Kurt Schenk, The Write Creative, Rochester, New York
By Jerry Vigil
Eleven years ago, we touched base with Kurt Schenk, who was getting a handle on a growing cluster of stations in Rochester, NY. Not long after, Kurt exited the stations, took his highly honed skills for cranking out the production, and turned them into a production house aimed at medium to smaller market stations. The Write Creative is doing well in its seventh year, serving clients around the country. The Write Creative produces nearly one thousand spots a month, with turnaround times that would make the average Production Director shiver at the thought. This month, owner Kurt Schenk gives us the tour of this amazing little monster of a production house for the little guys. Due to the 2007 RAP Awards taking up the March RAP CD, we’ve instead posted a demo of work from The Write Creative at www.rapmag.com.
JV: When we last checked in, you were just getting familiar with a new 7 station cluster in Rochester. Where did you go when you left those stations?
Kurt: Well what’s been wonderful is I’ve been able to stay in one market all of my career. After exiting the stations, I stayed here. I’m unusual, I would say, for the profession. It’s nice because all of my family is still here. I hate the snow, but once you get grandfathered into this market, it certainly helps you get all the local voice work and things like that. I don’t have to scramble and fight for that, even though that’s not the big part of our business here at The Write Creative. I would say we’re in a differential between 80% national business and 20% local, and I do some media buying.
But back 11 years ago when we first talked, I was at one of the few standalones left, and we were purchased by Jacor. I went back over to the stations that I used to work for about four years before, WHAM/WVOR, and then they purchased some other stations. They put me on the modern rock and hit stations, and I focused on all the bar ads. That was most of our business so that kept me busy. That and imaging and promos and all the high end, fast-paced production wound up being my focus.
That went on for about another year, almost two, and then I got an offer from a local ad agency. I thought, you know what? I want to do some video editing, and I want to expand my horizons. So I went over there and I hated it. You had to wear a tie every day, you couldn’t walk around in your socks, and cursing out loud was strictly forbidden. Then I got a call from my GM who was still over there at Jacor. He was like, “Please come back, please come back” so I went back and wound up staying there until January 2001 when I was jettisoned, as we should say, for a lot of reasons, which all make sense now.
JV: What was next?
Kurt: I had to really focus on my fledging company called The Write Creative, and that was one of the reasons they were really nice to me when they fired me. I had decided to go part-time at what then was Clear Channel and start building the company. I had kids coming home from school, so I wanted to be there for them. I had become an older Production Director with kids and things to worry about, and I couldn’t always go to the club nights anymore. A lot had changed from the rock and roll days. So I was trying to focus on the company, and I built this studio in my basement right around ’98 to start this idea. I remember thinking, wow, you can send mp3s over the Internet. That would be cool. I could probably send all of my commercials that way.
There weren’t many people in some of the markets that had anything high-speed. We had Roadrunner here in Rochester, but most people were still on dial up. So it was a slow process to get people over to that way of doing business, but I knew something was going to happen eventually with that, so I was building with that in mind.
But over time, when a Program director comes up to you at 2:00 and says, “I need this promo on the air by 5:00” and I say, “You know what? I’ve got to go get my kid” that’s not going to go over too well. So they came in and said, “Look, we’ve got to make some changes,” and I understood. They actually gave me two weeks to clean all my stuff out, so it wasn’t like, “Throw your stuff in a box. Goodbye.” I had accumulated 12 or 13 years over all the years that I’d spent at those stations, so we parted with great respect. It really made me focus on this new company, and I’ve been doing that since 2001 now.
JV: What was that first year on your own like?
Kurt: Terrible. I counted pennies and dimes and nickels and quarters. I was digging cans and bottles out of the trashcans. It was not easy, especially come that September. Business really went to hell after the attack in New York. It was just a bad year to start a business. The business accumulated a lot of debt, and I was just trying to keep my head above water. Somehow I persevered. I had a lot of support from family and friends and a good base of clients. That was enough to keep food on the table at that point, but I kept calling back and checking some of the local groups; and moving out of town still wasn’t an option, so I had to rough it. Thank God my wife had a state job at the time, so things like healthcare were taken care of. Otherwise it would’ve been a total disaster.
I started focusing on going to trade shows and conferences and setting up booths, and that’s how I started really selling the services. I knew I couldn’t be another guy with a microphone because there are 50 million guys with microphones at their home studios, and I don’t have pipes like the Geico guy.
The idea of becoming a full service company that writes and produces, from start to the finish, for medium to small markets, I knew was going to work because I had just left the Clear Channel atmosphere. I knew exactly where they were going, and it was centralizing production, reducing the amount of people to do it, and voice sharing with everyone from market to market. So I knew the medium to large markets wouldn’t need a service like ours. It would be the small markets, and it turned out to be the proper guess.
JV: Was it just you by yourself in the beginning?
Kurt: Yes, it was just me, and I had some friends. There’s an association called the International Idea Bank. They’re an exclusive group of only about 125 owners worldwide and they share ideas — marketing ideas, promotional ideas, production — just between the members, and they keep the group small on purpose. They are medium, and I want to say even small market stations, that are now groups. The groups in small markets have done the same thing the big markets have had to do to reduce cost by pooling their resources. In Geneva near here there’s a seven group cluster, and a big client of ours out in Arizona is a seven group cluster in Lake Havasu. They do the same thing. And they really believe in live radio, local radio, and lots of specs, which isn’t always the case — here in Rochester, I might do five a week. I have a client that demands that their salespeople, for each client, for each meeting, write and produce three commercials. That’s just a way to better close their client.
So that’s where I found the niche, and I started there. Basically, I bought my way into their conferences by advertising, and they were a great springboard to other clients that were not members of that group around the country. It’s really become a matter of word of mouth. Now I get calls like, “Hey, I was just discussing this with so-and-so at such-and-such market; love to hear your work,” and you bust off a sample, show them your rates, and they flip. Then they get the production, it’s top notch, and they’re in. That’s the key. The other key is part of the business plan: I had to keep the production cheap, real cheap.
JV: If you don’t mind, can you give us a ballpark figure on how cheap?
Kurt: Oh, I’ll tell you exactly. A single voice read — and I know all the RAP members are going to cringe — a single voice read is $10. And we’re talking morning guys locally doing the ads. I’ve got a guy at Ohio State Football under contract. I’ve got PDs around the country at unnamed stations doing this. It’s easy work for them. The only thing they’re asked to do is to walk into a studio, bust out two reads, and e-mail it. They don’t have to edit it or anything, and they get a check every month. And my production libraries are buyout for total use.
JV: Wow! You must be dealing in huge volume.
Kurt: Yeah. A bad month is 700 spots; a good month is 800.
JV: The work is out there; local direct is the bulk of what goes down in the small markets.
Kurt: And they do huge volume. I stay in touch with all the local Production Directors here — we’re still great friends — and a busy day for them is, “Whoo boy, I had to do three ads today,” — local ads, write them start to finish, on top of all the dubs and the feeds you’ve got to do. I understand that. I did the job forever. But my day starts at 6:00 and I’ve already got five commercials written by the time I leave the house. I do have another writer and the scripts cost an additional amount of money, so when you start totaling that up, you can see that volume works.
JV: Oh, I thought $10 covered the production, the voice talent, and the script.
Kurt: Oh no. Scripts are extra. A single voice spot fully produced and written is $20. That includes the writing, the music, and the voice. If you send us a script that you’ve written, that’s $10 — still not bad.
JV: When we did our last interview, you were doing some unusual things for a Production Director, like throwing picnics for clients. You were going out of your way to really cater to the client and to make things happen with that commercial when it hit the airwaves. Are you still able to put much effort into taking care of the clients, looking after quality copywriting and quality production?
Kurt: Yeah, none of that’s changed. I’m not in the trenches as much as I used to be, which I miss. All of that, having picnics with clients and me going out on the sales calls, developing relationships and friendships with the clients so they would trust me in what I would create for them to get results, was all steeped in a GM I had in the early ‘90s who said, “All right, Kurt, this is your base salary, and we’re going to pay you 1% of total direct sales on top of that.” So I was on commission, and that was a real motivator. I did pretty well, and to this day I’m still the person to call. Despite all of these commercials and all the producers we have here, my cell phone is there, and I’d rather they call me than the studio line because I’m still policing the whole operation on a daily basis. I’m really more of a quarterback than what I used to be, just the prod guy that the salespeople threw stuff at.
JV: Do you have a number of full time employees?
Kurt: I hire lots of contractors, and they’re part-timers. I also teach intro and advanced production at one of the New York State Universities that’s close by, so every semester we’re staffed with 2 or 3 interns who are very, very good and excellent worker bees who can go through a lot of the rip and read stuff that we get, and that can be very substantial on a daily basis. So it’s kind of nice because I go out there and teach them, and by the time they come out here to do an internship they’re trained on Cool Edit or Adobe Audition. So it’s just a matter of getting them acclimated, and over a couple of weeks they’ve got a great idea of what a good radio ad sounds like. They’re all trained technically. They all have the skills that any production person would have on a digital editor. It’s getting them into the writing and the creation, and once they understand that, I just let them go to town. They do a great job.
JV: I take it you’ve moved out of that basement in the house.
Kurt: Yes, we moved our studios to downtown Rochester. We have about 1200 square feet with two studios and two editing booths. We love it here. And what I’m getting more of now is just studio time work from agencies and direct clients from town locally. That’s easy money too, but I really couldn’t do it without the kids I have here.
And another thing about these kids… What I see happening in local conglomerate radio — and it’s really getting interesting here in Rochester when you get an Entercom buying CBS Infinity, which is unbelievable; we’re down to two groups now — there’s a lot of people getting fired. And as they continue to get lean and mean, the only people they’re hiring more and more are really, really young green announcers. We’re market #54, and in the last year and a half I had six kids that had done internships who are already on the air full-time, in Rochester, Albany, Buffalo, smaller markets like Cornell. I think that’s because at the Clear Channels, the Entercoms, the Citadels, I would say a lot of production people, not all of them, might say, “Boy, I’d like to work with someone young, teaching them, but I don’t have time.” They’re too busy getting their own stuff done. And forget a PD working with a 20-something year old kid. But when they come here, they get worked. They get to work with some of the best talents in western New York who come in here. They get to run the sessions, and over time they may start voicing some stuff. I’ve had some great talents come through here that are young, and boy when they hit the air they’re great. But there’s not many people developing talent anymore. So there’s that aspect and I really enjoy it because you get all these young people around here, and they keep me young.
JV: You mentioned Cool Edit, is that the software in use in your studios?
Kurt: Yes, that’s still our program of choice. I get to test drive all the new stuff at the state college, including Adobe Audition, but it just seemed to be less user friendly and more video friendly. So to teach the college students, I went back to CEP 2.0. For broadcast, it’s user friendly, easy to navigate, and you can to work on it quickly.
JV: Your site mentions a 36-48 hour turn around on scripts and 24 hour turn around, or even same day, on production. That’s fast, especially given the quantity. As you started to grow the company and saw the quantity grow and grow, what things did you unexpectedly discover you had to do to accommodate that work load?
Kurt: I became more technically proficient when I had to build this company, as opposed to when I was a Production Director at a group. I guess what I mean by that is that you can go to your GM or PD and say, “We really need to upgrade this program,” “I need a larger hard drive” or “We need the latest Cool Edit” or whatever program that floats your boat, and you’re not necessarily going to get that. And you also have to work within your group’s infrastructure. When I left Clear Channel, they were still running the sessions between studios on those big, clunky 1 GB Jaz drives. We’re talking 2003. By that time, I had bought the biggest hard drive I could find and mainframed all of our music and sound effects so that no matter what studio you’re in, you’ve got everything at your fingertips. You don’t have to pull in CDs, and it just totally speeds up the process. That was one thing.
In the area of the writing, what surprised me most is that I couldn’t always use a script I wrote for a car dealer in Lenore, North Carolina for Susanville, California. Not always is a good idea on the east coast going to fly on the west coast, or in the Midwest, or down south, or northern Maine. I found that I may reuse an idea, but if I do, I will rewrite every script I pull up. I do have another writer, so it’s not like I’m trying to get that all done by myself because we’re probably doing about 300 scripts a month. But it’s tough to find a campaign that’s going to win hearts and get results all the way across the country. So you have to really be dedicated to freshening up your writing, making sure it doesn’t get stale. It’s good to archive your stuff and pull it out a few years later, but you have to refresh it.
I think the writing was the biggest challenge. The production is sort of like a machine here, I hate to say. Not that we’ve lost any creative art out of it, but in the bulk business there is unfortunately that aspect of the production, depending on the scripts that are sent to us by other people that have written them. It’s not up to us to edit them. What they send you, you produce, and it’s a totally different mindset from what most members of RAP get to do. They can go, “No, this isn’t right.” You can go track down the salesperson and say, “You should try to do this.” With us, a lot of times it’s garbage in, garbage out, unfortunately.
JV: Your clients are the radio stations. So an advertiser who doesn’t like a spot you cut takes his complaint to the salesperson, I assume. Maybe he didn’t like this voice or that music, or can you change this word…. Do you get much of that from the stations? Do you get a lot of picky clients?
Kurt: No more than usual. It’s all relative, but it’s not overwhelming. We’ll get minor tweaks and stuff. If we get to create the ad, if we get to write it, generally it goes over great with just some minor changes, and that’s when I do tell the salesperson, “You know what? Could you get the phone number out of there? You don’t have time for it. You’re just telling somebody to go look in the phonebook. That’s all a phone number in an ad does. Nobody remembers.” It’s still a teaching process for the salespeople. I deal directly with the salespeople every day, so I would liken my job to being a Production Director for over 200 stations every day and working directly with the salespeople.
It is personalized, and the forms we use are forms that I have tweaked over all the years of working directly with local clients. These are real good customer needs analysis forms that force the salesperson to write the stuff down that we need to make a great ad that’s going to be effective. But yeah, sometimes they’ll get picky with the voice — “I didn’t like that female,” “I didn’t like the male,” and in that case we just redo it. We don’t charge until they’re happy.
JV: You mentioned spec spots a while ago. Are you doing a ton of those?
Kurt: Yes, especially in the smaller markets. They really use this as a closing mechanism, and that’s why the smaller market radio stations free up their budget from wherever they’re getting the money from — either programming or sales — to use us because they’re getting more than their money back on closing deals. And we would be exclusive to that station or group in whatever market it is. If it’s Chambersburg, Pennsylvania or Dubois, Pennsylvania or Charleston, Maine, when they lock on to us, they know that they can use us as their selling benefit and they can boast about it too: “Well, the guys across the street, they don’t have the production company out of New York that we have…” and it’s very effective for them.
JV: What’s one of your more difficult challenges these days?
Kurt: Sleep. I might have said that 11 years ago; I thought I worked hard 11 years ago. No way. But I’ve got to tell you, I love it. I never thought that I could still be a Production Director in Rochester making the kind of money I do without worrying about a GM or a PD breathing down my throat. And I would never go back to group radio. If I did ever go back to radio, it would be in one of these smaller markets I do stuff for, because they get it. They get the fact that live on air talent is still the way to go if radio is going to fight all of the intrusions that they have between satellite and Internet and whatever else is going to come their way. I’m seeing it locally; the stations that blow out all of the local jocks that people love and just become a jukebox, their numbers go down. There’s no reason to listen to them. There’s nothing special about them. It’s just music, and you can do better than that with other sources. But in the smaller markets you’ve got your morning guy, you’ve got your midday and your afternoon guy. You’ve probably got some kid from Brockport State doing nights, and people appreciate that. It’s local, and local is the way to go. You know what? It’s funny… these guys in the smaller markets, they drive really nice cars, and they’re going to Puerto Rico in May. They’re doing pretty well. They’re doing very well.
But back to challenges, one is to stay even with everyone else technically, and that includes updating our webpage again this spring. It’s in dire need of that. Offering more things, like using more FTP sites as opposed to e-mail, speeding up the delivery. It’s also a challenge to continue to be able to turn around a very good ad very fast, very cheap, and that’s what we have to do because there are a lot of companies doing what we do in the bulk business. But it’s funny, two of my competitors outsource to us because we’re good, and I’m proud of it and I will tell anybody we’re that good.
What I would like to do more of is imaging and make that more of a profit center. We don’t seem to get much request for that, but I think we’ve got all the other bases covered. And then in 5-10 years I’d like to sell it and move to Texas where it’s warm!
JV: With 700-800 spots a month going through there, are you able to turn out a decent percentage of creative spots that tell a story or that touch an emotion or have multiple voices or sound effects, as opposed to the one-voice laundry list type of spots?
Kurt: When we have control from start to finish, yes, because it’s my call or it’s Dave Bell’s call, the other writer. Yes, I can get creative. Whether I take that opportunity or not is another story. Many times I will try to be creative only with certain clients — and again I bring some regionality and some psychographics into this. Northern Maine is tough. They’re very set in their ways, and if I try to get creative in any way or form, it usually gets shot down. So after a year and a half of that – I hate to admit it — it’s not the stuff I’d like to be doing. It sounds good. They’re telling me it’s getting results. I have a hard time believing that, but they’re a great client and we’re happy working for them and they say we’re doing a great job. But then there will be other clients that expect a lot more out of us. For those, I’ve got to step up to the pump. I can’t just do a rip and read or bad radio theater.
JV: What percentage of the commercials would you say are above average in their creativity, above what we might expect from the pen of the average small market salesperson?
Kurt: If we’re doing them, 50%. And not that all salespeople can’t write. My feeling is they should be out selling anyway. But I’ll tell you what, one of our clients in Springfield, that’s a Citadel station, they send us some stuff that is great, and I love doing their production. You can tell who’s been trained in their copywriting and who hasn’t. Those guys have been trained. But yeah, we see a lot of drivel come through. But if I get to get my hands on it, I’ve got a couple of days. That’s why I say 36-48 hour turnaround on the copy. The writing is the longest process because I don’t regurgitate stuff. I try to take a new, fresh approach on everything, whether I’m fooling myself that it’s fresh or not. But in my mind that day, whether I’m watching something on TV and get an idea there or I pull something out of USA Today, if I can get my hands on it I think we’ve got a good shot at making something really special that the salesperson is going to take to the client and close the deal with.
I think that’s our biggest role right now; we’re the deal closers. A lot of people do use us strictly as a production house. We have one client that uses us just as a production house, and I’d say they alone do about 250-275 spots a month. And this will frighten all your RAP members: they have a 5 or 6 station group, and they have one production person. What they do is they hire three, maybe four production companies, and they outsource everything. Then that one production person just oversees it. They’re very automated, and once you post something on the FTP it goes straight to the salesperson’s computer or it goes to the on-air studio. You just don’t need people.
JV: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned about running your own business?
Kurt: Enjoy it because it’ll be hard work. Never get into an argument even if you’re right. Be politically correct when you’re dealing with your clients, even if they’re wrong because if they’re not a client tomorrow I’m sure they’ll be a client six months from now or a year from now. They tend to come back. They’re like driftwood. Try to incorporate other people that bring ideas to your business. A lot of the procedures that I have incorporated within to make us faster and more effective have come from some of my producers who just bring up an idea, “Hey, you should do it this way” and you go, “That’s a pretty good idea” and then you try it and, wow, it’s running better. And remember that you work with the same 50 people in your life in radio, so never burn a bridge.
One thing I will say is now I know why all my GMs used to stand by the door and watch the mail as it came in, looking for those checks. Now I know why… cash flow.
But I’m having a great time. That’s the key. I can’t imagine doing anything else but writing scripts and talking into a microphone.