Joel Moss, WEBN-FM, Cincinnati, Ohio
By Jerry Vigil
Ask anybody who’s anybody, who the top creative producers are in radio today, and you’ll hear the name Joel Moss. Ask anybody who’s anybody, what the longest running heritage rock stations in the country are, and you’ll hear WEBN, Cincinnati mentioned. It’s no surprise both Joel and WEBN are partners in a long-term relationship. ‘EBN has been rockin’ Cincinnati for 35 years, and Joel has been ‘EBN’s creative guru for the last half of those 3.5 decades. This month’s RAP Interview revisits Joel 13 years later for an update on this continuing success story. And be sure to strap yourself in for a wild ride on the creative roller coaster when you check out Joel’s demo on this month’s RAP CD.
JV: What’s changed in thirteen years there at ‘EBN?
Joel: What’s changed? One of our younger guys came into the production room a couple of months ago and noticed the RAP award with the razor blade embedded in the middle of it. He says, “So what does that represent?” I resisted telling him that it was a tribute to all those that cut their wrists buried in the oxide. But that, I think, is quintessential. And that’s pretty much what’s changed, the technology. Actually, the technology has taken over. I think a lot of deregulation had to do with the fact that the technology was in place to allow all that to happen. Randy had this vision of how to implement it, but the systems were also well on their way, if not totally in place, to being able to carry out a lot of what that kind of management was going to require. I think that’s the most obvious change, and it’s a great change.
JV: When we last visited, you were working on an Otari 8-track reel-to-reel. What did the digital revolution bring to your studio?
Joel: Well I kind of missed the Pro Tools thing because of a number of reasons but ended up with a PC-based Sonic Foundry system that I absolutely love. I use Vegas Audio 2.0 and Sonic Foundry’s Sound Forge 5.0. That’s basically it. I use no outboard gear at all. The only thing I use this dinosaur of a Wheatstone board for is basically monitoring because everything eventually winds up in our Prophet System.
JV: And how did consolidation unfold there at ‘EBN?
Joel: The first real wave here in this market was the Point/WPPT and Channel Z, which was actually the Power Pig, which came on board with ‘EBN and WLW. I may not have that exactly correct, but I was imaging ‘EBN, the Point and the Power Pig simultaneously and also doing a couple of other markets here and there. It was crazy because everything was just factory assembly line mentality and lots of linear shit. It was just paste and clip. And again, the technology allowed for so much of that kind of duplication, and it led to that. I think part of the reason why there’s this homogenization of everything is because it’s all coming out of shells of audio pieces from one market to the other. ‘EBN always had a voracious appetite for all kinds of imaging, not just sweepers or promos, but creative loony bits of audio stuff—spoof spots, song parodies and what have you. During the initiation of the deregulation period, things kind of changed. Priorities switched around a little bit, and there were some compromises made. The way the business was developing dictated these changes. It’s debatable as to what the end result is, but not in my mind. I don’t think the programming is as compelling as it could be. I think part of the reason is that it’s impossible to effectively manage as many radio stations, for instance, as Clear Channel has. Right now, that part of the blueprint hasn’t been written.
But I think I was very fortunate to go through this relatively brief period of a couple of years where I was imaging the Point, Power Pig, and ‘EBN, and also doing a lot of commercial production at the time. I loved doing commercial production. Eric Chase and I worked together for several years here, and we had a great time. We had a really wonderful symbiotic kind of thing going. We were real good friends, laughed at the same things, and just saw things very similarly. It was one of those real unique relationships that you really don’t have that many of through your creative life. We did a bunch of spots together and collaborated on another part of ‘EBN’s heritage, which was the Fool’s Day Parade, which was just a wonderful forum for all kinds of crazy wonderful bits of stuff.
So after a period of a couple of years of doing the multiple station thing, eventually they said, “Joel, just concentrate on imaging. We’re going to get other guys in here to do the commercials.” And ‘EBN began to suffer on the air. I mean, there was a period where we went through this repositioning kind of thing and it was odd. It was a strange period. I think in part ‘EBN was suffering in the wake, literally, of being belted around by everything happening with deregulation. So eventually the Point became the Fox, got their own production guys, and I began to refocus on ‘EBN. Now I do ‘EBN and an occasional other market—either a start-up or a re-imaging package every couple of months. The ‘EBN thing is a different animal inasmuch as we do the fireworks and a couple of unique projects through the year, which keeps me very busy.
JV: Are you working on any special projects now?
Joel: I’m right in the middle of doing the Red’s Synergy Field closing show. The city is imploding Synergy Field in December to make way for a new stadium, which is going to open up in 2003, the Great American Ballpark. So there’s a twenty-minute fireworks show following one of the last games of the year here in town, and I am writing and producing a narrative with music and play-by-play elements to kind of weave through the twenty minutes. It’ll be in that nostalgic yet looking ahead to the future kind of vein. It’s a lot of fun to do, but it’s also falling at a very odd time of year. We’re doing a lot of reworking of ‘EBN right now and trying to reinvigorate our new rock presence and positioning. We just put a new voice on ‘EBN, which is a rare thing to do but unfortunately, this one was brought about by the untimely passing of Keith. But coincidentally, at the same time, we’re doing a lot of new rock imaging. So all that’s taking place. Then the ‘EBN firework show is September 1st. This Red’s thing is September 20th. I’m in the script approval phase of the Red’s show, which is called “This One Belongs to the Reds,” which is Marty Brennaman’s tag line whenever the Reds win a game. Seems to be fitting for this. Marty’s a great Hall of Fame broadcaster. Very good.
JV: Whatever you guys are doing seems to be working. The spring Arbitron has ‘EBN at #2 12+, beaten only by your sister station WLW-AM.
Joel: Is that right? I never look at the ratings. The station has done remarkably well. But there is competition. Despite the fact that we own almost everything in the market, we do have competition here. We are currently trying to do what’s necessary to keep the station competitive in all day parts. I think the median age of the people in the radio station is somewhat older than our target core. It’s something that we’re all aware of, and I think that’s part of the challenge for anyone that’s been around. Certainly a challenge I have is to make sure that we’re all speaking the same language. I have an 18-year-old son who is a great sounding board for myself. It’s a good frame of reference. But I think if you become complacent and think just because you’ve been doing it for so long that people will just continue to listen, that’s ridiculous and you can get really hurt. ‘EBN is in the unique position of having to quantify the value of this thirty-five year heritage and see when it becomes an asset and when it’s a liability. Are you perceived as simply old as opposed to experienced or growing up with you? It’s an interesting dilemma, and I think it’s perhaps the first time it’s every happened, because, frankly, few radio stations have lasted this long. We’re talking 35 years. Three and a half decades of decadence. I think that through the history of most radio stations over that period of time, you’ve gone through a dozen formats. We’ve evolved but we’re essentially a rock station and continue to be.
JV: Is John Wells still doing a lot of voice work for you?
Joel: Still is. John is the essence of ‘EBN, the way we sound on the air. I really think John’s an integral part of the persona, although we do use other voices for special places. Again, for the new rock imaging, we just added Michael Bratton, who’s out of Chicago. Michael just within the last week joined ‘EBN, and I’m producing his stuff right now. Michael’s very good. He’s really got it. He’s 30 years old but sounds younger, which is a real good thing for what we want. And we also use Kate West on a regular basis, for our online nude stuff, Kate’s real good at that. And whenever we need to have the word “breasts” in a promo, Kate will be there. And she does the sessions naked, which I think is a real plus.
JV: Naked over an ISDN line maybe…
Joel: Oh, yeah. But it’s radio. It’s theatre of the mind, so she looks great. And she smells really good, too. And we use other voices too for special stuff. We’ve always had a nice little budget set aside to do that. We can call Joe Cipriano, who was for a long, long time, the voice of Fox TV—still does a lot of Fox and CBS comedy stuff. Great voice and perfect when you’re doing a parody or something and you want “that guy.” Why not get “that guy” rather than try to find somebody that sounds like him? So we’ve had money to do that, and the talent that we call for these things have all been very gracious. They’ve never been like, “Okay, that’ll be a $1,000. You can use it once.” They’ve all been very gracious to us and very nice to work with—every one of them.
Jonathan Cook is another guy. I think he works out of San Francisco. Does a lot of the WB stuff. Has a great dark delivery. So there are a lot of different voices, but Wells is certainly our prime guy. And John and I, we’ve known each other a long time.
JV: In our previous interview with you back in 1989, you pointed out how it’s all about the writing and the concept, and this has been a big part of ‘EBN’s history—all of the theatre of the mind production you’ve produced over the years. How have you managed to continue to crank out such creative material year after year?
Joel: I don’t know. And, frankly, it’s not all me. Michael Walter is the current PD, and he’s been here for the last five years or so. To say he’s great at thinking outside the box, that’s a cliché. There isn’t a box that Michael’s aware of. The guy’s just brilliant. He’s very talented in a lot of ways. He’s a very good writer and he conceptualizes things. Many times you’ll get people in the studio just sitting around talking about ideas. You’ll get five, six, seven really great ideas. That’s fine. But what does it really mean to turn that idea into a piece of audio? That’s really the difference and a lot of that creativity is the ability to turn those ideas into words and sound, and Michael can do that.
And again, I think part of the mission of a lot of radio programming today does not really require a whole lot of that. It’s real linear, real boring…pat. It’s not entertaining. There’s no compelling reason to be listening. And you know, you had better take a look in the mirror and realize it. If it’s music that’s your prime commodity that you want people to come and sample, you’d better be doing it right. You’d better understand that there’s a passion involved with music that needs to have some sense on the air. But it just doesn’t exist. For a listener to stay committed to a radio station, with that passion, there has to be something there. We’ve got MP3s now that you can bring into your car. Why would somebody want to spend time waiting through horrible six, seven minute stop sets of really bad commercials? If they were entertaining commercials, there may be some reason to hang on, but who has time in the load of shit that they have to deal with to write creative radio spots? And if my son and his friends are downloading MP3s and putting five hundred on a disk and putting them in their car, not to mention satellite radio, then I think radio’s really faced with having to assess what is entertaining.
JV: You also have to wonder how much at work and at home listening has also been lost to Internet stations, even though their future is uncertain.
Joel: It comes right back to technology. It’s just exploding with options. Look at the options that people have these days to not only spend their entertainment dollars but how to waste their time. There’s even mobile video now. Surround sound systems in your cars with flat screen LCD monitors so your kids can watch the latest Disney DVD on their way to Florida. Oh, okay. So you mean they’re not going to be listening? Oh. And after watching the DVD, if they’re committed to music, are they going to be listening to a radio station?
JV: How can radio compete with all this?
Joel: It’s the local stuff that radio has to capitalize on. Let’s face it, ‘EBN is successful because it’s woven into the community. It is part of the fabric of this community. And, you know, when things like news divisions get scalped, that doesn’t help matters. I remember reading this thing about Denver going through this horror of the fires and local radio carrying syndicated talk programming on the weekends. Wow, the suburbs are blazing and no local coverage. I don’t know, but to me that’s symptomatic of something that’s not right with a medium whose very essence is communication.
Like I said, I think managing this many radio stations becomes really a difficult task. I think Randy was brilliant in terms of having a vision and a way to implement deregulation instantly. He was ready to go and did it. Let’s face it, what he did in three or four years is almost beyond comprehension—what they were able to absorb, what they’ve done. And now I think there’s going to be this period of transition. Things are going to shake out, and we’ll see, in five years from now, what’s left in terms of a reason that advertisers are going to have to want to continue to support these facilities.
Oh, and I have to mention Bo Wood every time I ever do anything in print because he inspired the attitude here and it continues. Actually, his name is Frank Wood, but everyone that knows him calls him Bo. He’s the head of Secret Communications now, but he was the co-COO of Jacor with Randy Michaels before the Clear Channel thing. Bo hired me and suggested that my job was really on the printed page and not just being able to mix a couple of channels of audio. And I think it’s that sense of entertainment and theatre of the mind and all that stuff that we talk about that still makes it a viable vital medium. But right now, it’s going through this period, and I think it’s unfair to expect it to have not gone through this.
But there is still brilliance out there. Take Eric Chase. Nobody works harder than him. I know Eric Chase, but I don’t know whom all these other Eric Chase’s are that are doing all his work because he’s the most prolific producer I know of. And you talk about a guy being able to take an old idea and rework it—he’s writing chapters on that daily. The guy’s amazing. Whether it’s how to introduce new music or the incredible way that he’s imaged news talk, it’s really, really good, to say the least.
JV: How would you say your style of production has changed over the decade?
Joel: Hopefully, the writing is more succinct. Hopefully the satire is more vital, more relevant. I don’t know; you’d have to ask someone else how it’s changed. I know that I approach things in a slightly different way. Obviously, the first thing I’m thinking of is, okay, how can I possibly do this thing that I’ve done 45 times differently. That is, for me, the continuing challenge. There’s no question that, as we determine what is still valid for ‘EBN and what needs to evolve into something completely different, I’m still writing promos for garments. I’m still doing this whole series of promos for the fireworks, for instance. That’s still a big focus of what the radio station’s about. So, my approach is with this great technology. I use the Acid loops quite a bit. I use all this technology to formulate custom sonic things to fill between the words. But how can I possibly do that differently? I get bored with filter voices. I’m getting bored with a lot of the processing. So a lot of it comes back to finding that new way of saying what we’ve said before. Again, maybe it’s the writing, finding some great new phrase. But how many great new phrases are there?
If I can be entertained personally by something that I’ve written maybe twice a month, it’s a good month. I write probably twenty-five or thirty promos for the fireworks every year, and they all need to have that sense of continuity. There’s something there that goes year to year, but they also have to be current. They have to sound like they’re coming out of the radio in 2002.
JV: You’ve been at WEBN for a long time.
Joel: I was hired the day my son was born. He starts at the Script School of Journalism at Ohio University in September. And my daughter’s thirteen.
There’s no question that ‘EBN is a unique opportunity and continues to be. And frankly, the fireworks show is a very big part of what I do. This is my seventeenth soundtrack coming up, plus I’ve done Fourth of July shows and a couple of international competitions with this fireworks company in Montreal. This association with pyromusical events is a big part of what I do and it defines me and my career in a lot of ways. That’s more important to me than any imaging package I’ve ever done. To have that opportunity is a great deal of the reason that I’m still here. And it’s something that I really want to take and do beyond just Cincinnati. The technology for this particular type of show is very, very portable. And somebody better jump on marketing those shows because it’s going to be done. And I know as well as probably anyone because of my association with the Rossi Fireworks Company; they’re a world-class company twenty miles away. They supply Disney with product. They stage shows internationally. That’s one of the reasons why we continue to do this show. We are expert at this technology—the marrying of music and fireworks, beta testing the software that fires the shows that’s now the standard in the industry used in Boston and DC and Disney. I mean, it all came out of Cincinnati, and a lot of people don’t know that. All the people that watch the show every September have no clue as to what they’re seeing other than a fabulously, dynamic, magnificent pyro thing. And now there is this ability, digitally, to do a lot of things with that show, and that’s something I would like to do.
JV: How many people attend the ‘EBN Fireworks show?
Joel: The outside estimate on the high side is half a million. I have no clue. I know that it’s a big crowd. You could walk across the river on the boats. They’re just lined up. And every year it’s been simulcast on TV and earns 50 shares. Everybody’s basically tuning in to watch it on Labor Day weekend. It’s the last blast of summer.
JV: It sounds like you stay very busy. Do you find time for any freelance work?
Joel: Well, I do have a studio in my home, and for the first time I’m actually going to start actively doing some other projects. I’m not exactly sure what they’ll be, but I’m going to do that. I heard XM was going to be doing radio drama, and to me, that sounds cool. Imagine taking that raw dialog that exists now in the culture, not specifically like what you hear on the Sopranos, but imagine the kind of stuff that you could do with audio now. I’m not saying that that’s a mass appeal kind of thing, but I think it would be very interesting, whether it would be science fiction or who knows what. Maybe it would be a serial or maybe a one-time thing. I think there’s this great opportunity to go back to some of that and apply it to today’s technology and sensibilities or lack of sensibilities and see where it comes out.
JV: Let’s say a college student comes into your studio, stands behind you and watches you do your thing for an afternoon, then says, “I want to be you. I want to do what you do.” What advice do you give that person?
Joel: I tell them first they should learn to play golf. You’re going to further your career on the course more than in the studio. I never played golf and now I see what a liability that is. I’m here working today and there’s a golf outing and everybody’s out there playing golf. When I came in today, the parking lot was empty. There was one last week, too. And there’ll probably be another one Monday. And Tom Owens lives for golf.
All I offer is basically what I said in that first interview. You need to be absorbing everything. You need to read a lot too. Even if you pick and choose just a few things to watch on TV, make sure they’re the right things that are at least demonstrating some really good writing, for instance, which in my estimation would be The Daily Show. It’s far and away a great example of topicality and wonderful satire and great performance. When you can download limited or express versions of software for nothing, download it and start editing. Expose yourself to good quality material. Try to emulate it first before wanting to have your own style. All of that stuff takes time to evolve. Certainly a lot of my influence—the way I layer sounds, the way I hear things—came from that Firesign Theater stuff.
“Well, what’s your thing Joel?” you might ask. I guess it’s Al Vital.