Alan Peterson, Assistant Chief Engineer/Production Director, Radio America, Washington, D.C.
By Jerry Vigil
You don’t have to look too hard or go too far to find the slaughter of production people in radio is still taking place. It’s the new way of doing radio, at least in the U.S. We’ll know the slaughter is over when we call the local station and the receptionist is answering from India. In the meantime, what can you do to protect yourself when even the most creative have not been spared? Diversify.
Some of you may recall our first interview with Alan Peterson back in 1992. He was cranking out award winning commercials in a 2-track analog studio in the small market of Danbury, Connecticut and writing articles about production for Radio World, amongst other things. Alan was pretty diverse in his skill set back then, and that would be an understatement today. Nearly 20 years later, Alan is a survivor and still in radio, the trade he enjoys most, and he owes much of his success to diversification.
JV: What happened after WLAD?
Alan: There was an ad that ran in R&R for a Production Director. It was for WINK 104. At the time it was the biggest Top 40 there was in the country. They even advertised it that way. I had just finished doing a four-part article for Radio World on MIDI, and the ad read that they had a MIDI room, and I said, “Okay, great.” I mailed them my stuff, and when I got there they said, “Tell me about your experience with MIDI.” I gave them all four copies of my articles and said, “This is what I’ve done. This is what I know.” I get a call a couple of days later telling me that I got the job if I wanted it. So, I packed the car, headed out to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from Connecticut and started the next phase, so to speak. The downside of it was, about three weeks after I got there, my mom died of a heart attack, so that took a huge amount of wind out of my sails. It was a very sad time -- a fresh new start, a new job and such, and then that, so it was sort of a mixed bag.
But I did two years there. The station was promotions-conscious and production-happy, and I had a great time. I added some extra touches of my own to the production room for MIDI, computer sequencing, and some other stuff. We were still running DOS at the time, a DOS-based software package. It was a fantastic time; I was on top of my game and having a ball.
Around 2001 they opened a branch of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting here in DC. I had gone down there to apply as an instructor, and instead they made me their chief, so I had to do a lot of work down there as well. Concurrently with that, Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland ran an ad saying, “Does anyone know how to run Cool Edit? We need an instructor.” So I answered that. I said, “Not only do I know how to run it, I was a beta tester for them briefly,” and I was when I was with Radio World. They used to send me the software and say, “Okay, break it.” I never did, but I came close, and I reviewed it a whole bunch of times. Anyway, Montgomery College asked me to be an adjunct professor, and I’m happy to say I’ve been doing that for nine years, being a professor, teaching Cool Edit, then Adobe Audition and other dealings with studio production, construction, my technique, and a whole bunch of other things. So in addition to handling stuff on the air, I’m also an educator and I’m mighty proud of that as well.
JV: You probably know more about Audition than most of the guys out there.
Alan: Actually, Cool Edit. The funny thing is, Radio America still uses Cool Edit because, first of all, it’s paid for. Secondly, there are no features available now in Audition that we necessarily need here, and Cool Edit still moves plenty fast. What we’re finding out is it doesn’t like Windows 7 very much, and I don’t believe it’s going to work. They stopped R&D on Cool Edit back in 2003. No one saw Windows 7 on the horizon, so I’m willing to say it’s just not going to fly.
I’ve been looking at another piece of software, Ardour. It’s actually a Linux audio editor, but it’s a screamer. If you look up Ardour on the Web, you’re going to see something that’s massive. It’s colorful. It’s fanciful. Even the people at Harrison, the guys that make consoles, are looking at Ardour as their built-in workstation. Our Chief Engineer, Fred Gleason, he’s a Linux head from way back, and he’s been looking at this as being a potential replacement or adjunct to what we’re doing over here. Fred’s great. He wrote the automation system we use here. If you do a search on the Web for Rivendell Audio you’re going to find an automation system called Rivendell Radio Automation. It’s open source. It’s Linux. He gives it away. It’s comparable to a $25,000 radio station automation system and it’s free. You’ve got to see this thing. It’s great. The whole system, the whole house runs on Linux. Desktops for all the producers are Windows machines, but the heart of the place is the Penguin. Ardour is the next thing we’re looking at.
JV: A lot of people hang on to Cool Edit over Audition for the speed. It loads super fast in comparison.
Alan: Audition got loaded with a whole bunch of baggage. Plus, it has to swim upstream now against Windows 7. That’s why they had to build faster computers, too, bigger memory and everything, to accommodate the bloat on Win7. There’s a lot of speed that’s been lost on it. I have to agree. But some of these Linux programs are screamers because there’s not a whole bunch of Windows dependencies and a few other things in the way. There are people that have written Linux distributions, whole CDs and DVDs that are nothing but multimedia software. So you take the disc and drop it in the computer. It not only loads an operating system, but it loads video editors, art editors, page layouts, you name it. They’re self-contained distros, and all they load is multimedia programs.
JV: What came next?
Alan: That was around the time Radio World came calling. I had written for them since 1989. By then it was around 1995. They put out the ad that they needed a technical editor. They ran the ad, but then they called me saying, “Listen, are you interested in a job?” I was thinking, “Washington, DC, Falls Church, Virginia, it probably doesn’t sound like such a bad move.” At the same time I was thinking about my age. I was almost at the upper end of the useful shelf life of the American disc jockey, and it was pretty much time to rethink a few things.
So I took the job and headed down to Falls Church, Virginia, which is about 11 miles out of Washington, DC. I worked as the tech editor for Radio World for three years. I was working part-time for WFLS, Fredericksburg, Virginia, doing country on weekends, so I still had my finger in it. It was right around that time also that consolidation began kicking in -- 1996, ‘97. A lot of my friends were losing work left and right, but I was sort of safe at a job where I wasn’t in broadcasting at the moment. I always compare myself to the photographer in the Civil War, Brady, who stood faithfully on the hill while everyone down there was getting shot; and when everybody cleared the field, then he came down the hill. I sort of felt that way, but still, I was able to move through the career. I was able to get to the NAB shows a lot of times. I got to speak at several NAB shows, which was great, and just seeing the new technology before it hit the station level was quite a kick.
JV: What kinds of things did you speak about at the NAB shows?
Alan: I did one talk about trends in automation, how Linux was coming along. Linux was on its way up. I did one talk about new tools of the Production Director, which basically borrowed from music technology. This is something I think I mentioned in my first RAP interview 20 years ago, that musicians got all the fun tools and radio was sort of left out of it. I was just showing how it was possible to have a huge amount of crossover and to really have a good time.
So I did talks on music production software for radio. I think I did that topic two years in a row, updating the second one with new technology and some other things. I had a pretty good time with that. I adopted that talk, too, and now speak at the IBS College Radio conferences, Intercollegiate Broadcasters. They do the conference in New York every March. It’s funny; after the first interview with you back in ‘92, I began speaking for them on an annual basis. This one coming up will be my 20th year speaking for them as well. So that’s a huge honor for me, to be able to talk to college students, to tell them how they could take my job from me in five years.
JV: You’ve had your hand in the engineering side of things for quite a while. How did the engineering aspect of your career come around? Did that start at WLAD?
Alan: It was actually before that. The very first station I started at was this little whistle up in Oswego, New York. It’s against Lake Ontario. It was a small country operation, up around 1440 AM. It was one of those places that any piece of equipment was on the verge of blowing up in the course of normal use. I just had to learn along the way. If it broke down and no one was around to fix it, here’s the quick fix. Here’s what I could do. So I just started getting an interest in it then, just as a matter of survival.
As the DJ aspect and the music performing aspect sort of started to fizzle, I came to realize, for career longevity, it was time to bump things up a little bit. So I learned a lot more. I got to study over the shoulder of some really, really good people, some really superb engineers that were willing to share their knowledge and information. Then it’s just a matter of getting your hands in the gear and either blowing it up or making it work. So that’s how that started.
WLAD had a superb engineer, a fellow by the name of Tom Ofenkowsky, who was also a writer for Radio World, so he and I got along pretty well. He told me a lot of things, showed me a lot of things. The rest of it just came as the need was there. Finally, it got to a point I guess, where my engineering credentials stood on their own, which was good to know because, with production, we’re at a point now where anybody can do production, at least it sounds that way. On-air DJ-ing, that’s nothing I’d probably pursue ever again. So engineering became a survival thing, but at the same time it made me what actors call the triple threat. Actors dance, sing and act. Mine was writing, production and engineering. So if something I wrote or recorded blew something up, I could fix it.
JV: Over the last 20 years, what would you say was your ratio of production to engineering? Was it more of one than the other?
Alan: I would say right now where I am, on the network level, it’s half and half, production and engineering. Prior to that, when it was still performance, then my time was spent with on-air and production. But the WINK job in Harrisburg was production all the way. I didn’t have a weekend air shift or anything like that. It was eight, nine hours a day in a production studio. So, the engineering aspect didn’t become a forefront item until just a few years ago.
JV: What happened after your stretch with Radio World?
Alan: In 1998 I began to realize how much I was like other radio people. I was missing, not the thrill of the mic, but where it was happening. I stayed on the hill too long -- to continue the Civil War analogy -- and it was just time to rethink jumping back in. At the time, I was spending some evenings working for a local cable access operation, public access television. They had a little FM radio station there, and I rebuilt their studio, just volunteered, just on my own time. The folks that were in charge there thought it was a good job and they said, “Hey, you looking for another job?” I hadn’t been, but it was, again, one of those moments where the money sounded good. The action was cool and it got me back into performance on a small level, but also, it would help me build up my engineering jobs, because a lot of cable access operations are not really fleshed out big time when it comes to technology. So it was simple stuff to work on and to fix, but at the same time it gave me some huge insights. So out of Radio World it was into community access cable television and radio. A budget crisis around the turn of the century sort of killed that show and things got kind of hungry after that.
JV: That was a rough time for the economy. What did you do?
Alan: I was taking every freelance job that came along, anybody that was working on anything, any studios that were being built. I put out the word to engineers everywhere: “If you’re doing anything at your transmitter site, need someone to hoist the wire, haul tools, whatever, give me a call, I’m there.” I helped build a couple of studios for a few people, including big time shock jock Greaseman. He had his own problems at that time, too. He had just gotten released from CBS Radio and was looking to build a home studio. So I helped out on that. WMET was building a new studio in Washington, DC, and I helped out on that.
Finally, around 2001, I got a job with WAVA, Washington Christian Talk. I was doing board-op’ing and production for them. From there I jumped to working for Greaseman again. In 2001, September 11, I was on the air, and that was kind of ugly because the Pentagon was just across town on the other side of Arlington, Virginia. We felt the thump.
I got married in 2001 also. I actually married one of the other editors at Radio World. Her name is Michelle. She was editor for Pro Audio Review magazine. She was still working at the editorial offices when the plane came down Columbia Pike, right over the building, about a couple of hundred feet up, and that rattled everybody’s teeth. We weren’t there to see it, but we were aware of it in our own way.
Finally, after the WMET project, I dropped a message to Radio America, the guys that syndicate G. Gordon Liddy, the Doug Stephan Good Day program and a bunch of other programs. I got in touch with them, sent them my production demo and I got a position over here in production and engineering. What was handy was that the engineer that was on staff here at Radio America that was keeping track of things was also an engineer at WAVA when I was there back in 2001. So he put in a good word for me and that was that. I got the job, and I’ve been here since
And here is where the engineering chops really, really had to be put to the test because now it wasn’t just audio cables, it was computer networks. It was ISDN. It was all kinds of things. It went beyond just simple production and, “Oh, this wire fell off.” It became, “Okay, let’s run the wire from the roof down to our floor and make things happen.” Baptism by fire to be sure.
JV: Tell us a bit about Radio America.
Alan: Radio America is affiliated with the American Studies Center, an organization that’s involved with historical education and just maintaining the history of American wars. World War II is more or less where it started. We’re responsible for putting on the National Memorial Day parade every year in Washington, DC. That’s coming up at the end of the month. It’s always a huge production. Gary Sinise comes out. Mickey Rooney, Ernest Borgnine, they all march in the parade. It’s a lot of fun. Some years ago they began putting out radio segments on cassette for whoever wanted to run it. That evolved into a radio network, and now we’re on 24 hours a day with all kinds of shows. We’re on this weekend right now running two channels. Across the hall right now, even as we’re speaking, we’re doing Motor Trend magazine. Over here I’m running House Smarts Radio. It’s a home improvement show. Like I said, it’s an outgrowth of the American Studies Center and the affiliation is still quite strong. The network during the week is traditional conservative talk. Again, G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate guy, he’s one of our hosts. Over the weekend it’s lifestyle stuff.
JV: Does the network run two channels every weekend?
Alan: The B channel comes on only sporadically. We run a main A channel all the time, around the clock, but the B channel, for example, is activated right now with me between now and 3:00 PM. After that it’s back to normal with just our A channel.
JV: Is the parent company a nonprofit?
Alan: Yes it is. It’s nonprofit. We’ve got a great website, RadioAmerica.org. You’ll be able to check out a ton of our shows and things.
JV: You’re doing a lot of long form program production now versus the typical commercial/promo grind. Was that much of a change for you?
Alan: It was a huge change as far as doing production goes, because on the station level it was crank out commercials and, “Quick, I need three or four promos to get me through.” Recycle the morning. Put your zaps in. Do the special effects and whatever. It’s long form programming over here, which most production people would just figure, “This is so boring; this is so dull,” if you’re used to doing the flamethrower stuff. But this stuff is consistent. You have to be providing absolutely perfect audio for 30 minutes, one hour, whatever it takes. The flame-throwing stuff is gone, but now it’s a whole different act. It’s not just prop the mics up and sit back and wait until it’s over. You’ve really got to be conscientious of what you’re doing. The national Radio America programs I am currently engineering, editing and mastering from scratch on a weekly basis include “Home & Family Finance”, “Mom Talk Radio”, “Equity Strategies with Stu Taylor”, “The Coach Lynn Johnson Show” and “Special Investigator With Scott Wheeler”.
JV: What are some of the other things you’ve been doing there?
Alan: We just built a television facility. We have a two-camera HD room with green screen, because the American Studies Center is offering DVDs and also posting video on the Web -- mostly interviews with the war veterans, Vietnam veterans, Korean veterans, the lucky few still among us who are World War II people. We get their memories. We get their recollections on video, more or less, before we lose them to all time. It’s more than just propping the camera in a corner. We built out a whole facility. We have quality microphones, audio processing, two Avid editors, and a cool device called a TriCaster, which combines pretty much everything -- the video switching, graphics, recording, special effects. It streams. You name it, those things are doing it. In radio at this point, at least for us and for a lot of stations, we’re all finding out that it’s going beyond a soundtrack now, that you have to be savvy in multimedia in order to make it all work.
JV: So you’re doing video production as well.
Alan: Yes. Because of my affiliation with cable access I came in with video and lighting experience. So they asked me to design the room. Our Chief Engineer fleshed out all the building, all the cabling and everything, but the design we went with was my own. We sort of took over an old board room, one of those glassed in fishbowl rooms where people could just meet and talk. It wasn’t getting much use so we stripped it, painted it, put up some tiles, greened one wall and loaded it up with professional cameras, teleprompters, all that. It’s a pretty cool little operation.
JV: The engineering background you have is an obvious asset. Is this something that the average production person can go out there and learn and maybe take to a level close to yours? Or is this something that only a few guys like you might be able to pull off?
Alan: Probably their engineering expertise would be very different from what I had to learn, because for me, it was necessary to keep a station on the air in some regards. If they are going to take on any kind of engineering, I recommend it’s more IT, more computer than hard-wiring inside the wall and running the coax up the tower. This is a situation where if you’re going to be networking computers or you need to be able to move information from one end to the other, then I believe information technology engineering is going to be considerably more important for the production person than RF engineering or basic wiring from room to room.
Thanks to companies like Radio Systems, you can just use their studio hub system and click two studios together with CAT5 cable. Leave that up to the contract engineers and the chief person, if you will. But get familiar with the Web. Get familiar with your network. If it’s possible, get some certification, too. Get your Net Plus certification, maybe some sort of administrative thing. Test out for that. That’s what’s going to look really good on the resume. It’s not just, “I can make this sound, whoopee-shish.” Yes, that’s always great, but everyone is making that noise now. Everyone knows how to AutoTune. Instead, say, “Here’s the sound I can make, and if necessary, here’s what else I can do.” They tag me a lot to not only produce material, but when it’s time to go out and do the remote, I’m often the one slinging the box.
Alan: Yes. You just can’t be the guy with the voice anymore. We’re all born with a larynx. We all know how to speak and, depending on what station you listen to, you’re going to find varying levels of expertise and varying levels of vocal quality, and a lot of times that takes a backseat to the music. That takes backseat to a lot of things. So how big of an asset can you be to the overall, entire operation? If you sound good, great. If you know how to make bad things sound good, even better.
JV: Not many production guys can say they’ve “worked in the White House.” Tell us about that bit of diversification.
Alan: That was a lot of fun. The American Urban Radio Network and Sheridan Networks are based, I guess, around Pittsburgh, and they have a presence at the White House press area. April Ryan is their bureau chief for Washington, DC. The engineer for them, for Sheridan and for American Urban, is actually married to a college friend of my wife’s. There are times that he can’t make it out to DC to fix a wire or to install a piece of gear, so he asks if I could do it and I’m happy to do that. One thing led to another, and when the word came down that they were rebuilding the entire press room area, they sort of pressed me into service.
So here I am, among the cream of engineering geniuses of DC. I mean, I never expected, number one, that I’d be in the White House, ever, for any reason; and number two, that I’d be working with these guys that have assembled full RF plants that will be up and erect for 250 years to come. And I’m laying side-by-side with these guys inside Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s swimming pool in the basement of the White House. We’re stapling down wires, running cable, running fiber optics. Again, it’s just a cluster of engineers. We figured, more than anybody else, because we’re the ones that have to connect to this stuff, we’ll know how to wire it. So I’m not taking credit for anything more than just the cables that ran back to April’s studio, but just to say that I was part of that, and I get to see it every night on TV, that’s a rush. That’s a lot of fun. I mean, we’ll drive by a radio station and say, “I used to work there,” or I might look at a studio and there’s my initials under a console where I installed something; but I look at the freaking White House on TV and say, “Yes, that’s my wire.” And again, I can’t come at it as a huge professional accomplishment. I look at it as an, “Oh wow,” item in my career.
JV: Well it is. What was it like actually being in there, inside the White House?
Alan: Well it was pretty funny in some regards because all these people you see ordinarily on TV, “So-and-So reports from the lawn of the White House,” and here I am downstairs. They’re rushing, meeting deadlines. I’m hearing them curse and scream out loud. I almost got knocked out a stairwell when David Gregory was running to the men’s room, I mean at top speed. I’m hauling a toolkit up the stairs and he’s like, “Gangway!” So I look up, and it’s David Gregory tearing down the stairs, I guess because his back teeth were drowning. That was a fun story to come home with, “You’ll never guess who almost peed on me.” But yes, just the fact that here’s all these guys that we see on television for those two-minute bursts on the news, Chuck Todd, this guy, that guy, that woman, this woman, and they’re all down there just working the same as you and me, just waiting for that deadline, working for the paycheck. And again, they’ve got one of the coolest jobs there is.
JV: So no awe-inspiring sense of spirits of great presidents past or the sheer history of the place, nothing like that?
Alan: To be honest, if there was anything I felt, it was like, “How much of JFK’s DNA was left behind in this pool and who was he with?” That’s probably the ickiest thought that came to mind. But the pool is never going to be a pool again. I mean a whole side is missing. But if you’re watching the White House press briefing room at all on TV, where the podium is, you can go directly underneath that podium and you’re in the swimming pool.
JV: Are you one of these guys that take things one day at a time, or do you worry about what you’ll be doing next if things go wrong there at Radio America? What’s your life/career philosophy?
Alan: At the age I’m at now, I have to be honest in the fact that a lot of options are running out on me. The fact that multimedia is opening up on the radio level just means that I can extend things a lot longer. There’s always going to be the need for good sound. Shows that we put on the air, long form, short bits, whatever, I still have to take care of those; but the fact that now that there’s someone you have to point the camera at, well now you have to also make them look good, and you have to make them sound good. There’s a lot of Internet video that’s just absolute garbage. It’s badly lit. The microphone is a mile away. There’s a need for good production techniques and just basic care to go into multimedia productions. You just can’t crank it out fast. It’s a YouTube age, yes, but if your product is junk, no one is going to stay with it.
So I’m seeing my career philosophy at the moment such that the multimedia aspect is going to open up better opportunities with more flexibility, more versatility. The fact that you can go anywhere where there’s a news story happening, and more people show up with a camera than show up with a microphone tells you something. I’m looking forward to multimedia sustaining me for the next 20 years or so until it’s time to hang up my hat. But again, radio is still my first choice because that’s where I started. That’s where the most fun is. People are still going to listen to the radio. Bob Pittman said that only a few days ago, that listenership is really the same as it was in 1970. As much as we want to say radio is dying or as much as anybody wants to say that, it ain’t. It’s still there. It’s still flying. And as long as I’m still a part of it, I’m going to make it sound as good as I can.
JV: Diversification is probably good advice for radio production people feeling the pressure of further consolidation and outsourcing, those that are fearing for their jobs every day. And the time is now.
Alan: Yes, absolutely, diversify. Learn what you can about video production. Join the ranks of voiceover people. Join the ranks of people who are voice tracking because it’s a reality. It’s here to stay. Ten years ago when it was still a novelty it was like, “I’m not going to voice track. That just steals jobs.” Well, it’s going to happen. You may as well be there. You may as well be the one making the money. Don’t just sit back and say, “Ah, voice tracking ruined my career.” Hey, you could have been there ten years ago.
I can’t predict trends. If I did I’d own Apple right now. But seeing what is happening, it’s time to jump in that direction, time to figure out apps, time to figure if you can write one or find someone who can, figure out ways to make your station even better, your own personal work really fly on portable communications and in applications for them. So again, engineering is going to come into play. It’s no longer the standard skill set we had. Write a good spot, voice it, produce it and then send it out on a reel; it’s no longer that way. That’s the easy part of the job now.
JV: Any final thoughts?
Alan: Audio is still king no matter what. I’d say content is king, but on radio still, sound is what’s going to sell. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Get your ear going. Hear everything. Never be satisfied with the way it sounds. Compare your work against what you’re hearing from other sources, professionally done production house commercials. What makes them sound better, or if not better at least different than what you’ve produced? Find out why. You can always call up somebody and say, “Hey, listen. I heard that spot for whatever, whatever. I can’t get that kind of crunch in my microphone. What did you do?” I found out if you talk to them intelligently and you don’t just come out as, “Garsh, I love your work…,” if you don’t come on sounding silly, but you come out with a professional attitude, a professional way of saying it, a lot of times they’ll share the secret. If they won’t because it’s their own personal claim to fame and what makes their paycheck, take that sound and ask somebody else, “How is this done?”
There are a ton of sites on the Internet for electronic music, for recording techniques, for a lot of things where they say, “Listen to this clip. How was this done?” And a whole community will answer with their opinions. They used compression. They used distortion. They used this. They used that. So ask. Again, you just can’t be satisfied with your job where it is. Try and get into voice acting, too. Learn what it means to do pacing for pitch, for emphasis. Learn accents. Anything you can do to increase your toolkit has got to be helpful. Maybe not for the station, because consolidation means your work is getting thicker. It’s time to think about what you can do to improve what you’re doing. There’s going to be a kid coming up just five minutes behind you that’s been playing with Garage Band since he was 12 and he’s going to get your job. So jump ahead by a magnitude. It’s time.