’ve got two Otari reel-to-reels, a cassette deck, and a regular CD player. The only fancy gear I’ve got is an EQ. It’s about a million years old, as is most of the stuff. About the only really high tech thing we have is the Prophet system. We have all of our production and commercials and our music loaded into it, which is pretty much Clear Channel-wide. We can LAN spots to and from wherever we need to, which is nice. Prophet is where the majority of the work is done. It’s got four tracks we can work with, and that’s the primary workstation. But at times, to get an edit as close as I want it, I get the razor blade and grease pencil out. You’re pretty much an audio engineer here. I mean, just like somebody who is building a building, they’re a structural engineer. They know pretty much what concrete will be able to withstand. They know what certain materials can and cannot do. With what I’ve got, there are some things that maybe Prophet won’t get done that I know I could do even quicker with these Otaris. So you pretty much just take what’s right for the situation, what’s going to work the best.
Call me a dinosaur if you want, but I’ve always been of the opinion that if you get an idea, if you have a good idea, I don’t care what you’ve got, you can make it work. I don’t care what you’ve got because if it’s in the writing of the script, if it’s in the reading, the interpretation of the script, you can make it work. If your script is weak, you can have the greatest computer and digital editor in the world, and it isn’t going to help you. If you’re a hack on the golf course, you can buy yourself a five hundred dollar graphite shaft driver. It ain’t gonna do you any good if you don’t have the swing. And yeah, it would be nice if we had more toys; from a convenience standpoint it would be nice, but I don’t use it as an excuse. Take that commercial with the screaming banshees that won the RAP Award. I’m surprised I didn’t have to pay these people to make fools of themselves. And there was really no computer that was going to do anything about that. That was just some great acting.
JV: I think a question many people would have for you, especially with all the awards you’ve won, is why are you still in Marion? Why not go for the large market money?
Kurt: Well, I’ve had my offers. I’ve had offers from New Jersey, Lexington, Cincinnati. People don’t believe it—and not that I’m looking for an offer—but I have not received an offer that would have given me the kind of creative freedom I’ve got here. And I think it’s a tribute to our GM who believes in creative. With some of the offers I’ve received, it just wasn’t the same thing. And I didn’t ask for much. I’m to a point now where I’m asking myself, why would I leave to do something that isn’t what got me to where I am today? And by golly, if I can’t have fun doing what I’m doing, put a gun to my head now.
As far as the money thing, we’re not all living in the lap of luxury here, but there comes a certain point of pride in what we’ve accomplished here. The numbers we’re doing are quite phenomenal, and it’s one of those small market situations that you really don’t mind being a part of.
JV: Have you given any thought to opening up your own ad agency right there in Marion?
Kurt: It’s something I’ve thought about, and maybe some day down the road I wouldn’t mind it. I will not tell you that I worship Dick Orkin, but I wouldn’t say I’m against throwing up a few burnt sacrifices to the guy. He’s my big influence, and if I did do something or try to go that route, I would try to do it the way he’s done it. I’ve tried to give lectures to classes about the intricacies of his brilliance, absolute brilliance, and I could take literally a whole session breaking down one commercial and trying to get them to appreciate what I think is the greatest commercial, comic talent out there. I don’t know if we’ll ever see another one like him.
JV: What advice would you give to small market Program Directors and General Managers about how to get the most out of their production person?
Kurt: I really think that you have to commit yourself to trying to nurture the creative process, try to encourage thinking beyond what you’re already hearing. The trouble with the small market is that you’ve got so many other hats to wear. By the time you get done with your grunt stuff, you look up and it’s five o’clock and you want to hit the road. It may take a little longer to get that little extra, but I think you should keep encouraging it.
Do brainstorming sessions, maybe from an RAB tape or a RAP tape or from a Dick Orkin demo, something to just keep reminding your people that there is other stuff out there, and it’s okay if you stick your toe into the water and try it.
JV: What advice would you give to production personnel, Creative Directors in small market stations who would like to aspire to the type of career happiness you’ve found and be able to line up their walls with awards?
Kurt: I can only say what’s worked for me. Step number one is to find a hero. Find a hero creatively that you’re just short of idolizing. Listen to his stuff and have that as your goal to shoot for, not to copy it, but just listen to it and listen to it. What are some of the things they are doing in their ads that you think are just killer? Eventually, through osmosis, it’s going to work its way into your sound and your style. And then just let it evolve.
A couple of people who were calling me and inquiring about my “employment readiness,” if you will, called and said, “You like Dick Orkin, don’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, why?” “Cause you sound almost just like him.” I’m like, you’re getting a Christmas Card from me, buddy! I think actors do it. They have the person they see out there on the plateau. And of course, there’s more than just Dick Orkin. His style just strikes me, but there’s so many good ones out there. If there’s one that when you hear their stuff you just can’t get enough of it, collect it. Anything we’ve ever received here that’s really good, via an agency spot or whatever, I save it. I’ve got more Dick Orkin stuff laying around here…. And the more you listen to it, eventually this brilliance that you are liking so much is going to work itself into your style, and you won’t even know it until you’re already doing it. There’s nothing wrong with a little hero worship.