"Sideshow" Mike Andersen, Network Image Producer, Triple M, Sydney, Australia
By Jerry Vigil
Each year we try to shine the spotlight on at least one individual who stood out in that year’s Radio And Production Awards competition. This year, that person was “Sideshow” Mike Andersen, imaging producer at Austereo’s Triple M in Sydney, Australia. Mike picked up the winner’s trophy and a runner-up prize in the Feature Productions category, and a winner’s trophy in the Large Market Promo category. This month’s RAP Interview introduces you to this awesome talent down under as we get the inside story on his winning entries and take a close look at his amazing run of fifteen years at Triple M. What you’ll probably find most amazing is Mike’s daily task list for imaging the station, which doesn’t come from programmers down the hall or in some corporate programming office. He creates it himself. Check out this month’s RAP CD for an encore presentation of Mike’s winning entries along with Mike’s latest production demo.
JV: When and how did you get started in radio, and what were some of the stops along the way to Triple M?
Mike: I started out as a writer, writing ads in 1993. Originally, I wanted to get into advertising, but when I couldn’t get the marks to get into university, I did work experience at a Country radio station and figured out that I actually liked it. So I started out as writer at a Country radio station in Taree, which is about three hours north of Sydney. I was there for five months as a copywriter when I got another job in Wollongong, which is an hour south of Sydney. This was as a copywriter position as well, and that was still in ’93. This was at a place called Wave FM. While I was there I figured out that I might want to get into production. So I started getting into the studio on the weekends and just mucking around a bit and got good enough to get a demo tape together to send to my next radio station, which was Coast Rock FM. I was there at Coast Rock for 5 months before I eventually came to Triple M, where I am now, and I got here in 1995.
JV: Wow, you found yourself at Triple M after just two years in the business?
Mike: Yeah, I think I got lucky. I don’t know, maybe I had a couple of cool things on my demo tape and the guy who was the image producer at the time must’ve seen some kind of potential. But listening back to my old stuff, it was pretty terrible. I got a job producing commercials and then just moved my way up into the imaging spot.
JV: Fifteen years at Triple M. That’s quite a run. Tell us a bit more about the transition from commercial producer to imaging?
Mike: I was doing commercials for maybe 18 months, and then we had this new breakfast show start, and they wanted a new producer to start with that. So I started in ’97 doing breakfast production. It was when I was doing breakfast imaging that I really started figuring out what I really wanted to do. I was having fun with it and basically started my own kind of sound. I did that for about 6 years and then moved into imaging the station, and I’ve probably been doing that for about ten years because there was a bit of crossover during the transition.
JV: How’s Triple M doing in the ratings?
Mike: We’re on the way back. For those that may not know Triple M’s history, Triple M’s pretty much the most famous radio brand in Australia and especially in Sydney. During the eighties and nineties we were Number 1 by miles and just a massive Rock station. Then in the last ten years or so, over constant format changes, the ratings have dropped off to the point where last year we were pretty much dead last. This year we’ve got everything all kind of back to how it used to be. We’ve got a kick-ass breakfast show, we’re playing really credible rock music again, all the imaging sounds cool, we’ve got great young producers and everything’s sounding cool. So we’re slowly clawing our way back. I think in December we were Number 13 in the ratings and now we’re back up to like number 6. We’re having a great year, and it’s Triple M’s 30th year, so it’s a massive, massive year for the station.
JV: Tell us about some of the format changes over the years.
Mike: Pretty much every three months. I think we were the All-New Triple M twice. We had a period in ’96 where we played Dance music and that lasted for literally 3 months. In 2007, I think it was, we switched to a really modern kind of format – still Rock but poppy, verging on dancey stuff -- a really pop, young Modern Rock. Then we flipped back to just Classic Rock and New Rock. All we play now is just really credible rock artists, just the bands who you grew up, the bands whose albums you have every one of.
JV: About how many stations are there in Sydney?
Mike: I think there are about 13. There’s only really six or seven that we compete with on the FM band.
JV: In the States, a market the size of Sydney would have 3 times that many stations. Why are there not a lot more radio stations in Sydney?
Mike: I guess it’s because they haven’t allowed the licenses to be released, the new radio licenses.
JV: Are the regulations such that Austereo can only own one or two or three radio stations in that market?
Mike: Yes, just two. We have Triple M and Today FM.
JV: How did the name “Sideshow” come about?
Mike: That came from when I worked on the breakfast show. The Andrew Denton Breakfast Show was a show that went for about five or six years here in Sydney, and we had a producer working on the show– his name was Richard Mortlock but he had crazy hair like Krusty the Clown. So, he initially became known as Krusty, and I guess at the time I was a bit like his sidekick or always around next to him. So, I became Sideshow and it stuck.
JV: There has been some awesome production talent go through Triple M over the years. What are some of the names that came before you?
Mike: Well, the biggest legend that’s come out of Triple M that is probably known worldwide is Jeff Thomas. He’s one guy whose work is such that you aim to achieve that kind of sound one day, to understand his level thought, what he thinks about when he mixes stuff. He’s insane. I’d rate him as probably the best in the world.
Then there’s the original image producer who hired me; his name is Slash. His real name was Simon Hicks but I’m pretty sure only his mum ever called him Simon. He’s gone on to work in the freelance world doing advertising and TV and movies and all that kind of stuff. But he was an awesome producer who followed on from Jeff Thomas. I guess Jeff Thomas, Slash and myself; we’ve pretty much covered the last 30 years here at Triple M between us.
JV: Let’s talk about your award winners. You had three entries in this year’s RAP Awards competition that took home some prizes. You won the trophy for Feature Productions with “Black Saturday Bush Fires.” Tell us about the fires.
Mike: The bush fires in Australia are generally always big and horrific and spread really fast. We see the bush fires that you have over there in LA, and I guess it’s a similar kind of thing. But this bush fire was just the biggest thing that we’d ever seen in this country, and in a day it wiped out hundreds of houses. I think over 200 people were killed. It was just a massive event that stopped the nation. Pretty much for the next couple of months, it was all anyone talked about in the news, and radio stations and TV stations were helping out wherever they could or reflecting it in their imaging or their programming. It was a huge news event.
JV: The entry is loaded with comments from citizens. Were these interviews done in the making of the tribute that you did or were these already on hand?
Mike: All the material comes from a whole different bunch of sources. A lot of it comes from interviews that were done by our street team and a lot of interviews that were done on the phone, on the Breakfast Show. It was also sourced from shows around the Triple M Network. So a lot of the audio came from Melbourne and people in Sydney who were relating to it, and there was probably some stuff that was on during the news as well, audio that would’ve come from the news department.
JV: And given your writing background, it’s no surprise you wrote the script for this dramatic entry.
Mike: It’s actually one of the things that I really enjoy, creating really emotive production. It’s hard writing that kind of stuff, but that particular piece pretty much wrote itself; all the comments from the people led the way and the script just tied it all together.
JV: Your second award was for another Feature Production called “Remembrance Day.” Tell us a little bit about that one?
Mike: That’s again the same kind of emotive type of piece. Each year in Australia, we have two major days that are public holidays, where we reflect on the ANZACs, which is the military service of men and women that have fought in wars who were from Australia. The 11th of the 11th each year is Remembrance Day, November 11. The Australia and New Zealand Army Corps is pretty much the most famous thing in Australia. The ANZAC spirit is something that everyone always refers to.
So there are those two days: ANZAC Day, which is in April, and I believe symbolizes the returning of our servicemen after the war. And Remembrance Day is the day the war stopped in Gallipoli in 1918. What I try to do each year is to reflect the feelings of the year because it changes every year. We’ve got people overseas fighting in Afghanistan now, and in past years there have been different things -- East Timor and other places in the world. So that kind of changes each year and gives me an opportunity to reflect that message in a different way.
JV: And finally you picked up another trophy in the Large Market Promo category with an entry titled “Most Played Songs: Michael Bolton,” where you spotlight a huge album by Michael and then play a bunch of hooks and close it up with the killer line, “…and Triple M never played any of these songs.” You then lead into the main message of the promo about a countdown of Triple M’s most played songs of the last 30 years. A great idea for the promo; how did that come about?
Mike: If I’m ever approaching a promo from kind of a comedic angle, the first thing I look for is what’s the opposite of the thing that I’m promoting? So, in this case, we had a countdown, which was literally the songs that we had played the most over the last 30 years. And over the years Michael Bolton’s been at the top of my list of artists that I like to attack and make fun of because his music is pretty horrible.
I can’t remember if I made his album up or if it was indeed an album. I think it was a real Michael Bolton album. I jumped onto Wikipedia and found out the details, how it was a massive album, and I got all the stats about Grammys and built it up and built it up and made it sound even more massive, so the payoff at the end was quite good.
JV: Do you have an official title, and what other responsibilities do you have there?
Mike: I’m the image producer at Triple M. I don’t know if we have official titles but I’m kind of like the Network Image Producer. I look after Triple M Sydney, but my stuff also goes out to Triple M Brisbane, Triple M Melbourne and Triple M Adelaide.
I’m one of the longest-serving production people here; in fact I think I am the longest-serving production person around the whole country. So, a big part of my job is kind of mentoring some of the younger people that are coming through, trying to give them inspiration and help them with ideas. More than anything, I like to try to make people think about things differently, rather than just writing the standard thing, or putting something together the way they think it’s meant to be put together, just sort of stop and reinvent the way they think of stuff.
JV: How many producers are there at Triple M Sydney?
Mike: We have three producers working on Triple M, and then I think our other station, Today FM, has five. Today FM is like the Number 1 station in Sydney. It’s a monster, and they have a bigger production staff because of it. But here at Triple M we have me doing the imaging, the bulk of the stuff across the day, and then we have a guy that does the Breakfast Show and a guy that does the afternoon and night show.
JV: So you have producers for each show except for midday, producing elements for the afternoon show and the night show much like they produce for the morning show. That’s probably not so common here in the States.
Mike: It’s a pretty standard thing here in Australia. In fact, I think we’re pretty understaffed here at Triple M.
JV: Who’s handling the commercials?
Mike: We have a separate commercial department. We have five writers and one production guy.
JV: Let’s see, we’re talking one radio station with four producers and five writers? Six if they count you?
Mike: Well, the commercial department oversees two stations, Today and Triple M, which are both in the same building.
JV: Still, that is a very healthy staff of creative people. Good for you guys. What are you working with in the studio?
Mike: I use Pro Tools and I use a Control 24 desk, which I think is just the greatest thing that’s ever been invented. I love it and I dread the day when technology gets upgraded and I have to get a new desk because I just love this thing.
JV: How many production studios are there between the two stations?
Mike: We have five studios. One studio is for commercial production, solely. Two studios are for imaging, and the other two studios are where the Breakfast and the afternoon guys do split shifts.
JV: What is your approach to producing a promo? What comes first? You mentioned that if it’s a comedic promo, you’ll try and think of the opposite thing first. Is most of what you do in the comedic vein?
Mike: No, not really. I guess our main kind of image at Triple M is that we’re a really credible Rock station who knows stuff about music. We’re informative and we give up-to-date information, lots of artist interviews. But we also are like a larrikin -- we like to have a lot of fun. So I guess when I’m making a promo, or any kind of imaging, the first thing I’ll decide is, “Is this going to be a serious kind of passionate credible Rock message, or is it going to be a bit of fun?”
JV: Do you then tackle the copy first or start piecing the audio together?
Mike: It depends. The idea might come from something different each time. I might have some grabs from TV or I might have an artist grab that I work around, that I write around. If I’m making a music promo, I’ll make up the music bed first. I’ll mash up some music and make a 30-second, 40-second bed as best I can so the music sounds killer. Then I’ll literally just turn on my mic and ad-lib a script over the bed. And if I want a different voice on it, I’ll just get them to redo my bits that are voiced in the same holes. That’s a different way I do music promos.
Then if I’m making a standard promo, I might write the script first and then build the bed around it.
JV: Are you the imaging voice for the station?
Mike: One of. We have like an older guy -- he was on my Michael Bolton promo. He’s Nick Tate, which is probably a name you might know because he was quite well-known in the States for years. So we have like an older guy and an older girl, and then a younger guy and a younger girl. I’m like the younger guy. I like to balance between those voices on the air and kind of get a blend of the older big voices with cool, young voices. It’s all about balance. We don’t have one voice who hits you ten times an hour.
JV: Where do you go for your creative inspiration? Do you ever get writers block?
Mike: No,I never get writers block. If anything, it’s because my relationship with the programming department is such that they don’t actually give me any work. I just give them my stuff and they play it. They actually never give me stuff to do. So my workload is dictated by the amount of ideas I get. And most of the time I find that I’m just filling up my to-do list because I keep on getting ideas. I’ll be sitting in the car and a song will come on, and I’ll think, “Oh, God!” and I’ll write down an idea and put it in my calendar to do the next day. More than anything, I find that I wish I would stop thinking of such ridiculous ideas all the time.
So I guess my version of writers block would be trying to think of new ways to do stuff and then, every now and then when you get a really busy day, you fall back into that kind of hole where you do something that’s a bit repetitive or that you’ve done before or just a stock, standard promo. The time you have to work on stuff dictates whether you’ve got time to be creative or not. If I’ve got more than an hour to do something, then I’ll generally come up with something slightly interesting.
JV: Your situation sounds like the opposite of what I’m used to hearing about with regards to who’s dictating the workload. If it’s an imaging guy, he has a Program Director who is bringing him work to do. But it sounds like you’re beating the Program Director to the punch and deciding these things on your own. I suppose the promotions department will tell you, “we’re going to do such-and-such promotion,” but for the imaging, you’re on top of it, you know what the station needs, you take care of it and the Program Director respects you for that.
Mike: Yeah, and it’s taken a long time to get to that stage. I’ve worked with different Program Directors over the years. Each time a new one starts, you’ve got to build back to that relationship. There still is maybe two percent of the time when they do give me stuff to do or they’ll request something, like they’ll say, “Oh, we need something to reflect the fact that Slash is in town,” or, “We need something to reflect the football.”
But most of the time I just listen to the station. I monitor as much as I can at least once a week and I make notes of what needs to be refreshed. If I’ve written something like a funny promo that I think is starting to burn, I change it. I think the funnier stuff kind of burns quicker anyway, so you’ve got to get rid of it and get something new on. I just kind of stay on top of things so the programming department never notices anything wrong. They actually never get to the stage where they go, “You know, we need to get some new imaging done,” because it’s always maintained.
JV: Wow, I think you’ve just described the structure of the ideal Imaging Director of a radio station. That’s exactly how it should be.
Mike: That’s what I reckon. That’s one thing I keep on telling all the guys that come through here, including the two young guys I’ve got working for me now -- that’s what I try to get into their heads. If you can stay one step ahead of programming, not only will have more satisfaction in the job you’re doing because you’ll be having more fun and you’ll be contributing to the station, but they’ll be happier too, because it’s work they don’t have to do and don’t have to worry about.
JV: How is the radio market in Sydney doing? Did you guys feel the hit of the recession as much as we did in the States with stations going dark and people getting fired left and right and that kind of thing?
Mike: No, not really. I mean we didn’t feel that at all in Austereo. The only thing they did have was a bit of a wage freeze, like no pay raises for 12 months. But I don’t think anyone really lost their jobs over it. And as far as I know, other radio stations kind of went pretty well, too. I’m not really across the sales revenue side of it that much, but from what I do know, we didn’t suffer that badly.
JV: Who are some of the people that shaped your skills and style?
Mike: Well, like I said, I started here after Jeff Thomas had left, so one of my biggest regrets is that I never got to work with him at all. I have visited him at his studio just as a voiceover artist, but not doing production. I’ve looked over his shoulder for like ten minutes, but I never really got a chance to learn from him other than by just listening to his work. I have gotten my hands on his work at the Triple M archives and I’ve listened to it; I’d break it down and I’d think, “What’s he doing there?” and “How’s he do that?”
And then the image producer who actually hired me, Slash, says to this day that he never got to actually teach me what he wanted to teach me, either. So I think I really kind of built a career out of my writing background, and it took me ten years, at least, to actually get to the stage where my production was at a standard where one can say, okay, this is actually standing up against other production people now, but I’ve also got the benefit of having an edge over them with my writing.
So I think as far as learning how to do it, I listen to other peoples’ work and try to get little technique ideas and just basically teach myself really slowly how to do it. Even little things like listening to KROQ on the net. I like the KROQ kind of production style, but more than anything, I just kind of replicate the EQ on the voice. I reckon I’ve been trying to do that for ten years, and different styles from different stations, too. I just try to take little influences from everywhere and not really copy anybody, just add it into my style.
JV: You sound like you’re pretty much a self-taught producer.
Mike: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve had no technical training. I remember the day when I started here at Triple M, we had a 16-track tape machine. And then in, I think it was ’97, I got into work on a Monday and we had these computers. I’d never even used a computer. I didn’t even have one at home. We had this new thing called “email” that nobody in the building really kind of understood what it was for except for sending porn to each other.
So, we got Pro Tools this one day, and the multi-track machine was gone. They literally said, “Okay, you’ve got Pro Tools now. Have fun, do you work.” Nobody showed us how to use it, but we found out it was pretty easy anyway. Pro Tools is the kind of thing that once you learn the basics you just pick up a new trick each day. Even now I still pick up a new trick each day, and you get quicker, and quicker, and quicker. It’s pretty easy, but on “Day One,” I didn’t know that.
JV: A lot of guys in radio production rooms are dealing with a lot of work, and I think the passion for what they do can be challenged at times. But I get the impression your passion for what you do is not quenched in any way by a workload because you create your workload and enjoy what you’re doing.
Mike: I think if you compared my workload to the busiest image producer, it’d still be up there because I don’t create less work for myself. But there’s the satisfaction of it because you’re not just recording someone else’s script, making someone else’s thing, and doing it as they told you to do it, making 50 sweepers because they said they needed 50, you know? You’re actually creating from your own list, and you’re making your own ideas. So, at the end of the day, you get much more satisfaction out of it, and that in turn makes you come in the next day and make even better stuff.
And as far as satisfaction goes, I reckon I’m loving this job more and more every day. I’ve already got a five-year plan to stay here at Triple M until 20 years, and at that point, I don’t know. I can’t see why I couldn’t stay here until I’m 60 and I’m 35 now. It’s just such a great job.
I’ve had other opportunities over the years to move into television, or advertising, or even music production, but the thing I like about radio imaging is that it’s so spontaneous and quick. You can write stuff, and then you can kill off an idea just as quick as you make it, or you can leave it on-air for a year, whatever.
But just day-to-day, you’re making different stuff and having heaps of fun. Like just this morning, when you rang, I was in the middle of doing a Nickelback parody, which is just ridiculous. We have this thing at the moment, at Triple M, where we’re really passionate about the music and we don’t make fun of artists; we just really celebrate the greatness of their Rock music. But when a band like Nickelback comes along, it’s like my 1-out-of-100 artist opportunity to really have some fun and take the piss out of them because they have some good songs but they’re a pretty ridiculous band.
JV: Are you doing freelance work as well?
Mike: No, I don’t freelance production, but I am a voiceover artist with an agency here in Sydney. So my time is split between being in the studio, and I’ll go out to other studios to do advertising voiceovers.
JV: Any final thoughts before we let you get back to work?
Mike: My whole philosophy about radio imaging is in trying to take control of it yourself. Obviously you take from programming where you can, but just put your own spin on it and take the ball and run with it in a different direction. What I tell the young guys here is be prepared to have your ideas hit on the head a hundred times. Be prepared for the programming team to say, “No, don’t like it, no, don’t like it, no.” It might take you two years before you get an idea and they go, “Hey that was pretty cool.” Then, from that point, you get to the stage where they go, “You know what? You just look after everything. We don’t really need to tell you what to do.” It takes a while but when you get there it’s better than anything.