Chadd Pierce, WBYR-FM, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Last month’s RAP CD featured a debut promo from Chadd Pierce called “Contest Rules.” The promo was very well done, but it was not produced by a major market 10, 15 or 20-year veteran producer. On the contrary, Chadd, who just recently turned 21, is a newcomer to the industry with just a couple of years under his belt and still at his first radio station, WBYR “The Bear” in Fort Wayne, Indiana, market #103. This month’s RAP Interview offers a refreshing visit with a talented producer who has a pretty unique story of how he got into radio. And if the caliber of his work today is any indication of what’s to come, his story is just beginning. Be sure to check out his demo on this month’s RAP CD. And note that Chadd uses the air-name “Dick” which helps to explain references on the demo to “The Bear’s Dick.”
JV: Why did you get into radio?
Chadd: I didn’t really choose radio as a career. I just kind of fell into it. When they would ask me what I wanted to do when I got out of school, I had no clue. I just really liked having fun, and radio fell into my lap and turned out to be a career that I could be involved in and have a lot of fun with. I’m never bored or anything like that because there’s so much change constantly going on from day to day. It’s never the same, and I think that is what intrigues me the most.
JV: Different people bring different qualities to the radio business when they get started. Some bring a great knowledge of music. Others bring a great voice or personality. You came to the table with a love for comedy. How far back does that go?
Chadd: I’ve always been a fan of comedy. Way back in my early childhood, I really liked watching funny stuff on television and listening to comedy CDs. But I had no idea that I’d actually get a fun job because all I had to go on was my mom. She was a single parent, divorced—my father wasn’t in the picture. She worked at this nice corporation, doing all this number crunching clerical type stuff. I had no clue what she did, but I knew I definitely didn’t want to get into it. I knew I didn’t want to have a boring job.
But like I said, I’ve always liked comedy. I used to watch old shows like Saturday Night Live reruns from the ‘70s, Leslie Nielsen’s spoof movies, and eventually even late night talk shows when I could stay up late enough. I gathered up some comedy tapes and CDs from people like Weird Al, Jeff Foxworthy, and the Jerky Boys. And it was the Jerky Boys that really got me started. They did these prank phone calls with maybe ten different characters, and every time it seemed that the goal was not necessarily to say something offensive and hang up, like that old joke, “is your refrigerator running” and then you tell them they’d better catch it. Instead, the Jerky Boys material would teeter more on whether it’s real or fake because it’s so out there. The person receiving the call would think maybe it’s a real customer calling so perhaps they should stay on the phone. And it becomes a challenge to see how long you can get them to stay on the phone, and at the same time play with them as much as you could. I thought that was hilarious, and so I started to do some prank calls of my own. I could always do a few character voices. I didn’t really have much talent other than that. You talk about Jim Carey staring in the mirror making faces to make his classmates laugh. Well that’s sort of what I did at home. I just sat there and practiced voices until I could do some distinct character voices. Then I would call up various places and have some fun. After doing it a few times, I’d have a few friends gather around, and they would listen in on separate phones in the house. And because this was a little bit before caller ID caught on, I could do these Jerky Boys type things and get away with it. I’d do anything I wanted. I got pretty wild with them and kept these people on the phone believing at the end that they just had a legitimate call.
JV: What was one of your favorite prank calls?
Chadd: One of my favorites would be the Victoria’s Secret call. I was about 16 years old at the time. I called Victoria’s Secret as this very effeminate kind of guy, inquiring about edible underwear, everything from the consistency, the melting point, the flavors, everything. I’m 16 doing this, and so that’s funny to me right there. But the best thing is that they played along with it, but not to the point that they knew it was a bit. I could tell right away that they thought it was a legitimate call. And like I said, that’s the challenge of it. I kept that woman on the phone for probably 10 or 15 minutes. She was explaining to me how she had used them before but that they don’t sell them at the store. I said, “I just wondered, could you tell me a little bit more about them. Do they melt in your mouth or anything like that? Do you get a little bit excited and warm?” Things like that, and she was telling me all these personal experiences.
I figured out how to tape these by plugging my tiny little in-ear headphones to my crappy boom box microphone input and taping the little headphones to the actual earpiece of the telephone. I’d record like that and use another telephone to do my bit. I later took the tapes to a drama class. We were supposed to bring a talent to class, so I decided to see how this stuff would work. We go down to the auditorium and the teacher puts it on the big loudspeakers in this high school auditorium and plays it for everybody in the class. At that point, I was just absolutely addicted to the idea of the people hearing my voice that loud. I mean it’s certainly a nice confidence builder.
JV: How did the teacher like it?
Chadd: Well, I think this high school drama teacher was a little hip for playing it. I mean, you gotta have some sort of conservatism in the classroom, and here’s this loud Victoria’s Secret call blaring through the auditorium. But I got an A on the project, and that’s how I eventually got a little bit into drama. But up until that point, I had just been making friends laugh, making people at school just think that I was a little bit of a goofball so I wouldn’t get picked on because there were a lot of things about me to pick on. I wasn’t very good at sports. I couldn’t play any instruments. I really wasn’t a genius or anything. All I really had was personality, and I tried to offer them as much as I could because, in the end, I really loved people’s reactions. Even now, here at WBYR, I’m sure I get a little annoying trying to get people to come into the studio, “Here, here, listen to this. Tell me what you think of this.” Then I’ll tweak it to make it sound just right.
JV: So how did you make the move from high school prankster to radio?
Chadd: Well I was doing these prank calls, and a little after that day in drama class, I started to call radio stations making prank calls to the DJs. I was putting these comedy tapes together and even “souping” them up a little with tiny bits of primitive imaging between the calls to make them sound nice and smooth. At the time, I didn’t call it imaging of course, but that’s basically what it was. I put together various phrases and segments from my comedy library—from Jeff Foxworthy, Weird Al and stuff like that—to make stupid sentences, nonsense sentences. I would use my CD player and my tape recorder to very primitively put these things together, just to up the comedy level, knowing that I was going to play this for people. But then I thought, what’s the next step? What could make it more cool to people listening? That’s when I thought about calling a radio station? So I called, not knowing what was going to happen. My plan was just to record them through the phone like my other bits, but it turned out that this guy put me on the radio. He was playing along with me, and he loved it. I called up and was pranking him as I would Victoria’s Secret, while recording it onto my little cassette recorder. And I had no idea he’d put it on the air, but he did, and I got that on tape. Now, I thought that was pretty cool.
People like the radio and are impressed by it. So I started putting these calls on my tapes. I did a few calls with this one radio guy who did afternoons at an A/C station in town. Eventually, that station went under, but I still had that craving. So I called another radio station and then moved on to others. I played with a couple of people and got myself on the air on a few different radio stations doing various characters. Some people will just take whatever they can get and put it on the air. I don’t know if I would have done it; I can’t even remember how good the bits were. But just putting some kid on the air I thought was unheard of, and to this day, I can’t believe I actually got on. But I’m glad I did because a few stations later I called up this active rocker with a lot of recognition, WBYR, where I am now. All I knew about this place was it was an in-your-face, high energy, high attitude station that actually, at the time, I hardly listened to. But for the night time jock that I called, I pulled out the very best my 17 year old mind had to offer, and apparently I impressed him because right away we started talking out of character. I wasn’t doing the character anymore, and he said something like, “Hey, that was pretty good man; hold on for a second.” I held on and he came back to me and proposed an idea. “Why don’t you call me up every once in a while and do this character?” I thought that was amazing. “You’re kidding me! I’m like working for a radio station kind of?” “Yeah, sure,” he said. This one character that we used I have to credit once again to the Jerky Boys. I stole this Woody Allen-ish offshoot, a very extreme version of that neurotic kind of character. He asked me to do it, and I thought it was like the coolest thing I had ever done. I actually called enough that I started to get to know him. Obviously, I was in high school and didn’t know anything about radio except for the fact that they could put me on and people from school would hear it and I’d be cool the next day.
I eventually ended up becoming an intern for this guy the summer after I graduated. Bill Zimmerman was his name. He had been doing radio for about 4 years, and he is the first guy that taught me as much as he could about radio. All the basics I learned from Bill. He filled me in on how to run the board, how to produce some primitive bits and jock drops for him, and I was having the greatest time. I was at the same time working at Pizza Hut, so I’d come over here after working there and hang out with him in the night time, sometimes even in my greasy Pizza Hut gear. But I was having so much fun that I would bear to stay in those sweaty clothes for a little while longer.
After a while, Bill began lobbying the acting PD to get me some air time. I really wanted to do that, but I was a little bit nervous about doing it. So he helped me out with the PD, and I eventually became a weekend overnight marathon board operator. But I was getting paid, and that is the part that I was just taken aback by. My mom and step-father at the time were drilling into my head, “They are not paying you. They’re using this ‘paying your dues’ thing just to get you to work for free on all kinds of stuff that people do get paid for.” I’m trying to find out more about radio through career services, and everything I pull up says you’re not going to make a lot of money. Well that didn’t fly well with the parents, but finally I was making money—minimum wage mind you, but making money as a board op.
Then my day finally came. She, the acting PD, told me that I could go on the air, the overnight of that coming Friday. And I can still remember doing that. I came out of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and did my thing. Of course, it was my first time, but I’m a pretty fast learner, so I picked it up pretty quickly, enough so that she gave me the other part-timer’s hours the following weekend.
So, I immediately started taking hours from other people, which I totally had no intention of. That’s always been a problem with me in this business, being an aggressive, assertive employee and fighting for your goals. I’ve always been a nice type of guy, and I wondered if you could actually succeed in this business being a nice guy. Up to this point, I’ve tried my best to do that, and I don’t think I’m doing so badly.
JV: How did you end up producing the morning show there?
Chadd: Bill eventually left nights for a television position here in town, and I was still doing my weekend late nights and interning for them throughout the week as well. Then my new Program Director, Jim Fox, put me in as a temporary night guy while the replacement was sought because I had also filled in for Bill when he was sick or on holidays. So I had an ample amount of air time, and that put me in place at 19 years old doing weekdays 7-midnight for something like a year. It was temporary of course, but it took a year for them find a person, the exact personality he was looking for. During that year, I gained my on air confidence and my drive to do just whatever I thought was most entertaining and what people really wanted to hear, and apparently it worked. I mean, we’ve got great programming at nights, and we’ve always been successful. But it’s nice to be able to say, while I was on the air, those top ratings for nights went up even more. I’d like to be able to say it had something to do with me, but if anything, I kept up the status quo. Apparently that caught the PD’s eye during that year stint because when the real night guy was found and the position was filled, I was back to part-time again, but Jim decided to move me to mornings as technical producer. What I do now is make radio play, comedy parody bits, song parodies—I don’t really know what to call them other than just “bits,” to use radio jargon.
I’m doing the imaging as well for the morning show, and now I have taken on imaging for the whole station. I’m involved with extremely talented people that have been doing this for a really long time and who really know what they’re doing. I’m just so blessed to be working at this radio station, to be working with our Production Director, Tuna Jon Rose, who is a genius. I studied his stuff the whole time I’ve been here. And my PD, Jim Fox, has a wealth of wisdom that he has fed me on a day to day basis because he knows that I’m eager to learn about this. If the topic of radio comes up with some of my friends, they’ll tell you I won’t shut up.
JV: In those Jerky Boys type prank calls you used to make, the first challenge is getting the people to believe the call is real. Do you still use that concept of “reality” to some degree in your imaging or the bits that you do?
Chadd: Well, it’s been stressed for a while now from my Program Director and from others here that reality is certainly the way to go. There was a time when Zoo radio was very popular, and I understand there are some people that still do it that wacky, wild, zany way. But it has come to a point where you see television is overwhelmed by reality. The top shows are shows like Millionaire, 60 Minutes, 20/20, and those types of shows, along with some sitcoms in there. People are into the sitcoms of course, but the reality shows are huge. And I think that just makes a point that people are interested in not just being strung along on a little story, but they want something real. You can look at wrestling or Jerry Springer, which are very similar to each other in that they’re obviously scripted and acted out, but they’re performed in a way that it brings people into the situation to make them think it’s real. And I think that’s what radio’s all about. It’s that old cliché of theater of the mind. Bring the person into the bit. Make them a part of it. Make them live it, and make it an intense experience for their hearing senses. Make them see the stuff in their mind. Play off every angle you can with them, every emotion as well.
That’s why I’ve always really believed in production. I say “always,” and I haven’t been doing it very long; but for the amount of time I have, I think it’s a really key thing to have at your disposal—the production elements such as the bits, but also of course the imaging.
JV: How would you describe you’re style of imaging?
Chadd: When I put together imaging, what I’m picturing is what I see on MTV. They’ve got a unique style of quick and sometimes bizarre ideas that are just a little out there, but I think that’s more of what this generation, the 18-34 year olds, are looking for when it comes to their intake of information. It’s so rapid and so fast paced that if you skip a beat, there is a big chance that you’re going to lose them because there are so many things for them to be thinking about and doing right now. If you’re taking up their time with an empty gap, they’re going to move on and skip your radio station. So I think it’s more important now than maybe before that it’s really just packed full of solid entertainment. It can’t be as laid back as I’ve heard on some radio stations that….well, are now unsuccessful in our market anyway.
I think it’s just a matter of making sure that you keep the entertainment flowing at a constant level and also noticing what is in pop culture, and right now reality is really large. So you can have little radio plays created out of nowhere, but the practicality of it has to be based in reality. For example, take a news story and maybe make a Saturday Night Live kind of skit from that where you are including reality with the story but you can bring it off on a tangent. As long as you come right back around to that reality, they haven’t lost anything. They’re still getting their news, but they’re also getting it in a form of entertainment. For instance, the Daley Show you see on Comedy Central with John Stewart. That is a show that I think is really successful because of that. They give the news, but in an entertaining way and with a new angle that people really like, obviously.
JV: What are some of the things that you learned about producing comedy after you got into radio?
Chadd: I got more and more into stand up comedy as I got older, but in the beginning it was just that kind of wacky polka type stuff that Weird Al was doing. And though that does certainly have its place, the more I got into radio, the more I took from the various personalities that work at the radio station, the more I realized that that wacky stuff has it’s place, but some of it has to be a little more grounded to keep people’s attention. It has to be not so childish and a little more advanced—not necessarily intellectual, but with a little more thought involved. I still consider Weird Al to be a genius, but sometimes it’s just more for younger audiences than it is for the male 18-34 old demographic that I’m going for. So, if anything, my concept of comedy has matured to the level of accepting all forms as opposed to being limited to just one. There is your intellectual witty humor, and there is your beer and fart humor, which has its place as well. You can see Frazier, but you can also watch The Simpson’s.
JV: How are you enjoying working with real production equipment instead of taping headphones to a telephone?
Chadd: At first, it was very intimidating, but I’ve gotten to the point where I have learned about most of the stuff that we have here. As I grabbed the little chunks of knowledge and built it up over a few years, I’m now very confident in what I can do and pretty much welcome any challenge. I say, tell me what you think I can’t create, and let me try to create it for you.
I’m really lucky to be in this situation because we have top notch equipment. We use the BE AudioVault system which we play all of our music and commercials from. We also have an Audicy 10-track recorder from Orban. We have an Eventide Harmonizer that I occasionally use but not as much as our plain old equalizer.
I grab a lot of random pop culture items from television which we can pull up on our board in the production room. We have two production rooms actually, and we’re constantly updating each one. We hope to have Cool Edit Pro installed in the room I use within the next few weeks, and I look forward to exploring that, which has 64 tracks to work with.
What I have here is so impressive to work with as compared to a situation I could be in, and I’m really happy to have the benefit of not only the equipment, but the people around here as well.
JV: What are some of your favorite sources for creative ideas for your bits and what not?
Chadd: Since we try to focus on topical items, I immediately go to the AP newswire, entertainment news of course. We try to stay away from the news of the weird. Right now we’re experiencing the World Trade Center tragedy, and that’s something that you can’t make fun of. But my job is to figure out how I can help the morning show present that, whether it be with production or whether it be with creative ideas. Most of my ideas come from the people and situations I see around me. Billy Elvis and Jack Hammer are the members of the morning show, and we brainstorm a lot. They’re certainly the source of a lot of the comedy that is on the morning show. It’s a combined effort. It comes from people around me. Sometimes it comes from friends. “Do you know what you should do, man?” That kind of stuff every once in a while evolves to become something on the air. A lot of times just seeking outside comedy inspires me as well. My favorite television show is Kids in the Hall. I try to catch it almost every day on Comedy Central, and though they were made in the early ‘90s, you’d be amazed at how still edgy and advanced those shows seem, almost ahead of their time. I just take in as much comedy as I can from all angles, from HBO to cable to sitcoms, and hope that it all comes together in my mind eventually to form some sort of good song parody or whatever.
JV: How many character voices would you say you have?
Chadd: Wow…kind of a tough question. For every bit that I use multiple characters in, a lot of times I’m voicing most of these myself, so there’s a very long list of characters. I just come up with whatever the situation calls for. I can pitch my voice up a little to sound like a younger kid, and the higher I go the younger I can sound. There are different types of voices, but it just depends on the degree you want to sway it one way or the other.
JV: What advice or tips would you offer anybody who wants to develop some character voices?
Chadd: I think just knowing your own voice is important. Listen when you speak and notice what you have to do to make a high note or a low note. Notice how some voices are gravelly, some are very smooth, how accents are put on different letters. I think a very good way to develop different voices is to focus a little bit on foreign languages and just notice how sometimes sounds just completely unheard of in English come out of people’s mouths. And these people aren’t any different except for the fact that they live in a different country and speak a different language.
Practice, of course, is what I’ve always focused on. If I don’t get it now, I’ll just do as much analysis as possible of that specific voice that I’m trying to match up with, if I’m doing an impersonation. “Okay, that’s not it, but what’s wrong with it? Okay. It’s too high. Okay it’s too low. I need to put a little bit more twang on Bill Clinton’s voice…” or whatever. And I can’t do everything; I’m by no means a voice guy. I’m just a guy that happens to be able to do a few.
JV: Now that you’re in radio, do you think you want to stay?
Chadd: Oh definitely. I just recently took a week vacation. I took a couple of weeks last year, and at both times I just couldn’t wait to get back. As matter of fact, this time I was in most of the time when I wasn’t doing vacation things. People don’t really understand—friends and family most definitely don’t—that I come in and do free time on the weekends and late nights. I’m bored. I can’t sleep, and so I come in, mess around, make a new song, make a bit, mess around with imaging or just do whatever because I love doing it so much.
I really have a strong belief that it’s an art form, and I hope that eventually I can call myself an artist at this. But for right now, I’m just the smallest of apprentices trying to learn as much as I can from all the great minds that do this on a daily basis, and it’s something that I really like doing.
JV: What do you see down the road for you? Any plans?
Chadd: My major focus right now is on production. That’s what my current position involves, and I see that as a great learning experience. Radio is a great place for production, and it’s an incredible way to entertain people. I would never take away from doing things live of course. But it should be a mixture of live presentation with production; not necessarily just intro, live and then a bit, commercials, intro, live, a bit, commercials. Weave things in to make it so spontaneous that it’s almost a variety show for modern day.
My career goals are learning as much as I can about this business so that I can succeed at it and conquer all the challenges that are in front of people doing this, which basically consists of figuring out a new way. Do you know what the next big thing is? I’d love to be able to be a part of the next big thing, the next big movement or the next big way to do it. It’s going to be different every day, and that’s why I love doing this. There is a new set of challenges and a new set of things to learn every day because it’s always evolving, and I’d love to be a part of that process and maybe even help it along a little bit.
I might enjoy eventually being a part of a morning show live on the air. I love being on the air myself. I do a Saturday shift, and as little as that is on the air every week, I take every opportunity to do that with great pride and try to do my very best at it. Otherwise, why would I even be here? If I didn’t try to do my very best, I’m just filling someone’s seat that is probably more than willing to do their very best. You always hear about somebody being right behind you, somebody’s who’s going to take less pay or whatever. And if you think of it that way, it’s humbling and it makes you think, “Well, I guess I’d better take this opportunity and ride it along and do my very best with it.”
I recognize I’m young doing something that people my age aren’t often given the opportunity to do or the responsibilities that I have. So, I guess my biggest career goals would be just learning more and advancing. When I finally stop learning things and I finally stop moving forward, I think it will become something that isn’t as interesting to me anymore.