Jerry Rohira, Producer, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, New York, NY
We recently came across a piece of audio circulating the net entitled “What Is Radio Imaging?” Maybe you’ve already heard it. Maybe not. It was never meant to leave the confines of Sirius/XM… but it did. It’s quite a piece of work, done by Jerry Rohira, one of five imaging producers at the satellite facility. Give the track a listen on this month’s RAP CD. That should be enough to get you to stop whatever else you were doing and read this month’s RAP Interview from beginning to end.
JV: How did it all start for you?
Jerry: I went to school. I was in pre-med for about a semester or so, and I did pretty well. I was like a 3.5 and above before I decided to get out of it altogether because it just wasn’t for me. Growing up in an Indian household – because both my parents are from India – it was, “Be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, or you’re out of the family,” that type of thing. So I went to school thinking that’s all there was, and it just wasn’t for me. After a semester of it, I was like, “Forget this. I’m out of here.” I dropped out, and my parents basically said, “Well, fine. If you’re going to be one of those guys, then go earn your way.” I applied at this construction company and dug ditches for about six months, and then after about six months of that, I was like, “Well this definitely isn’t for me, either.”
I bolted and went to Sam’s Wholesale Club, where a cousin of mine was changing tires and doing batteries and stuff like that. He said there was an opening so I took the little entrance exam, which they actually have, which his weird -- I guess it’s to see if you can change a tire or a battery. I didn’t blow anything up so I got the job. I did that for about six months, and then I realized that a whole year of my life was gone and I hadn’t done anything. I went back to school and my parents said, “Well, go back to school and we’ll pay for it. Just do whatever you want to do, as long as you graduate.” So I thought, while I’m trying to figure everything out, I’ll just minor in communications because that seems pretty easy. Everybody seems to think that’s a blow-off, jerk-off class, so I’ll just take that.
This was in late ’98 back in Houston, Texas. I remember it was late ’98 because I think it was around Christmastime when they said, “You have to intern in order to get credit for the course.” I was like, “What the hell am I going to do?” That same day, they had a course on radio and I thought, “All right, let’s see what this is,” because I’m all about music. I’ve been playing music and doing something musical since I was in fifth grade. They touched on Stern, and that’s all they really did. It was like a three-hour course, and all they did was touch on Stern. I thought, “Well, that’s stuff I already know. I’ve seen the movie. I know what he’s about.” I said, “What the hell? Let me try it out.”
I was a big fan of the show Frazier, so I asked, “Can I do what that chick does, answer phones? She’s a producer. That’s what the dude calls her on the radio. I can swing that.” I called all the radio stations, the Christian station, the Top 40 station, the alternative station -- I even called a couple newspapers as a backup. Well, the alternative station, The Buzz, picked me up. It’s now Clear Channel, 94.5 The Buzz. I showed up for my interview three hours early because I was totally geeked. I thought it was kind of cool that I’d be at the rock station because I was sort of a rock guy. I wanted to see what this was all about, so I showed up three hours early. I see the guy come in and leave. I had no idea that was the guy I was going to be talking to. He comes back in after his lunch and he’s like, “Are you here for the interview, man?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been here since 2:00.” It’s about 5:00 by then. So he says, “C’mon back. Let’s do this. It’ll take ten seconds.” We went back and he told me about production, and I was thinking, this doesn’t seem like anything I was signing up for. I don’t know if this is what I was looking for.” I was like, “What department is this?” He goes, “It’s programming.” I go, “Well, where would one go to be a producer?” He goes, “This is one of the producing things.” I wasn’t really too sure what the hell he was talking about, but I figured I’d just see where this goes.
I started off doing dubs and stuff and just lived at the radio station. My parents would wonder where the hell I was. I was working for free. I didn’t care about that. I found what it is I wanted to do. I took a whopping $8.00 an hour and worked like that for 18 months until I got a full-time job at $20,000 a year, doing assistant production stuff, like dubbing in spots and occasionally voicing a tag or something. I just kept doing that and didn’t really care about how much money my buddies were making and how they were excelling as chemical engineers and all this stuff. I was having a blast with my life. Finally, I was having some fun. The flipside to that was, as you know, when you’re having fun at whatever you do, you excel at it, and that’s exactly what I did. I just took off. Anything that anybody needed done, I was there. If it was IT, if it was broadcast maintenance, if it was just board-oping, I was there.
The next thing you know, they started hearing my voice on tags and stuff and said, “Do you want to do an overnight shift?” I started doing that and doing more tags, doing more things, and built myself up. Then, John Diego, the guy who was doing the imaging, bailed out because he wanted to get some more coins somewhere else. The PD offered me the gig. I took it.
Imaging seemed pretty intimidating, coming from the commercial world and trying to build these really cool, edgy, sound-driven, funny, wacka-wacka-doodle-doodle pieces of production. It took me about three hours to do my first promo. I still remember it. I don’t know where it is though. Every once in a while, whenever I get really, really drunk and stumble across something and fall on the floor on my face, I usually find it on the floor in the back somewhere. I play it, and it’s just painful. It’s painful how I put that thing together.
John is a really cool guy. I still talk to him nowadays. He even does voice for one of the stations here. I love him to death, but he didn’t show me squat. He just said, “Well, that’s Pro Tools. I’ll see you later.” I’m like, “What do you mean that’s Pro Tools? What the hell?” It was so intimidating. After using it day in and day out, over and over and over and over, you become pretty proficient at it, so I sort of picked up that all by myself.
I didn’t really know I had a knack for writing or doing anything comedic, but as I kept doing the same thing over and over, redundancy just caused me to think outside the box. When I started getting positive feedback for what I was doing, it was just more fuel to the fire. I just went at it even harder. Anything and everything was a bit to me. I couldn’t watch movies without thinking about what to do here, what to with this or that. I couldn’t sit on the train without writing on my arm or just picking up a piece of paper off the ground and scribbling down an idea. There would be times when I would wake up at 2:00 in the morning and write down a bit because I had the idea or I dreamt it or something. I’d wake up later in the morning and be like, “What was I smoking when I wrote that down?”
I immersed myself in it, and didn’t want to do anything else. I couldn’t explain what exactly I was doing at the station to my parents because they didn’t really get it, but they knew I was employed and it was legal, and that was good enough for them. They were happy, and I was like, “Cool. I don’t have to be Dr. Rohira.”
JV:How long were you at this station?
Jerry:I was at The Buzz from ’99 until about 2004, starting with my internship. Towards 2004 or so, I was doing middays on The Buzz, I was doing the imaging for The Buzz, and I was also doing imaging for the CHR station, The Mix. I was doing all those at the same time, and at that point I had acquired another alternative station in Sarasota, Florida, also The Buzz. It’s was all Clear Channel, very incestuous, obviously. I was getting my feet wet with freelance, and was sort of getting wet behind the ears with voicing stuff, although they thought I didn’t have the chops to voice anything, and at the time, I’m sure they had some valid points. I was eager to try anything and everything, whether it be a voice or to do a character or be the actual main station voice. I wanted to try it. I knew I could do it. I knew that I could imitate anybody. If I heard some sort of inflection that I wasn’t getting down, all I needed was one person to say it and then I would get it and learn from that.
JV: Where did you go next?
Jerry:From there, Mitch Todd got wind of my work. Mitch is Senior Director of Music Production and Marketing at Sirius. I think he got wind of it through one of my old co-workers. He reached out to me out of nowhere and was like, “Hey, I heard you’re not bad at what you do.” I’m like, “Who is this guy?” He sent out some crazy requests like, “Well, I need you to make some sweeps as a demo. I want to see how you can do it. Take your time with it. Do it whenever you want at your leisure and then send it back to me,” when, in fact, he’s really testing me to see how fast I can do it, how well I can do it, and how soon it gets back to him. I had it done within 30 to 40 minutes and sent it off to him. About two or three weeks later, I was up in New York for the interview. They put me up in a nice hotel. I was there for like a week and came back down. We went back and forth on money and here I am.
JV:What were you hired to do?
Jerry:I was hired to do imaging for essentially all the rock stations. I did the classic rock, the indie rock, the college rock, the heavy metal, the pure hard rock, like your triple A stuff. I basically did all the rock formats at Sirius, more of the mainstream stuff. We have our niche channels, like the Bruce Springsteen channel and the Grateful Dead, and the hippie channels and stuff like that, but I was more geared towards the mainstream stuff. Once that sort of took off, they started giving me some other stuff to do -- “Why don’t you try your hand at hip-hop?” because we launched the Shade 45 station. I kicked major ass at that because I was like, “Well this is Eminem and I can do whatever the hell I want.” I pushed the envelope. I had some pretty wacky stuff out there, produced some pretty raunchy stuff that they were cool with.
From that, they tested me on dance stuff and break beats, and stuff like that, like Chemical Brothers and Crystal Method. That was just more musical manipulation, and I went to town on that stuff because that’s just basically mixing, and instead of using two turntables, I had a full Pro Tools rig, so I took that to school. Then after that, they sort of said, “Well, why don’t you try some other stuff?” So I branched out into Sinatra, which I’m the voice of now, and I’m producing that. I’m doing Reggae stuff now. I did Elvis radio not too long ago. I’m still doing the rock stuff because that’s my foundation, that’s my sandbox, and that’s where I like to have most of my fun. I’ve done everything from CHR to Nascar. I’ve even done some Latino stuff. I don’t know what the hell they’re saying, but as long as I have a translator behind me, anything is possible.
JV:You did Stern for a while, didn’t you?
Jerry:Yeah. About a year after I got hired, Stern left terrestrial radio. They were all talking about who’s going to be doing it and this and that. I was really geeked on it because it’s a big deal. This guy at the station, Walter Sabo, who’s a consultant, he tapped me for the gig, but it wasn’t fair to all the other guys that wanted it too, so we all had to try out for it. Even though I’d already made a little demo piece, about five of us all tried out for it anyway, and I still got the job. I launched Stern on Sirius.
Then, about a year later in October, I quit Stern and came back to the music side. Once I left Stern and went to the music side, that’s when I got most of my hardcore big responsibilities. Like now, I’ll write stuff for marketing, I do big initiatives for the company for the president, Scott Greenstein, whenever he wants something. He’s big into the Swedish initiative, the music there. He has this little show called Nordic Rox. I had to build the imaging package for that as well. Once I left Stern, it sort of opened up a whole lot of doors for me because it showed people that, “Wow, this little brown kid can really do a lot more than just rock-and-roll.”
That’s also the really great thing about Sirius. When I was working for Clear Channel and just doing little radio stations here and there, I was only doing one format. I didn’t really have the chance to spread my wings. Coming to Sirius and trying different formats, not to mention dealing with your fellow producers and brainstorming, showing each other tricks and stuff, and just learning from one another, that was like my master’s education. That’s exactly what I needed to really help me grow. I could not have learned as much if I was in a terrestrial market somewhere, piddling around doing weekend promos and sweepers here and there.
The force that is Sirius, the amount of work, also trains you. It forces you to think, “Well, I just did this ten times in a row on this last batch of sweepers. What do I do differently to make my stuff sound different?” You are forced to think, not because you have to or even because you want to; it’s because you can’t afford to have all your stuff sound the same. You have to do something that differentiates one piece from another. The amount of work that this company demands out of you, the quantity as well as quality, as well as the talent that we have there -- which is a pretty good roster of guys and girls -- all those things play together and really help me to grow and learn. And as long as you keep thinking that no matter how good you are there’s always somebody better out there, you’ll always learn. I’m trying never to hit that glass ceiling.
JV:Sounds like a lot of work. How many hours would you say you’re putting in, or had put in on the average over the past years?
Jerry:It sort of varies. You have your set 40, obviously, but depending on what Mitch needs or what the company needs, I’ll put it in whatever it is. There are days when I’ll stay until 8:00 or 9:00, getting in at 8:00 in the morning. There were days when I was working on Stern that would be a 9:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night thing.
I remember when Stern had Sam Simon come up – Sam is one of the creators of The Simpsons. Apparently, they’re really good friends. Sam wrote up a radio drama for the Stern channels when he first started, because everything was full swing and we wanted to hit everybody in the face with a baseball bat. He came in, and it was me and Sam and his assistant, Collin, after they recorded all the parts from all the characters in the Stern show. I’d get in at 9:00 in the morning, bang out as much as I could for the Stern show and the channels, respectively, to keep them maintained on the air, and then we would focus on “The Bitter Half.” The Bitter Half was the name of the show. We would work on that until about 6:00 at night. Thank God Sam was a big pet lover because I would tell him, “Look, I’ve got to bounce and go home and walk my dog,” and he was like, “All right. I’ll see you back here in about an hour and a half.” I’m like, “Oh, shit.” I’d come home, walk my puppies, and just bolt right back to the station and stay there until like 11:00 at night; then go home, crash, and then go right back. That went on for a couple months.
It wears on you, yeah, like it would on anybody, but when you really love it, it doesn’t matter because that’s really my bag, the whole sound design thing --building stage presence and building the sound design of a play, of a piece of production, of a movie. Doing the whole Theater of the Mind thing, that’s exactly why I love this. It’s great to be able to do that kind of thing.
JV:What made you decide to produce the piece, “What is Radio Imaging?”
Jerry:Mitch sort of likes my wacky sensibility, as he’s told me several times. He said that with this new merger, he wanted to basically have something to play for the XM people. It wasn’t like a bragging thing. I think he said he just wanted to show them what we could do. He said it was also for schools and stuff, like when we have tours that come by. There’ll be a tour that’ll stop by and they’re like, “And this is Jerry. Jerry’s pretty wacky.” They come by my office to hear some really wacked out stuff. Everybody gets a nice little chuckle when they hear it, but they still don’t know what the hell it is. They’ll ask, “Well, how do you sit down and do that? What the hell is it about? How do you know what to do? What do you start off with?”
So Mitch asked me to, “…make something that explains what we do. Make sure that it can explain it to a random audience, someone who knows nothing about radio, but at the same time don’t make it patronizing to the people who have been in the industry. Have some underlying jokes in it, kind of like The Simpsons.” The first time you watch The Simpsons, you get all the main jokes that hit you in the face. But if you’re an avid Simpsons fan and you keep watching the reruns over and over again, you pick up things that you didn’t catch the first time. That was my task, and he didn’t really tell me what to do or how to do it. He just said, “These are the things that I want in there,” and it really wasn’t a whole lot. He said, “Make sure it does this, make sure it does this, and make sure it does this. Whatever else, you do it. I want you to have creative freedom.” That was great because at the time, I was sort of feeling a little stagnant, and he really ignited something in me that was sort of sitting there burning, waiting to be released.
Mitch wanted something to send out to colleges, certain people and organizations that are interested in what radio imaging is. What I did with it wasn’t necessarily a Sirius sanctioned piece. It really had nothing to do with Sirius, and there were some things in there that Sirius XM wouldn’t necessarily hang their hat on. They were a little off-color and a little too edgy, I think; and we’ll probably tweak it a little bit before we present it to tours and such. But for my particular purpose, I think it got the point across.
JV:How long did it take you to put that together?
Jerry:I got together with a buddy of mine. His name is Danny McHatton. He’s actually a really good buddy of mine from high school back in Houston. He works at an ad agency here in town, in Manhattan, and he’s a really good copywriter. So I said, “Look, man, why don’t you get together with me on this?” I could have written it on my own, but I thought it’d be good to brainstorm with an old friend, plus I was also trying to find him a job. He came in the Saturday before I went in, which was on a Sunday. We bought a six-pack and put the TV on. My girl was here. We were shooting ideas around, typing stuff out. We wrote it in about three hours or so, and then I went into work the next day and voiced it and produced it. I did the first rough pass in about four hours.
The very next day, which was a workday, I went in with fresh ears and kind of listened to it and said, well I need to punch this up, or I need to have real actual listeners here. I had a few placeholders because I went in on a Sunday and no one was there. I probably spent maybe about another hour or so on it on Monday, and by then it was pretty much complete.
JV:Yes, you’re good… and fast. In that project, you put into audio probably the best definition of radio imaging I’ve heard. If you had to put it into words, how would you define good radio imaging?
Jerry:I would say good radio imaging paints a picture with your eyes closed. Close your eyes, and you can see exactly what I’m talking about. I say good radio imaging is something that makes you laugh, or something that even makes you cry, something that invokes an emotion, as well as delivers a message once you’re done with it. I want to laugh about something and still know that I was watching a Budweiser commercial. I want to laugh at something and still know that that was an Axe deodorant commercial. Those are examples of effective commercial imaging that I see on TV. That’s exactly what I’m trying to do in radio. And it’s so difficult, with cars going by, kids screaming in the back, and people not really interested in what’s going on on the radio. But if I can hook them in and get something out of them, then I think I’ve accomplished something.
JV:How does imaging a satellite format differ from imaging a traditional terrestrial station?
Jerry:Oh man, the creative boundaries are limitless. You’re only limited by your imagination. That’s it. I mean if you can think it, you can do it. That’s pretty much the one major difference and best thing about it. For me personally, as an imaging guy working at Sirius XM radio, nothing is too out there. If you said something like, “Kill the Pope,” yeah, that’s a little rough; but you can throw out some pretty wacky shit, and somewhere, on some wall, it sticks. Somewhere in that building, it’ll stick. It may be something that’s really funny that’ll never make air, but that one freaking person who heard it still remembers it.
JV:Are there mandates to keep imaging material under certain lengths?
Jerry:Yeah, as I think there should be actually, because at some point, if it gets to be too long and cumbersome, then it almost sounds like a commercial. That’s one big thing that we’re trying to avoid, making it sound like a commercial, because you get enough of that on terrestrial radio. The best thing we can try and do is try and keep it short, succinct, have a message and still be creative at the same time. Now there are exceptions to the rule, like if you have an amazing piece that’s just intense and so dynamic that it comes in and out and it’s still really funny. If it’s great, well produced sound design, then that’s where we say, if it feels short, then we’ll go with it; if it feels like it moves but it’s a little long, it’s okay.
JV:I take it you don’t feel limited by time restrictions really.
Jerry:To some extent I do just because, as any radio guy would like to, I’d like to image a whole hour and just go crazy and take people through a crazy Alice-in-Wonderland kind of ride, but you really can’t. These parameters – I’d rather use parameters than restrictions – that they put on you, force you to think within those parameters but yet outside the box. It’s like, “Well shoot, I’ve got 20 seconds to say all this crap and how do I get it in there? Screw it; I’ll say it in Chinese.” Make people go, “What the hell is this?” and then you have a little translation at the end and the listener goes, “Some douche bag told me to go slap my mom’s ass in Chinese! Weird!”
JV:What would you consider to be some of your best tools for imaging?
Jerry:My best tools are my brain and my voice. I’ve been told that there’s no box near me at all. I guess that sort of means that I always think outside the box, and that’s great because I’m learning that there are a lot of people who are just robots in this industry. They’re robots and they’re just re-purposing the same thing. I know there’s nothing original out there anymore, but I don’t see why you can’t take something that’s already done and add to it, take something away from it, make it sound completely different rather than just taking a John Frost piece. I mean, he’s a genius; he was the guy that I looked up to when I first started. Even now, I still look up to him. But I hear these kids out there who are basically taking his stuff, dropping in their call letters and then claiming it as their own. It’s like, “Dude, it’s not yours. It’s not original. You’re not even trying.” I think because Frost and Eric Chase and those guys are so damn good, that people want that, and all they really need is a monkey to sort of put it together. That’s where Sirius is kind of privileged, to have guys who are really good at what they do and are really passionate about what they do so that they’ll try and create the originality that’s sort of lacking out there.
JV:What would you say are some of your best sources for getting the creative juices flowing?
Jerry:Beer. Staying up really late at night. A nice bottle of Jack. My dogs. The sunrise, sunsets, watching The Office, and sometimes even just talking to my girl. Oddly enough, most of my ideas come when I’m falling asleep or in the middle of the night. There have been more times that I wake up and I’m like, “Oh, that’s genius. What a great idea.” In fact, the Don LaFontaine reference I had in that piece came to me at like 4:00 in the morning. I just rose out of bed and my girlfriend was like, “Is everything all right?” I said, “I’ve got to write this down. It’s a great way to get across a point to the radio professionals out there so they’re not patronized by what I’m about to do to them.” Of course, a lot of it will come from in the office, bouncing off of people. Again, that’s another valuable resource that you really can’t get in terrestrial radio because you’re only with one imaging guy.
Sadly enough, and I hate to say it, but I talked to some buddies who work in a cluster with other imaging guys; they say it’s more cutthroat than it is constructive. It’s more like, “I don’t want to show you my stuff because you’re going to steal it and you’re going to purpose it for this or that.” At Sirius it’s great. There’s only one alternative station. There are only a couple rock stations that do a certain thing, so it’s like no one’s going to infringe on that. No one is going to steal your ideas there. It’s a free-for-all. We throw our stuff out there, and amongst five imaging guys, how can you go wrong? I mean, you’ve got five minds there cranking stuff out left and right, writing ideas down, then you go back and whittle it down into some sort of masterpiece.
JV:You sound like you have a lot to do and a great passion for turning out very creative work. How do you balance the demands for the quantity and your desire to create excellent imaging?
Jerry:That’s a very fine line, actually, between quality and quantity. As any production guy or any creative person will tell you, you start off and at some point you start to dwindle. I like to take breaks. I’ll go outside and smoke a cigarette or something. I also like to mess around with people. Like Mitch’s birthday was a little while ago, and a bunch of us took ten minutes and just covered his entire office, including him, with Silly String. We’d take old cheese and mix it up and stick it in his office somewhere in the back. It’ll just sit there for weeks and soon they’re saying, “What the hell is that smell?” It’s things like that that take my mind away from the work, that help me deal with the work and be more creative when it’s time for me to sit right back down and do it again. I’m laughing, I’m having a good time and I’m like, “All right. I’ve got the juices flowing.” Next thing you know, I’m cranking out some more stuff.
You also try to balance it out. That’s another great thing about Sirius is that when you’ve got seven or eight radio stations that are all different formats, I’ll do three pieces here for this one thing, three pieces here for another thing, three pieces here for another thing, and switch before I get too burned out on one format, and then come back and do it all over again until the quota has been met or the requirements are met. Then, they’ve got 15 really great pieces. Rather than 15 really great pieces done in one day, you get 15 great pieces done over the span of a week.
JV:You started your career in production as an intern. What would you say to an intern that wanted to follow your footsteps as an imaging producer, to get them on the fast track to a successful career?
Jerry:If you don’t love it, don’t do it. If you’re there for the pussy, if you’re there for the free tickets, if you’re there for the fame, I think you’re in it for the wrong reasons. If you don’t love it, then you’re not going to have as much fun as you really could if you were balls-to-the-wall, willing to do it for free, willing to do it for barely anything, 24 hours a day nonstop, seven days a week. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. I think that rule applies to any job. I would say that to anybody, any young person wanting to come from schooling into the professional world: If you don’t love it, don’t do it.
JV:You mentioned freelance. Are you still offering your services on a freelance basis?
Jerry:Yes, I am. Currently, I’m voicing a station in Denver, KTNI Denver 101.5. I try to tone back some of that because with the workload, when you come home after eight hours of work, who wants to sit around and look at their Pro Tools screen for another four hours? I’m also doing Jack FM up in Seattle. I’m just producing that.
JV:Any final thoughts for our readers?
Jerry:One thing I like to ask any and every imaging guy out there is, “What’s the next big thing?” We’re all doing the same thing over and over again. What’s the next big thing? I’d like to know because I’m sure as hell trying to figure it out. The next big thing in terms of how it went from whatever it was before Frost came along and he just revolutionized the alternative sound. Who’s the next Frost? Is it me? Is it somebody else out there? Who’s going to do it? I’m interested and intrigued and on pins and needles to see what this industry and this medium can do. There’s still so much it can do that hasn’t been tapped yet. I think the only barriers are ourselves.