Neil Holmes, Voice Creative, Charlottesville, VA
By Jerry Vigil
Though it seems most of the initial effects of consolidation should be behind us by now, there are aftershocks that continue to shake the production departments in many markets, and unfortunately, many Production Directors continue to find themselves out of a job. With the job market for production pros shrinking further, this leaves little choice to the downsized Prod Pro who wants to stay in the business but to seek another production gig at another station, almost assuredly for less pay, or to start his or her own production house, oftentimes servicing those very stations who let them go, along with a few others. Last year, after a typical multi-station deal that produced one too many production people, Neil Holmes opted to start his own business. This month’s RAP Interview gets an up close look at what this process has been like in the early going for Neil’s company, Voice Creative. Unlike some of the more fortunate former radio types who left radio with dozens of high-paying freelance clients already on the line, Neil pretty much started from scratch. The good news is, there’s lots of work out there. The bad news is, unlike the paycheck they used to hand you at the radio station, you have to go get this check. It doesn’t come to you.
JV: Tell us about your radio background.
Neil: Hey, I can say I started in Chicago radio! Actually, I was in high school, and it was a little 10-watt high school station in the suburbs, Southern Cook County. But we had a high school radio station split between three high schools in the district. Our high school had it on Mondays from 2:30 to 9:00 p.m., and we had a half hour for each disc jockey. Then my family moved to West Virginia. My father was in public broadcasting and he had taken over the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority to run the public broadcasting statewide. I ended up getting job at a commercial station, starting the way most people start in radio – running the board. This was in 1985 at WVSR-FM and WTIP-AM in Charleston, West Virginia. After a while I started doing weekend overnights.
Then I finally got into the college I wanted to go to which was Michigan State. I went to Michigan State University and worked part-time at WFMK in Lansing back when it was Magic 99. That’s where I met a guy named Mark Blackwell, whom I believe is in Detroit now in production. He’s the one that first turned me on to production and the things you can do in that room that really were a lot of fun. I was also was involved with the student radio on campus. When I got to Michigan State in ’86, they had a campus radio station called WLFT which was a carrier current AM in just the dorms. 10 years or so before, they had applied and kept applying to the FCC for an over-the-air FM license. Finally it came through while I was chairperson of the radio board for the Resident Halls Association. And because it was now going to serve more than the resident halls, it became a part of the Associated Students of MSU, the student government. I became a part of that and we signed on WDBM at 89.1 in the spring of ’89. As far as I can tell, they’ve been doing very well since. It is a great place for kids to learn radio and get involved because when we left we set it up to be totally student run with a faculty adviser and one full-time paid manager. Everything else, news and programming, production and all that other stuff, was done by students, some with a stipend and some without.
After graduating from Michigan State, I needed a real job and ended up at WNNS in Springfield, Illinois doing overnights. I worked there for a year and half or so then went to WLRS in Louisville, Kentucky. Then it was up and down the dial with stops in St. Louis, Louisville, Roanoke, Virginia…
JV: Both on air and production during these stops?
Neil: Yeah, but I started doing more of the production thing in Roanoke. I did an air shift and also served as Production Director, although we did have a Production Manager as well who did most of the copyrighting while I ended up doing most of the production. Then it kind of worked into a promotions role. I found out I didn’t like that and so we moved on. I ended up in Albany, New York at WRVE, WHRL and WGY, and this was my first totally off-air production gig. This was in 1997. Clear Channel bought them a couple of years later, and because they already had a couple of stations in town, they already a Production Director. So a month after they took over I left and spent a couple of months in St. Cloud, Minnesota at KCLD as their Creative Services Director. Then I got an offer from Telemedia in Albany to move back and work for WCPT and WKLI as Creative Production Director. That was from May of 2000 until they sold to Albany Broadcasting in August of 2001. They cleaned house and this is when I decided to try doing it on my own.
JV: Had you been doing any free-lance work prior to this?
Neil: Back in ’96 when we were in Roanoke I started doing a little more freelance production. I would go down to the TV station and do some voice-overs and things like that. I had been doing that off and on through the years until Telemedia finally sold.
The State of New York was one of the states that participated in an entrepreneurship program where you would get your full unemployment benefit and could still start a business if you qualified for this program. If you didn’t qualify for this program and you started your own business, you were technically working even if you didn’t make money, and you couldn’t get the unemployment benefit. This way I could collect my full unemployment for six months and work to get the business off the ground. So that’s when we decided to do this full-time, me and my wife who helps out a lot. That’s how we started Voice Creative and really went full-time with it.
JV: This entrepreneurship program sounds like a great idea for someone in your shoes.
Neil: Yes. And you have to go through entrepreneurship training and take a certain number of classes and things like that to help you figure out how to operate a business, which I would certainly recommend to anybody whose considering doing this, even part-time, because there’s so much to the business that you just don’t see when you’re an employee. For example, there’s the IRS. There are regulations regarding whether you can use your Social Security number or whether you’ll need an employee identification number. Insurance is another issue. You get your insurance through your employer most of the time. When you’re self-employed, that’s a whole other ballgame. And there’s just a lot things like that.
Other things they covered in the classes included marketing, networking, and promotions. You’re going to do a lot more marketing, and you’re going to have to put yourself out there. The classes also dealt with financing and writing a business plan. Those are big issues that these classes really can help with.
JV: Which came first, the domain name voicecreative.com, the company name Voice Creative, or did they happen simultaneously?
Neil: Actually I named the company in ’96. I was doing a lot of voice stuff and I wanted to be creative, and so it kind of works with that double meaning. The way the web site came about was working for Telemedia. They were approached by a company wanting to do some radio promotions. They came in and gave all the full-time employees email and their own domain name if they wanted it. So the jocks would take “their name” dot com, if it was available, and I said, “Okay, how about voicecreative?” He did a check and said, “It’s yours.”
JV: When you broke off from the radio station, did you already have a handful of freelance accounts that you’d been working with or did you pretty much have to start from scratch?
Neil: I pretty much started from scratch, but one of the arrangements I had with Telemedia when I came there was that I would also write for some of their other properties. So when I first came on board, I was doing copywriting for their stations in Pittsfield, Massachusetts and Denington, Vermont because they were all run under the same General Manager that ran Albany. They were all in the same cluster. And later that grew to include Keene, New Hampshire and Brattleboro, Vermont. So I felt like I kind of had a base. I wasn’t just stepping off into the deep end. I was only going into six feet instead of twelve feet of water. And I have since grown that to include stations in New England, West Virginia, Alaska, California…
JV: Are these stations that you are writing for?
Neil: These are stations I do writing and production for. I do a lot of work for this group in California and do a lot of writing and producing for a station group in Alaska. There are also some independent clients. I have a station in northern New York that we do things occasionally for. There’s this station in Alabama that we do things occasionally for. We’ve done work for a mall in St. Cloud. In fact, we won awards for a series of commercials we did for this mall. I come in contact with them when I was working in St. Cloud at the radio station. One of the Account Executives left the radio station about the same time I went to Albany. She took a job at the mall, as the Marketing Director, and we remained in contact and developed a series of commercials over the following year with my daughter, who also happens now to be an award winning voice talent.
JV: You’ve had some pretty good growth your first year out.
Neil: Yeah, over the past year we’ve grown. We’re still growing. We’re not where we want to be yet. We’re not out of the red yet but we’re getting there. We’re doing somewhere between 15 and 20 stations right now, and I’m looking to at least double that.
JV: Describe the service you provide stations.
Neil: The way it basically works is a station sends us either copy points or a script. With copy points, obviously we’d turn around and write the script and send it back to them within a day for approval. Once we get the script back then we produce it using voices from our talent bank. I have different voice talent around the country. We’ll send the parts to them and get them back quickly and assemble the spot.
This variety of voices is one of the biggest benefits we offer stations. A lot of stations with voice tracking and satellite operations end up with a couple of local people doing their local commercials, which is fine for a while, but after a while your listener tends to tune out because they keep hearing these same people over and over. With different voice talents, if you can source that out a little bit, you have the opportunity to make commercials stand out a little bit more, which obviously benefits the station because the client gets results. Also it gives you a little freedom instead of having voice over music, voice over music, voice over music, and it frees you up from not being able to use your on-air people in first person scripts. You don’t want to do that because the listener knows that if you say, “At Fred’s House we’re offering 40% off...” well if it’s a local jock reading that, the audience knows the jock doesn’t work there, and you lose a little creditability with the listener. If you can bring in different voices you can retain some of that credibility.
JV: That’s a good selling point when looking for business. Are you approaching production departments, sales departments, General Managers?
Neil: Right now we’ve been marketing mainly to the General Manager, but it varies. In some operations you need to talk to the Operations Manager. In some operations you need to talk to the General Sales Manager, and some you need to talk the General Manager.
The other thing that helps Voice Creative is that we’re a one-stop shop. A lot of web sites offer voice talent, and you can go through and listen to all these different talents, which is a wonderful thing, but in a day-to-day radio station, you don’t have a lot of time for that, unless you’re looking for imaging, which is something we don’t do a lot of because there are lot of people doing great imaging already. We focus on commercials. And the benefit is you only deal with one person. If you call Voice Creative you’ll probably end up dealing with me. You only have one person to deal with who takes care of all the casting. We take care everything. You send us the script or copy points, and when we get the script approved, within the next twelve to thirty-six hours, you get the spot back fully produced, ready to go. And you don’t have to worry about talent hassles or cutting individual checks to people or all the other stuff that goes with that. It’s all taken care of.
JV: Are you targeting medium and smaller markets or is that even a consideration when you go looking for business?
Neil: We’re all over. We’re in the top one hundred markets, but we also go to unrated markets. The stations in Alaska are in an unrated market. We’ve haven’t gotten into the top 50 yet, but we’re working on it.
And one of the things I want to stress is that I’m not looking to put anybody out of work. I’ve been in the position of the Production Director who loses their job, and I don’t want anybody to lose their job. We offer to work with your existing production department. My GM used to say, “What can we do to help your department?” and the biggest thing for me was time. Give me more time to be creative on these spots so that we actually deliver something that works for the client. Understanding the pressures of daily radio, we try to take some of the work off the Production Director in the station to give them time to focus on the clients they want to and pass the ones that they really don’t want to deal with on to us. That gives them the time to be intimate with those clients. It lets us work with the other ones, and the station’s going to sound a lot better. And revenue is going to grow because of it. Nobody gets fired. You hire Voice Creative. You don’t have any additional insurance costs or benefits costs. We don’t take time off. And you’ve freed up some time for your production department so they can ponder and come up with better ideas for other local clients. We do have one station that doesn’t have a production department. They hired us to do that. Other stations have full production departments and we work in concert with them.
JV: Do you try to get retainers going with most of your clients, or is it a single piece price type of deal?
Neil: We offer the single piece price. We also offer the traditional radio pricing where you buy up to a certain number a month and you get a discount—up to 10 or up to 15 or 50 or 100 or whatever you want to do. We also offer what we call unit pricing, which for us means that you’ve prepaid for a certain number of units—30, 50, 100, whatever you want. And depending upon how many you buy, you have a month to six months to pay for those units. You have up to a year from the date we sign the agreement to use those. So you get everything you paid for. There’s no wasted money. Each unit is good for production or copy or voice talent. So if you do a two voice spot that we have to write, it’s four units, which is comparable, depending upon the market size to probably less than a half of the per piece price. I would say we’re very competitive. We’re not the cheapest, but we’re not the most expensive.
JV: A subject that has come up more than once recently is the declining fees charged by voice talents as a result of the growing number of voice talents jumping into the pool. When you go out shopping for the voice talent for your spots, are you finding a lot of voice talent that works that cheaply?
Neil: The voice talent we use at Voice Creative are people that I know personally. They’re friends of mine. I haven’t gone to any of the talent banks out there because the way we charge our clients and the time involved and everything else, we’re not able to pay to that level. We’re not able to pay the hundred dollars per spot because I don’t even charge that to my clients for the whole shebang. I can’t pay voice talent more than I’m making for copy production and voice, especially if it’s a couple of voices per spot. But one of the benefits for the people that I do use as voice talent is that I send them a script and they send the audio back and it takes them maybe half an hour depending about on how many they do. That’s it. That’s all they have to do. Then they’ll get a check. They don’t have to go out and find the business. They don’t have to do any of the legwork. Basically they look at it as Neil sending me this stuff to do. Great. It takes me less than half an hour. I stay at work until 5:30. No problem. I just made an extra few bucks that I didn’t have to go out and look for. And for them, the more they get, the more it starts to add up. As we grow it is going to start to really add up for them because they can spend an extra hour a day and probably get three or four maybe five spots done. Five spots a day every day and they’re going to start looking at some sizable checks. And that’s what starting to happen. It’s starting to pick up.
JV: Rather than looking for a handful of fat clients, you’re going for the volume approach.
JV: Well there certainly are a lot more stations in secondary markets than in the top 50, and as you said, many of these stations have limited talent available. It’s a matter of turning out of large volume of commercials in a short amount of time.
Neil: Right, and that’s part of the goal. One of the eye opening articles in RAP for me was one that John Pellegrini wrote a couple of years ago. He talked about salaries in major market production and how dropping from 150 thousand to 75 thousand and living in Chicago or Los Angeles is like living in St. Cloud on 30. And you know, if you’re one person you can probably get away with that. But if you’ve got a family, that’s real tight, especially if your kid need glasses or braces or things like that. So, yeah, that’s what we’re looking for, a lot more volume. We’re not going to sacrifice quality for that volume though. Everything we do, we want to make sure it’s high quality stuff.
JV: Are you doing any other marketing other than picking up the phone and calling General Mangers?
Neil: Our approach so far has been basically the cold call with mail follow-up, email referrals to the web site, and sending CDs out. Most of what we’ve done has actually been sending CDs and sample scripts and things to the General Manager, basically because we’re running on a real tight budget. We don’t have a lot of money for marketing yet. Unfortunately it’s just been little steps because during this whole startup I still need to feed my family. We’re trying to grow this thing and not over-grow it. In the entrepreneurship course they talk about things that kill your business. Obviously, there’s the death of the proprietor. That’s a real issue. I mean, you’ve got look out for that. And if that happens, how is all the business debt going to get taken care of? There is marketing failure, which can prevent you from growing your business. Or there’s marketing success, which can over grow it and kill it just as quickly because you then have too much business and you can’t handle it. It’s like effective advertising. If you have really effective advertising, and your product is not up to what it should be, it’s going to be awfully difficult to get people to try your product again. So we want to make sure that everything we do is marketed correctly, that when people have an experience with Voice Creative, it is a quality experience, a productive experience. I want us to deliver what we say we’re going to deliver, which is effective copy that generates business for your clients and makes the radio station more money. That’s our goal.
JV: You’re working from home, right?
Neil: I have a home office, yes. It includes a sound booth, RE20 mic, a dbx286a processor, a computer running SAW Pro, a Mackie console, CD players…mostly things I had been acquiring along the way. I knew that eventually this was where I wanted to go, so I kept my eyes open. And I will confess, there are times when I had my microphone and was under a blanket to deaden the sound. When we relocated to Charlottesville from New York, I finally went and built a little sound booth, which is not real glamorous, but then again, I’m the only one that uses it. It works well. We run it into a little Mackie console and mix everything on the computer where we convert it to MP3 and post it on the web site. Then we email the appropriate people and tell them where they can download their spot. Instead of just emailing them the actual spot, we post it on the web site because we found that salespeople will want to go to their client and play the spot. Instead of burdening the production department with making a cassette, they can either play it from their laptop, if they have one, or they can go to their client’s computer and download in a matter of seconds and listen to it that way.
JV: What’s a typical day like for you?
Neil: Probably 20% of the time is producing and another 25-30% of the time is writing. Sometimes you’re going to spend 10% of the time with business chores like payroll, insurance, and stuff like that. And the rest of the time is marketing. That’s the biggest chunk of time right now, on the phone trying to line up clients. And you know, coming from programming and production, that’s probably one of the hardest things because you know there’s that traditional rivalry between sales and programming anyway. I remember talking to my General Manager about sales one day, and she said, “If you want to be in sales, come on over.” I said, “No I don’t.” I respect what salespeople do. It’s a difficult job, no doubt. You’re putting in a lot longer hours than most of the jocks because you’re working at home. You’re out on the street during the day and then you’re making proposals at night. I knew a lot of salespeople who would do all that at home at night. And frankly, I didn’t want to spend that much time doing it. Now, working for myself, I spend that much time doing it. But having a home office makes it easier—like when my daughter gets off the bus and I get a hug when she gets in. Sometimes that’s worth it right there.
JV: How’s your confidence level almost a year and a half into it?
Neil: I’m feeling confident about things. Honestly it’s taken longer to get to where we are than I wanted. I certainly would rather not have the current financial pressure and have everything taken care of. But I can see it’s going to happen. I know it’s over the next ridge. It’s a matter of persistence and working through all this stuff. It will happen. There’s a need for this out there. One of my clients was telling me how he thought this was the way to go because it doesn’t cost the station anything benefits-wise, you save a little compared to a regular salary, and you get the multiple voice talents. Again, I don’t want to cost anybody their job but advantages like multiple voice talents and different approaches to copywriting can help grow the bottom line. And these days, everyone’s on a tight budget. Ten years ago we said they were tight; they’re tighter now. And consolidation and voice tracking has limited the number of voices available for local commercials. This is an opportunity for stations—as I make my pitch—that is really a way to grow and serve your business community and help the salespeople get and own the account. It’s another tool for sales to go in and say, “We have an outstanding Production Director here in the station, and we also work with this other group called Voice Creative who brings us many more voice talents so you can choose from all these, or you can find another one that they will work with if you’d like. And you can have your own signature voice.” This really can help the station grow their bottom line by delivering results for their client, and then they reward the station with larger schedules, and they tell their friends, “Oh I advertised on XYZ radio and you should too.”
JV: When you lost the unemployment compensation six months after you started, did you feel you were pretty much enough on your way that you could let it go comfortably?
Neil: I’d say it’s better now than it was then, but it’s still a challenge day to day to meet your obligations. Am I where I want to be? No. Am I where I think it’s going to go? No. Am I positive and optimistic that this is going to take off and I’ll be able to hire people to help out in the next couple of years? Hell, yes!
JV: Would you ever considered going back to radio now that you’ve done this for a while?
Neil: One of the popular things about radio is how insecure the business is. You never know whether you’re going to be there tomorrow because the station sold or the General Manager’s girlfriend, boyfriend, or whatever decides they don’t like you. Radio has a big repetition for being very insecure. But as I pointed out, you’re still drawing a salary. So it is more secure than starting your own business. Would I go back to radio? I think if the right situation came along I would keep doing this, but I would certainly entertain the option of going back into radio. There’s a camaraderie in most stations that is wonderful. It’s vibrant and it’s joyous, and I guess if I miss anything, I miss being in a town and saying, “Yeah, I work for this radio station,” and getting back a little notoriety. There’s that little ego kick that most people can identify with. So I’d entertain the opportunity. I can’t rule it out.
JV: There are 10,000 plus radio stations out there. I think there’s always going to be plenty of work both for the people inside the station and for companies such as yours on the outside. What advice would you give someone about starting up a company like yours?
Neil: Well, to parrot what you said, there’s a lot work. It’s just a matter of finding it. You really do have to be persistent. If you are on your way out of the radio station, whether by your choice or someone else’s, and you’re interested in doing this, the biggest thing is to be persistent. And if you’ve got somebody else such as a spouse who can cover your health care and other expenses for a while, that’s outstanding. If you are about to go on unemployment, see if you can find a program like what was offered with the state of New York and get involved in that so that you can keep at least that amount of money coming in because the hardest thing is going to be making ends meet until the business actually pays off. That is a constant challenge, and nothing really hits home until you’re out of job. When you’re working at the radio station, you may feel like you’re not being compensated fairly, but you’re making a lot more money than you would if you weren’t there. It may not be your lifestyle, but if you can, try to keep that job while you get all your stuff together, while you get your equipment, while you line up voice talent, while you develop your marketing plan. As many people before me have said, keep your job and devote some time to starting your own business while you’re employed or while you’re on the full unemployment compensation because it doesn’t come as quickly as you think it’s going to. As somebody said to me once, it’s kind of like Murphy’s Law. You think you’ve taken everything into account and expect realistically that it will take six months. Okay, you might be off a little bit, so we’ll double it. We’ll say it’s going to take a year. Well, you’re going to have to double that too, because no matter how long you think it’s going to take, it’s going to take at least twice that long, and if you accommodate for that, it’s going to take twice that long again. Be honest with yourself. Be real. Allow yourself the time to develop it and grow it. But don’t think it’s going to do it on its own because if you’re not doing it, nobody is going to do it.