JV: You’ve kept yourself busy in the voiceover business. How’s that going? What are you doing?
Matt: It’s going good. I don’t have any representation. I haven’t really sought that out. I don’t really market myself a lot. I just kind of pick up work as I go. And the people that use me for promo work are usually people that I’ve worked with in the past. I do promo work for the Quake in San Jose; one of the guys I used to work with runs the stations. He knows me from The Loop and uses me to do wacky promos for his station. I’ve done work for the Arch in St. Louis as their voiceover guy. I do work for WISN 12 Milwaukee, a TV station. I do a kind of a tough guy read for the Packer games. They also have me doing a kind of laid back style for their entertainment programming, for Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight and some Oprah Winfrey stuff.

So I’m just kind of doing a crawl, walk, run with that. I’m branching out a little bit more doing more and more freelance work, but as you know, with radio production, when you’re doing more than one station, it’s hard to devote full time to voiceover. There’s so many people doing it full time and only doing voiceover that it’s obviously very competitive; and with the 3 stations I have here in town, I’m very busy all the time.

JV: But you’re not just a “wacky promo” voice guy either; you obviously have some other styles.
Matt: Yeah and it’s good. The guy up in Milwaukee has been really good with me, Jim Windsor who is the Creative Services Director in Milwaukee. He’s really good at coaching and he works with a lot of different voiceover people. He says, “I just want you to be real laid back here and real friendly and just smile….” So he’s been very helpful and gracious and giving in helping me and coaching me to find a sound. And most of my work over the years has always been mimicking, again, like from high school, doing impressions, mimicking other people. In a lot of my early work at The Loop, I was mimicking these deep voice guys like Gary Gears who was a big voice guy here in Chicago. He was on WCFL. I would kind of mimic his style. I had a chance to work with Gary, and so I got a chance to watch him behind the microphone.

Another guy named Chuck Britain had another big booming voice, and I got to work with him. I was able to some work with Don Le Fontaine. So a lot of these big voice guys I was able to listen to and mimic, and so a lot of my early work on The Loop was basically mimicking them. And I was kind of picking up a character — the character’s name is Walt Dove — who’s kind of a crusty old, cigarette-smoking, hard-drinking, bar-stool-sitting radio guy who’s been through the radio wars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and is very opinionated and sarcastic, and he has his view of the world and nobody can do radio voiceover like he can. I use that character, Walt Dove, as inspiration for coming up with the voice of these old, deep-voiced, ex-Top 40 jocks. I think that really helps: once you know the character you’re doing, the voice comes.

JV: You do seminars and have one coming up in a few days. Tell us about it.
Matt: This one’s called Talent Track and it’s a bunch of aspiring Production Directors and jocks meeting in Chicago here at Columbia College. I’ve been invited to come in and talk to the production people and give them a little hope as we enter a changing world here with PPM and all. I’m trying to help them out and keep the hope that the industry will keep people like myself and create more people that are thinking outside of the box.

One of the main complaints I have with radio production over the past 10 years has been people copying everyone, like talking through the telephone and having this thinned-out sound on their voice, something that Keith Eubanks made popular back in the early 90’s. I was still hearing that, and to this day, in 2007, I still hear that kind of sound coming out of the radio. I always try to tell the young people that you’ve got to be yourself if you want to be a difference-maker in the business. You’ve got to go with what you know and what’s in your gut. You can be inspired by other people, yes. I certainly was and to this day am by other people. But you still have to be yourself if you want to be successful, and what makes you unique is what you bring, and it isn’t trying to sound like somebody else all the time. It’s kind of finding your own voice, and I think that’s what I’m going to tell the people this weekend, that you’ve got to be yourself and be different than the next guy if you want to break through.

I always say that to kids. It’s always good to be inspired. At an early age I was very inspired by Ken Nordine and Dick Orkin. Those are the guys that really inspired me, but again I have to take that inspiration and make it my own and make it Matt Bisbee and not Ken Nordine and not Dick Orkin. I’ve got to make it me. And once you do that, I think then you find that voice, and then people respond to you, because you don’t want to sound like everybody else.

JV: Twenty six years at one station — what advice might you give someone on being able to maintain that kind of longevity? Do you credit that to the station being such a great place with great management, or is there something that you had to contribute to that as well?
Matt: I would say both. I think great management is very important in making a station successful. The people walking the hallways are the ones who are really responsible for the success. That’s why I really don’t like seeing stations with just a computer and nobody in the studio. I think that’s really deadly for a radio station — having no stationality, having nobody walking the halls as a face in the place. I think that’s really important. I could work out of my house — and I do have a studio in my house that I do work out of every day — but I prefer to come downtown and be a part of the station because when you have different people and different characters walking the halls, it brings that feel and that spirit that you really need to make a successful radio station. I learned that early on.

When we had The Loop and we were so successful, we had Jimmy de Castro, who’s a very charismatic salesman type of guy. He was our General Manager. And we had Larry Wert who was a very charismatic guy who’s now the station manager of NBC Chicago. These guys were stars as well as the on-air talent. We would go to promotions and people knew Jimmy de Castro. Listeners knew Larry Wert. These guys were stars just as well as the jocks.

I would say that the secret for me for longevity is to do what the salesperson wants. Don’t get confrontational. Even though there are days that they can drive you crazy with their demands, it’s not usually them; it’s sometimes the client who doesn’t understand. I always try to maintain a certain level of decorum with the sales department and their demands. Sure, I can get it on for you in 10 minutes, don’t worry about it, just give me the copy, and then they leave. They leave the studio and then you go to work. I’m able to churn and burn a lot of production, and early on I said to myself, if I can do that many pieces of production a day, I’m going to be employed because no one’s going to F with me, basically. The management’s not going to bother me, salespeople aren’t going to bother me, in fact sales is going to go tell management what a great guy I am.

So I use that as my ammunition and just say, “Yeah, bring it on. Give me 100 pieces of production. I’m going to bang it out, watch.” And I would. People were always amazed that I was able to do that. But I think I always had a work ethic ever since I was a kid. I had a paper route. I was working at a pizza parlor. I worked in a factory. I never didn’t have a job. So I kind of brought that mentality into the radio station, that I’m going to work and I’m going to work really hard.

I still get a kick out of Greg Solk, who’s the Vice President of Programming for Bonneville; he’ll come to me and say, “Hey, we’re going to put a station on tomorrow, can you have it ready for me?” I’ll go, “Yeah, what do you want me to do?” “Okay we’re going to start a format in St. Louis, and we’re going to need it on the air tomorrow at three. Here’s what I need from you.” And I’ll go in the studio and bang out 100 pieces of production to get it on the air. For me that’s kind of a challenge and a thrill, and I still kind of have that mentality to this day.

So I think the reason I’ve lasted over 30 years in the production studio is that I’m accommodating, I’m not confrontational, I’m easy going, and I’m trying to be fun. I think I’m a fun person to work with, and I think that’s why I’ve lasted so long. I’m also going to tell that to the students when I talk to them this weekend.

JV: Did you or do you find yourself having to pull back on the quality of work that you churn out just to get the quantity out there?
Matt: Yeah, sometimes I’ll do a promo that I’m not really happy with. I tend, as all production guys do, to be anal — you want it to be perfect, you want it to be great — but I’ve tended to let that go over the years. I’ll do a promo and just kind of let it go. I don’t try to over-think it, and usually those are the ones that end up being most remembered — the funnier, longer-lasting promos — the ones that I let go of quicker. The ones that I kind of tweak too much, which I tend to do, I think those tend to be so tightly constructed that they lose their luster.

One of the promos that I did over the years that people still talk about is a promo I must have done in less than 5 minutes, and I’m being totally serious. I had an Ozzie Osborne interview that Pete McMurray had cut at a hotel room. He brought it back, and as you obviously know, Ozzie doesn’t make much sense when he talks. So I took all the outtakes of the really inaudible responses that you couldn’t understand, all the slurring and the mumbling, and I cut them up really fast. There were about 5 or 6 of them, responses where he would just go [mumbles], and with them I did this Christmas promo. I was saying, “This Christmas, Ozzie Osborne wants to say Happy Holidays,” and he would mumble, and then I would have another response, and it just built itself in minutes. I put it on the air and people were going crazy, and they still want to hear it.

So sometimes those quick promos that you don’t even think about, those promos that you let go of, are the best ones.

JV: Any final thoughts before we let you go?
Matt: I would like to thank all of the Production Directors I’ve ever worked with, that I still work with. All these great production guys are so inspirational, and it helped me along the way. It’s not all about me. It’s really other people that have influenced me along the way. This is not all my doing. It’s other people that have really been instrumental in helping me — the people like Dave Logan who took me under his wing. To this day I work with a guy over at the Mix, Steve McKenzie, who is a really talented production guy. He’s a young guy, much younger than me, but he’s very good. And Tom Couch here at The Drive. Tom has worked with tons of different people in New York and at WXRT here in Chicago. All these other guys really help you along the way, and you don’t even realize it but they really do. It’s not all about me; it’s really other people that have helped me and teach me stuff every day. You never want to stop learning, and you learn from other people.

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  • The R.A.P. Cassette - May 1994

    Production demo from interview subject Tom Sandman while at WRRM-FM, Cincinnati; plus imaging, commercials and promos from CHEZ Ottawa, WJMK...