Matt Wolfe, Imaging Director, XM Satellite Radio, Washington, DC
by Jerry Vigil
After checking out Sirius Satellite Radio a few months ago, this month’s RAP Interview gets a preview of the things going on at the other satellite radio company about to make its debut. XM Satellite Radio is in the process of building their studios, and satellite launches are planned for the fall. Many key personnel are already in place, and the job of staffing the huge production department has begun. One of the first producers to get on board is Matt Wolfe, a 25-year veteran in the business who brings to XM something that appears to be in high demand there…creativity.
JV: Where did you get your start in this business?
Matt: I started in Livingston, Montana in 1974 at KPRK, which was an AM station. It was a strange-looking place. There was the main office building; then these concentric circles went up above it and terminated into the actual antenna. In the ‘50s, the antenna was in the building itself, so it looked like a real Star Trek type thing. If they haven’t torn it down, it still looks that way; but now the antenna is five hundred yards behind the place. At that time, the transmitter was in the production room, and there were two wires coming off the transmitter taped to the glass that said “Do not remove the wires.” As I found out later, it was the grounding for the entire shebang.
I was destined to be a veterinarian or a rancher or something like that, but then I began to hang out with the local “long hair” whose name was Bob Brown. He was the “radio guy” who was in school at the same time with me. I was finishing up high school, and the next thing you know, I started hanging out with him. He needed somebody to run the board while he had his date in the control room. So the next thing you know, I started handling the records and stuff, and before you knew it, I had a part-time gig. Soon, it was full-time.
By the time 1975 rolled around, I had moved to Helena, Montana and got a job at KCAP, which was their rock station at 1340 AM. I also worked in Bozeman, Montana at a couple of AM stations there. I eventually got out of the state and moved to Casa Grande, Arizona in 1977 where I started working at KBFE, which was the first FM station that I worked at. And that was kind of a treat because it was pretty much free form radio. Basically, the rules were that you didn’t allow any dead air, you played the commercials when they were supposed to be played, and you picked out whatever music you wanted. I miss those days. That was one of the things I got out of radio that I really enjoyed, the fact that you could do your own music and make the show really yours. And when the fans would call you, they were very familiar with your taste in music, and it just made for a great show.
JV: Had you already spent some time in the production room by this point?
Matt: Not just yet. I went back to Montana for a short time then took a sabbatical out to California to learn yoga and meditation, which is one of my big passions. After I left California, I went back to Montana for a real short time then took another sabbatical to study meditation and yoga in Michigan. After that, I was on my way to Hollywood, California to be an actor, and my car broke down at my dad’s house just south of Dallas, Texas. So, I was stuck in Texas, and that’s where the production thing kind of took off. When I was in Montana, I began to get the knack of production, and I would do these real bizarre Spielberg kind of fantasy productions. The people in Montana, who were mostly my peers, seemed to get off on that. But when I put that on a demo and tried to get a job in Dallas, nobody would hire me. I was just too weird. So, I ended up getting a job in a greenhouse growing basil and oregano for some Vietnamese people.
Then I got an agent because I was getting into theatrical training and stuff like that, and my agent asked me if I had ever heard of Satellite Music Network. I said no, and she said, “I understand they have a pretty high turnover. You might want to try applying there.” So, I took my demo tape down to Satellite Music Network and the secretary goes, “Is anybody expecting you?” And I say, “No.” And she says, “Well, I don’t know who to give this to. Either Pure Gold or Z-Rock. Well, let me see...eenie, meenie, minie, moe.” And she ended up putting it in Z-Rock’s box, which was to my fortune. Within two days, this guy named Wild Bill Scott calls me and says, “You’re crazy. Get in here.” That was in ’86. I was doing a semi, part-time, full-time air shift, and within about a month they realized I could do production; so I immediately began to do all the promos and sweepers and stuff. I eventually got into production full-time and did some part-time air work.
I was also going to a film actor’s lab because my passion was actually to get into the movies, and that’s where I get the theatrical stuff for my productions; I’ve always been kind of an actor type and always loved doing cartoon voices. A lot of my creativity comes out of what I can create with my voice; then I use sound to beef up my idea. I think if you don’t have a script in production, you don’t really have anything. I’ve heard productions that are really fantastic, but they say nothing. They don’t entertain you; they don’t tickle your funny bone or anything like that. I like to have a joke or something in the midst of it so that it seems like entertainment, even though sometimes it’s not.
The Z-Rock thing was actually pretty cool because it was huge. It was known nationally. There were cereal companies and various advertising agencies that were taking potshots at Z-Rock as kind of a symbol of crazy, unguided youth. We had protesters in parking lots. We had one of our stations shut down by an unhappy group of people in Mississippi—you can imagine what three initials they had. When the Cleveland station finally gave up the ghost, there were so many fans in downtown Cleveland that it choked traffic up for a whole day. We were enjoying tremendous popularity toward the end of the ‘80s.
Two years after I got into Z-Rock, Wild Bill Scott left and Lee Abrams came in. It’s been a very interesting experience working with Lee. The thing about Lee Abrams that has never really been advertised is that he sets the talent free by saying, “In between the records, go absolutely nuts.” Lee works with talent really well. So anyway, I’m working with him, and he’s telling me, “You know what to do. Go in there and do it.” After about a half a year, it turns out I could do it, and people really liked the stuff I was doing. I was making these dramas and having Gandhi and non-violent spokespersons for the concerts getting shot, having nuns falling down the stairs, having people screaming and all kinds of theatrical stuff. I was enjoying it, and if I insulted the jocks or the listeners on the air, that was even better. The jocks had a great sense of humor—most of them did, I should say—so I would find their weak points and hammer away at them and make fun of them on the air. It turned out to be a real popular thing. Now, that works in heavy metal, but it doesn’t work in most other formats.
JV: Where did you go after SMN?
Matt: Satellite Music Network was bought by ABC and eventually ABC-Disney, and Lee stayed in there as kind of the overall head of Z-Rock for the rest of those years until ’96 when it came to an end. After that, I ended up going to Milwaukee and working for WKLH, the Classic Hits station. That was quite a change for me. At SMN, I was totally in control of my own department, writing my own stuff, casting my own stuff, and doing my own sound effects on synthesizers. I had a huge MIDI set up in my home. Suddenly I’m back to what would be called regular terrestrial radio, and once again, I was under management’s scrutiny. I was able to continue to do my work, but I was no longer able to write the stuff. Everything had to be passed through management for okay. Most of the time, they said no. Quite often, some of the ideas that I had would bubble up three months later as the Program Director’s idea. It was pretty frustrating because it was very hard work, and you often ended up having to do the same thing two or three or four times and still hit the deadline. On top of that, I was doing commercials, so I was beginning to stress out a bit there.
At the end of one year I called that quits and decided to go to a mellower place, which would be Austin, Texas. I began to work for Capstar. Capstar had a new system called StarSystem that they were starting up, and it was an integrator for a whole bunch of other radio stations which were part of the Gulfstar/Capstar cluster. StarSystem was to be kind of a helpmate for all these other stations. The stations that had production that needed to be done would go to StarSystem, and StarSystem would handle it for them; and through their systems of computers, StarSystem was able to shoot them the finished product almost immediately.
JV: What system was used to actually connect the stations together in the StarSystem?
Matt: The Prophet System. It was an on-air server kind of thing, but you could shoot messages back and forth on the system as well as audio. It was a pretty high-speed network. The original Prophet System was based on Windows 3.1, so it was extremely simple to use; but you couldn’t get overly complicated with it. The way it worked is, you’d do a commercial and mix the thing down. Then you’d find this list of potential stations that needed it and whoosh, off it would go. And within five minutes, they’d get it. Then merger time came, and the next thing you know, Capstar became Chancellor, then Chancellor became AMFM, and then AMFM sold to Clear Channel.
JV: So how did you wind up at XM Satellite Radio?
Matt: Right around March, StarSystem decided they could live without the production department. They said, “We’re going to have to let you go, and we’re letting go of the whole department.” Basically, they reorganized it so that part-timers and other announcers ended up doing the work. For a couple of months I was unemployed, but I got an e-mail from Lee Abrams asking me to get my best stuff together and send it to him. He was in Washington at this point, and that’s where XM radio is. So, I got it together and sent it to him, and he said, “This sounds really good and chances are we’re going to hire you, but you’re going to have to keep yourself surviving for at least another month or two because we’ve got a lot of different people to go through before we decide.” So, in the meantime, I did production for a web-based station called hardradio.com, and I was doing work for other stations, too. In July of this year, they decided to hire me, and I packed up everything and moved up here to Washington, DC.
JV: As Imaging Director, will you oversee all the formats, a group, or just one of the formats? How is that being set up?
Matt: Dan Turner is going to be the coordinator for all this stuff. I’m a creative type. I like to be steered in a direction and then get lost in that direction until somebody fishes me out and says, “Okay, that’s enough.” Naturally, they have me working with the Heavy Metal format. I’m also working with a comedy format, and probably because of my knowledge of MIDI and synthesizers, they’re also having me work on the New Age channel. Then I’m going to use my talents elsewhere as they need them, like on the kids’ channel, for instance. I did the voice of Barney the Dinosaur for one month for PBS when the voice talent, Bob West, got sick. I was the first runner-up for that voice, and they said “Look, We’re in the middle of shooting. Would you mind?” So I did that for a month until Bob got better.
There are going to be several Imaging Directors. I’m the first one they hired. After that, I don’t know; the sky’s the limit. They’re fielding all kinds of tapes right now.
JV: How is the talent search going? I haven’t seen any ads for talent in the trades.
Matt: That’s a little further down the road. Right now, it’s just word of mouth. They’re trying to see just who is interested enough to hear the rumors floating in the air and get their tapes to us that way. Some incredibly creative people get dug up that way. I think they’re going to do a more formal push toward the end of the year. Right now, the studios aren’t completed, so there would be no place for these people to go. I’m here early to help Dan with the task of acquiring all of the sound effects and production music and all the pre-planning stuff.
JV: Would Dan Turner be the contact for anyone interested in a possible future with XM?
Matt: Either Dan Turner or Dave Logan or Lee Abrams. They are the ones who have their thumbprints of approval on things.
The types of people they’re getting in here now are widely varied. I mean, it is the strangest group of people I’ve worked with in about seven or eight years. And by strange, I mean good. These people are wildly creative, and some of them are legendary in their fields. They have some real heavy hitters. And there are also some people who have never been heard of, but they seem to be really talented. They’ve only been in radio for maybe two or three years, but they have something. They have some kind of a glow to them, or they have some kind of enthusiasm that most people in radio at this point don’t have because most of us have had the heck beat out of us. Radio has been frustrating in the last ten years especially, and this seems to be kind of a "break free" from that. Creativity here is really emphasized, and that is one of the reasons I took this job in the first place.
JV: How close are we getting to hearing XM radio? Are the satellites in the air yet?
Matt: They’re getting ready to do that this fall and we should be on the air in the spring. The planning for this thing is painstaking, and they have to time it just right. They have some incredible people working on this thing. They have the former Commander of Cape Canaveral, Jack Wormington. He’s one of the main satellite guys who knows the technology and is making sure that we do it right on our end before they put it on the rocket and send it up.
Right now they’re building the studios downstairs, eighty-two studios I think, and it’s supposed to be the world’s largest broadcast facility. I believe it—it takes up a whole city block. They’re doing all the pre-planning, and they’re getting the talent in here to get us ready. They’re going to put us through a training session on how this whole satellite thing works so we’ll understand the technology behind it. Eventually there will be maybe fifteen or twenty producers here.
JV: Are these 80+ studios going to be identical and interchangeable, or will there be specific on-air and production rooms?
Matt: There are going to be production studios, and there are going to be on-air studios. There will be booths where you can just do assembly work like show prep. There are going to be newsrooms. There is supposed to be a huge master studio that will accommodate live bands. If Aerosmith wants to do a set, we can have a really good quality recording through the master studio. Of course, all of the studios are going to be digital.
JV: Have they decided what kind of equipment is going to go into these studios?
Matt: Well, we don’t want any equipment that compresses the audio because by the time you do several tracks it’s going to sound real obvious. The final system, I think, is going to be a storage system from Europe called Dalet. There’s a guy here named Dan Turner who just knows an incredible amount about Dalet, and he’s training all of us to learn how to use it. The final product will end up going into Dalet, and there are terabytes and terabytes and terabytes of servers for all this stuff. We need room for all the music, all the production music, all the voice-over, the commercials, the imaging, the promos, and all that stuff.
JV: Have they decided on a DAW for the production suites yet?
Matt: Well, we’re talking with Pro Tools right now about what they can do for us. The question there is whether we want to stay PC or go Mac, which could be either way with Pro Tools, but Pro Tools is much more reliable on a Mac platform. We’re using Klotz boards in most of the studios.
I’d also like to have a “toy room” to play in. I would like to see the flexibility that comes with other software. There are a lot of things you can do with third party software, and I’d like to see a room that has all this other stuff as well as Pro Tools or whatever. So, if I created a great thing on Pro Tools but wanted to make it sound like it was in the middle of a hollowed out sequoia tree, there is other software that would allow me to acoustically model that kind of space. Now if I discover that Pro Tools can do that, that would be excellent. Then you can morph and tear and shred and squish and totally destroy audio—which is one thing I love to do—then re-incorporate it back into something completely different.
JV: Perhaps you haven’t been there long enough to really know the programming minds at XM, but with a hundred channels, a hundred different formats under the single XM umbrella, would you want each one of these channels to sound completely different from the others as far as imaging goes? Or because it’s all XM Satellite, would you want them to have some similarity?
Matt: I’d say yes to both of those questions. There should be some kind of a link, a sound if you will, a logo that airs on all the channels. Some kind of a little sparkle like the NBC logo because people hear that and they immediately think NBC. It doesn’t matter if it’s an adventure show or the news or a comedy or a game show; when you hear those three tones you immediately know you’re listening to NBC. So, in that way, yeah, it has to be unified. But when you begin to get into the channels themselves, they should be completely different. The Heavy Metal channel should not sound anything at all like the kids’ channel and should not sound anything at all like the Country channel.
JV: Are there any other aspects of satellite radio that you see that are going to be considerably different from traditional radio?
Matt: Yes. For one thing, you get the same radio station in every square inch of the country, and it could expand to cover every square inch of the earth. Anywhere you go, you get the same radio station. Also, there are no affiliates, so the amount of middle management control has been loosened. This is like network radio without the affiliates. It’s like there’s only one affiliate, and that’s the central place that we’re working from in Washington, DC. So, any decisions are made here, not out in Tupelo, Mississippi or wherever.
Also, there won’t be the censorship issues. For instance, at Z-Rock we would do something that was hysterically funny that would work great in Chicago and Dallas, but then we’d get these complaints from Smalltown, Florida or wherever. A small town would suddenly give us loads of flack about something we had done as a promotion. And because they had equal say in the whole thing, if it was too bawdy or too off the wall, we would have to remove it. Then people from Chicago and New York would go “Hey, that was really funny. How come you’re not playing it anymore?” So, we won’t be having that problem.
This is going to be almost like a Direct TV kind of thing or cable in that we won’t have the same censorship issues. Since people are going to be buying this thing as a service, a person with a regular radio just can’t get it. You have to buy a special radio for it, which will be an XM radio. And that means that on a Heavy Metal channel for example, we will be able to let it rip without having to censor the music. On a children’s channel, we can keep it clean. If you’re a parent and you don’t want the Heavy Metal channel available, I believe you’ll have a way to control that. And that’s going to free us up because if I’m doing Heavy Metal imaging, I’m going to get a chance to do that full out without having to tame it down for the nice folks in Omaha, Nebraska.
JV: This could be the birth of really hard-core imaging, being able to say whatever you want to say with the same freedom that musicians have on songs with explicit lyrics.
Matt: For those kinds of formats, yeah. Or the same freedom, let’s say, that HBO has in doing a heavy drama that has all the elements of an R-rated movie. Personally, as a producer, I don’t want to go for profanity for profanity’s sake because I think that’s kind of a dead end. It’s mildly amusing for about thirty seconds. Then, after that you go, “What else you got?”
I think the writing in any kind of production is the most important thing. For example, if you go to a comedy show, the writing has to actually be funny before they do the production on it. Otherwise, it ain’t going to be funny. It might be extremely well produced, but it’s not going to say anything. It’s not going to make you laugh. It’s not going to move you in any way. So that’s what I’m going to be concentrating on, trying to write scripts that grab you. One of the things I love to do is to make fun of current advertising. I’m sure that somewhere there is a promo in me that can absolutely shred the image of the whole Domino’s “Bad Andy, Good Pizza” thing…without directly doing it. You know, you can’t directly shred their image, otherwise you’ll end up with some legal headaches. But you can take the basic image of the whole Domino’s thing, and there has to be a funny promo in there somewhere.
JV: The concept of competition in a satellite format like this is different as well. You probably won’t look at channels within the XM spectrum as competition, but will you look at the Sirius Satellite channels as competition? Won’t their service be direct competition?
Matt: Yes, they are direct competition. But in one way, we want them to succeed because they are a satellite company, and there are not very many of us out there. So there’s safety in numbers that way. But when you get right down to it, you bet, they are our competitor.
JV: You mentioned that you’re in the process of purchasing production libraries. One problem with satellite radio for production library companies is the structuring of fees and exclusivity for a network that penetrates every market. How are the music library companies handling this problem with XM?
Matt: Some companies are worried because they guarantee exclusivity to their terrestrial radio stations. In the world of satellite, there’s no such thing as exclusivity, and that completely levels the playing field. So some of these companies are having a royal headache because they want us to be their client, but there’s no way they can guarantee exclusivity to their terrestrial-based radio stations any more. Well, the difference is that we’re like HBO. You have to sign up for us. You can’t just scan across the dial and get us. You have to buy us, and it’s the same with Sirius, too.
There are a couple of companies that have come around and said, “Okay, obviously, you’ve got a potential of millions of listeners. We can’t charge you that way. We can’t charge you for each market in which you exist because you’re going to exist everywhere. There’s no way we could charge you one hundred times the cost of a library because that would be a quarter of a million dollars just to get a single sound effects library.” And there’s no way that we would go for that. So, what some of these companies have come down to is, “Okay, we’re going to see you as the biggest station in New York and charge you accordingly.” That’s fine. There are other companies that say they might charge us three or four times their regular amount, but any more than that would be prohibitive to us. And to me, that’s fair, too.
When it comes down to XM versus Sirius, it’s kind of like two football teams with their helmets being manufactured by the same company. It doesn’t really matter where your helmets come from; it matters how you use them. And the winning team is going to be better at playing. So, whenever I talk to these sound effects and music companies, I say “Look, we don’t expect you to guarantee exclusivity to us,” and if Sirius has some of that stuff, providing it’s not a carbon copy of everything we have, who cares. One of the edges I have is that I do some of my own synth programming, so naturally there will be some stuff that only I will have because I created it.
JV: That’s a good point. It would be in the best interests of XM and Sirius to hire producers who can produce their own stagers, beds and things of that nature.
Matt: Yeah, I’m kind of a MIDI freak, so I insisted that at least one of the rooms have full MIDI capabilities so I can sample, do synthesis and all that stuff. But another thing we can do is take the sound effects that we have, that we both share, and put them through eighteen crunchers and a sonic modeler. By doing that, I’m going to make it sound different. It doesn’t have to be carbon copy right off the CD. I can mutilate stuff before it gets out there as a final product.
JV: Are there any library companies or libraries that you definitely have your mind set on to acquire?
Matt: Well, we’re very happy to announce that AVdeli has done a deal with us, and we have a ton of their stuff; and I think that is some of the best music on the market because it’s very real. They use real musicians. I mean, as much as I love synthesizers, that doesn’t mean I want all my production music to sound like it’s all MIDI synthed. If I’m playing blues, I want it to be real blues.
JV: Well, I for one am really looking forward to seeing how satellite radio pans out, both for producers that end up working for XM and Sirius, and for the listeners.
Matt: Well, the cool thing is that I’m no longer micro-managed. I’m a free and creative soul now, so I feel really enthused about this job. This is the biggest burst of enthusiasm I’ve had in years. Before I got this gig, I was seriously thinking of going independent. And, of course, working for any corporation is not always the perfect thing. They don’t necessarily make great mommies or daddies for their employees—people who go to work for a company expecting the company to take care of them quite often are disappointed.
There are several of my friends who have gone out on their own and started independent voice-over and production facilities, and they’re doing very well. I’m thinking of Willie Wells up in Milwaukee who’s doing just fine. John Pleisse is doing real well. Chris Corley down in Florida managed to get out of the whole thing and do voice-over only. Out on Long Island, Jim Cutler is one of my favorite people of all time. He slays me with some of the stuff he does. He got out of the radio thing, and he’s busy, busy, busy. So, I have not ruled out going independent, but for right now, XM seems to be the place to be for me. I think satellite radio is going to be real big.
JV: I would guess that both XM and Sirius would eventually take the satellite signals and stream at least some of them on the Net. Have you heard any talk about that?
Matt: Yes, but the main dissatisfaction right now with streaming audio on the Net is sound quality. It has to improve, and eventually it will get there. I think at a certain point, everybody is going to have high-speed Internet access, and then you’re going to hear a dramatic difference in sound on Internet stuff. They’ve kicked the idea of broadcasting on the Internet around a bit, but the quality has to go up before we put our product on there.
JV: What’s your creative process when it comes to doing a promo?
Matt: I like to do the writing first and get it conceptualized, and then after I’ve written the thing, I like to throw the script away and just let accidents happen. I’ve come up with some really funny stuff by not sticking so strongly to the script that I refuse to allow new creative ideas to come in. Sometimes a cast member will come in and have a completely different way of doing the thing. And as you hear this person, you go “Oh God, that was funny.”
JV: So, you take advantage of revisions in the production process.
Matt: Absolutely. And as long as it doesn’t change the message you were trying to get across, then you can just let it fly.
JV: Are you formally trained in music?
Matt: It’s something I picked up along the way. I was going to be a rock guitarist in the ‘70s. Then that changed to keyboards. Then I started playing a harmonium because, as I said, I was into meditation, and in all the yoga groups, the main instrument is the harmonium, which is a keyboard kind of like an accordion. I’ve been playing the harmonium since 1980, so I have twenty years playing that. After that, I naturally got into keyboards and became a keyboard fanatic.
JV: XM is going to eventually have several Imaging/Production Directors on staff. What kind of person is this going to be compared to Production Directors at traditional radio stations?
Matt: Most Production Directors at a certain level are very well organized. They have to be in order to keep up with all the orders and all the commercials and all of that stuff. The thing that sometimes is missing is the “nut quotient.” They have to be slightly unhinged. All creative people are just a little bit mad. I think the difference between a good Production Director who is very efficient and somebody who shines is the amount of creativity that is bubbling under the surface.
For instance, at one of my jobs, I drove the General Manager nuts because he could never be sure when I was in the building and when I was not because when I’m on a project, I go crazy, and if I need a CD from K-Mart or something, off I go and I don’t tell anybody. If I get in at nine o’clock and suddenly disappear until two o’clock, I might have gone out to record sounds, but I haven’t really cleared it with anybody. I work best with people who just go, “You know what the job is. Make damn sure it’s done.” Then I go and I do it. Sometimes I’m recording at three in the morning. Sometimes I’m doing it at seven o’clock at night.
I think a lot of restrictions on creative people have to go out the windows. You can’t expect them to be there from nine to five. As long as the job gets done and they’re doing a great job, then you shouldn’t get in their way. Now, if you push that, you end up with the diva thing going, and you can sometimes have people with obnoxious, big egos. I’m not talking about that kind of behavior. The type of producer I see getting in here would be one who would have a lot of fun cooperating with the other people, but at the same time be an individual that can’t be easily categorized.