R.A.P. Interview: Walter Koschnitzke

Walter Koschnitzke, General Manager, DreamMakers Productions, Kenosha, Wisconsin

1204-Walter-KoschnitskeBy Jerry Vigil

No doubt, more and more radio stations are finding the value in paying more attention to their direct clients’ needs rather than how much of their budget they can get and how fast you, the prod god, can get their spot on the air. This month’s RAP Interview visits with another Wizard Of Ads graduate and partner who is overseeing another station subsidiary whose goal is creating effective advertising for the station’s direct accounts. Walter Koshnitzke is the General Manager of DreamMakers Productions, based in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which serves not only the NextMedia stations in the market, but advertisers and stations in other markets as well. As with Zimmer Radio’s Soundbrands in Columbia, Missouri [October 2004 RAP Interview with Tim Miles], DreamMakers is another perfect example of how radio can generate substantial revenues while charging for creative AND, at the same time, truly help their clients make money. Want to talk about a “win/win” situation? Read on.

JV: Tell us about your background in radio?
Walter: I guess the first time I wanted to get into radio was back when I was in high school. We were actually allowed to do the morning and afternoon announcements over the PA system. So we kind of ran them all like a radio station. But my first real taste was when I went to college, Lake Superior State in Sault Sainte Marie. In my freshman year I worked at the campus radio station, and then in my sophomore year I was able to stumble my way through three or four minutes worth of wire copy better than anybody else, so then I got my first commercial gig at WSOO in Sault Sainte Marie in 1973. I worked there for a while and then went across town to WSMM. Then in 1976 I had the opportunity to go to Bay City, Michigan and work for WHNN, and that’s where I actually first started doing some real production.

Then I moved to Modesto, California. The General Manager in Bay City bought a station out there, KOSO, and I went out there as Operations Manager. Then that kind of blew up on him, and I got out of radio for a couple of years and got involved in sales, selling telephone systems. That was really my first sales job. Then I got back into radio, different owners but back at KOSO in sales. Then I moved up to sales management and station manager. I went to our sister station in Fresno, California as the General Manager for about a year, then down to Santa Barbara for three years at KTMS and Y97 as General Sales Manager. In 1993 I had the opportunity to come to Racine, Wisconsin to work for Tony Gazanna at WRJN and what is now WEZY. And when he sold that station I came to be General Sales Manager at Will Rock 95 WIIL. We also had an AM station and also another FM. That company was Pride Communications, which was bought out by NextMedia in 2000 or thereabouts.

It was about the year 2000 when I had my first chance to actually go see Roy Williams speak. The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association brought him in to Madison and I went. I said, “Ahh, here is somebody that’s actually talking about stuff that I’ve kind of had rolling around in my mind for quite a while.” So I went down to Austin to the Wizard Academy in November 2000, and the rest, I guess, should be history. It was about two and a half years ago when my General Manager, Kira Lafond, said, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” I said, “You know, I think I’d really like to unwind the sales management stuff and start working for our little creative services division called DreamMakers. There are a lot of good people out there doing stuff like Chuck Medford and things like that,” and I said, “I’m probably not as good a speaker right now as Chuck, but I probably could learn. And by utilizing DreamMakers Creative and talking about long term branding campaigns for advertisers, we could probably generate some significant dollars on behalf of the NextMedia radio stations and actually pick up some production fees as well.”

JV: How long had the DreamMakers division been in existence before this?
Walter: DreamMakers has been around for probably a couple or three years, and that was pretty much just Steve McKenzie at the time. When they realized the talent that Steve had, they kind of took him off the radio station side of things and formed a separate company for Steve. When I started, Steve was still working for us, so I just kind of moved into the General Manager position for DreamMakers. I was kind of running the business of the sales side of what we were doing, and Steve was doing a lot of the creative. I was also doing a lot of writing and a little bit of the creative production stuff.

JV: Did you do much creative production during your earlier years in radio?
Walter: I did. I was Production Director back in Bay City for a while, but I’ve always done a lot of the writing and also a lot of production. Fortunately, they allowed me to go into production studios, so all through my career, even as a Sales Manager, I was writing and fooling around and producing ads. But after a while it got to the point where I realized what I really wanted to do is worthy work on the behalf on the clients. When you talk to a client and all of a sudden their eyes light up and you see what their dream is, I personally start wondering: why are we talking about all these little packages of 13 or 26 weeks and things like that? I really got tired of trying to persuade people to buy my radio station, and this all kind of evolved from the day I decided that I was no longer going to try to sell radio but actually hire clients – look for the ones that wanted to succeed, and bring the talent that I had at my disposal to work for them.

JV: Is DreamMakers basically an in-house agency or production house?
Walter: I wouldn’t necessarily classify what we do as an agency. I guess it’s a lot stronger on the consultation side of things. I’d say we are marketing consultants.

JV: Those years that you spent in radio sales, as you look back, what do you think they taught you?
Walter: There are a couple of people that I certainly learned from. Some of the stations that I worked at had the Jason Jennings tapes, and I remember Jason Jennings at the time actually talked about asking the client what he expected to happen, which at the time was rather revolutionary in my career because I thought: oh my god, if we ask the client and they tell us what they expect, then in my mind it meant we had to try to make that happen.

And Chris Lytle had a huge influence on my sales career. Chris is a good friend, and he really instructed and guided me as far as really talking to the client. Chris kind of uses the concept of the four stages of salespeople: the basic bottom line is the order takers. The second level would be where you’re actually talking about providing solutions to the client’s problem, moving into a third level where you really start talking a little bit more strategically to the client, and then to the fourth level where you are total strategy and are really kind of owning the client. But as you evolve through that process, you get excited when you start partnering up with advertisers rather than trying to sell them whatever the package of the week is.

That’s what I learned through the years in sales. As opposed to trying to sell something, to try to find out what the client wanted to do, and try to structure a program that would help them to accomplish that. In my earliest days, when I first moved into sales, I was a very naive kid. When I walked in as a rookie salesperson or a new salesperson, it was almost like being on the deck of the Starship Enterprise; you could hear the sirens going off, the shields coming up. And I always fell back and I’d say, wait a second, let’s not talk about what we are going to sell. Let’s talk about the creative. And then I would actually be able to use my creative talents, and we’d actually start talking about what the commercial could sound like or what we might say in the commercial, and that really broke down a lot of doors early on in my career. Because all of a sudden I wasn’t one of those sales guys. I was actually one of these guys that could put commercials together and write the ads. I always found that fun.

JV: That approach must have worked well for you. You must have seen the results right away.
Walter: Yes it did. And it was a long hard ride. Then when I moved into management, there was less time to do as much of the creative stuff. After I got back from Austin in 2000 and got geared up on helping clients build branding campaigns, I was doing most of the production myself and doing the writing at home on the weekends, which didn’t sit all that well with my wife. She said, “Maybe you should start getting paid for this, other than getting your override as a Sales Manager in your salary.” So she sort of planted the seed that maybe I ought to follow what my true love is, which is writing and hearing in my head what actually comes out on the air.

JV: So was this when you came on board at DreamMakers full-time?
Walter: I sort of eased into DreamMakers probably in March of last year, maybe a little bit earlier. And as of January 1st of this year, that’s when I got rid of all of my Sales Manager’s duties. I was General Sales Manager for the three radio stations in Kenosha. We brought a couple of other Sales Managers in, and that allowed me to move on.

JV: Do you work from home?
Walter: Yeah, I actually have a home studio/office up on the second floor. I’m overlooking my pine trees and decks and watch red tail hawks land right outside my window. It’s a modest production studio. I spend probably a day to a day and a half in Kenosha at the station. The rest is at home or on the road, and obviously with high-speed digital access and cell phones, wherever I am is really where my office is. Besides writing, I also do seminars where we bring in station advertisers, and it’s about a three-hour seminar. Then I meet one on one with those people for the rest of the week — very similar to what the jingle guys used to do and still do, but instead of talking about jingles, we’re talking about creative and putting together fifty-two week branding campaigns based on their budget. This year, since I took over DreamMakers, I’ve done various projects in Savannah/Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, Saginaw; I’ve been into Texas four times, down to Joliet, been into our stations in Decatur, been to Iowa a couple of times. So I’ve been on the road a lot doing that thing. And then when I’m home, I’m usually writing. I’d say probably 70 percent of my time is spent in my home office.

JV: Are all these stations that you mentioned all part of the NextMedia chain?
Walter: No, they’re not actually. Myrtle Beach was, and Saginaw, Decatur, Joliet. Obviously there are NextMedia stations in Kenosha, Waukegan, and Crystal Lake; but Paducah and Iowa and Savannah are not NextMedia station outlets.

JV: So DreamMakers is actually doing work for stations outside of the chain?
Walter: Yes. We do work for stations outside. Actually we usually end up working directly with the advertisers rather than the radio station when we do the individual projects. In January I’ll be down in Lafayette, Louisiana working with the Regent stations down there.

JV: How did it come about that you guys would go out and work clients that advertise on other stations?
Walter: Actually, at this point in time, we haven’t in any markets where NextMedia has a station; in that case, that’s where I end up working. So if NextMedia is there, that’s who I’m usually with; but by the same token, working with us is not something that we really try to cram down the station’s throat because what we’re talking about doing is, in a lot of cases, different than what most of the stations have done. Going after more 52-week business and more branding campaigns is a transition, and unless the Sales Manager is involved with it and climbs on board, the results that I have when I go in and set up these seminars and things are usually disappointing. We are so – and I say “we” talking about Sales Managers – we are so wrapped up in hitting the numbers. But with the economic environment and with shareholders and other companies, we spend all the time reacting and never really take a big breath and try to be proactive. That’s one of the reasons I’m really encouraged to see what Clear Channel is trying, and I hope they can pull it off. I think it’s great for radio because if radio doesn’t change, I think we’re in deep in trouble.

JV: So in these markets that do not have NextMedia stations, you basically have a seminar for potential advertisers, right?
Walter: Yes. We’ll go in, and if someone listens to us and says, “you know this makes sense and this will help me get to where I need to be,” then if they want to utilize DreamMakers services, we’ll generally write about seven or eight ads for a client for the entire year. That’s all transactional business from our standpoint, but when we get done with the process that we go through, they’ve have eight commercials in the bag ready to be scheduled, and then they’re working directly with the station for placement.

JV: What kind of studio set up do you have in your house?
Walter: I’m running a Pro Tools based PC. I’ve got some Antek processing, and I have a Soundcraft board. I don’t really need that but it kind of goes back to my early days in radio; I like having the slide pots even though I don’t really use them. It looks cool.

When I started moving back in to production I was amazed. I mean, I think I was brilliant with a razor blade, but all of a sudden when I started looking at software-based production and looking at all those channels and all the things you could do and all the editing you could pull off, I was just amazed. And it looked like a lot of fun. So, I’m kind of like a kid in a candy shop, but I don’t purport to be a brilliant production guy. I know how to get the job done, but there are guys out there like Steve McKenzie, Tim Miles and probably about five hundred production guys working in radio stations that are better at production than I am. I am a pretty good writer though.

JV: And that’s what we’re learning more and more, that it really starts with the writing.
Walter: Well you know, what it really starts with is talking to the client and really kind of laying out where they want to go. I kind of call it core values. When you’re actually interviewing a client and all of a sudden they get animated, that’s when the magic comes in. I’ll give you an example. I was working with a small stand-alone pizza restaurant. It just opened up and we’re talking about what kind of ads we’re going to write. He starts talking about his menu, and I said, “Greg, you’re a pizza restaurant; you have pizzas. Let’s get beyond that.” I said, “What’s special? I mean, what’s your dream?” And he stopped and said, “I worked on my sauce for twelve months. I would wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and run down to the kitchen with another idea. It may sound a little crazy but….” As he told the story he was almost floating on air. All of sudden you saw what his passion was.

So we were able to put together a pretty good ad that is exclusively his because it’s his story and no one else’s. You can’t take that ad and steal it and move it to somebody else because it wouldn’t be true because with the other guys that own pizza stores, unless they are actually up at 3:00 in the morning and have actually worked on the sauce for twelve months, it does not ring true.

JV: And I take it this was a successful campaign?
Walter: He was pretty successful. I don’t think he ran enough of a schedule, and he kept having to argue with his wife every time he paid the advertising off. I’m out of that. But that was what we did for him, and it was a pretty short-term campaign.

I can tell you that some of the clients that we’ve worked with over the years have seen great results. Here in Kenosha about three or four years ago the newspaper did a TOMA study and it was for local plumbing. One of the local plumbing companies that we had just started working with was ranked way down at the bottom, only had about a two percent top of mind awareness. This year they did another TOMA study and this company was the number two plumber in the market with somewhere around 15 or 16 percent unaided recall. And all they really did was the radio advertising. In those spots we used the owners as spokespeople. We came up with what we called “mailbox ataxia,” which is what you have when your hand shakes with fear and your brow starts sweating every time you reach into the mailbox every month to pull out your energy bill.

One of the words that I came up with that created a stir — and it wasn’t even a made up word — was a word that I used in a motorcycle ad for a Harley dealership. We talked about riding your motorcycle under cerulean skies. Everybody said, “What’s cerulean?” I asked them, “What do you think cerulean is?” “Well it sounds like something out of Star Wars.” I said, “That sounds fine.” Actually cerulean is a shade of blue. But it was one of those words where all of sudden people are drawn right back into the ad saying, “Cerulean… what is that?” So I always look for things like that. And it can’t be staged, and it can’t phony; but if something like that actually fits and it adds just enough flavor to it, it can be very, very effective. If you just toss in made up words just for the sake of doing it, then that just sounds stupid.

JV: How many people on staff at DreamMakers?
Walter: Actually there’s a full-time staff. There’s myself and Steve Wein, whose kind of the Creative Services guy. He does most of the production. And everything else that I do I use freelance. I have freelance writers. I have freelance voiceover guys. And when I need to, which isn’t very often, I use freelance production people. And I’m real particular about the writers.

JV: You charge for your services obviously. How did you come up with rates?
Walter: Well I sort of based our rates on the jingle gypsy stuff. An average jingle campaign is going to cost you somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,000. So we charge standard rates to do eight written and produced ads, eight ads for $3200, which is significantly less than you’re probably going to pay an ad agency if you want to get this kind of quality.

JV: And this is regardless of the market size?
Walter: Yes, regardless of market size. Now if I do a seminar, there may be a slight discount. But you know, what I’ve found is that even when you go into a smaller market where you may think that you probably can’t charge enough, the difference between what we do and what they’re used to usually sells itself. I’m not criticizing the local advertising, but if you go into a market that hasn’t had any outside influence and you come in with some of the stuff that we put together, the clients are extremely happy, and it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s running on the radio at all. Actually, the highest compliment that I can get is when someone says, “Well that doesn’t sound like a radio ad.” And it isn’t always meant as a compliment, but I take it as one.

JV: How do clients react to paying for something that they used to get for free from their friendly local radio station?
Walter: That’s an excellent question. Some wonder why and then we start talking about their needs, and I’ve said, “Look, there’s nothing wrong with having the radio station do these things for you.” In fact, when we end up talking to the client and all they’re really interested in doing is transactional sales, event type of advertising, I encourage them to utilize the radio station’s production department. The salespeople usually end up writing the ads because I have absolutely no desire whatsoever. I will do it under duress, but as far as what my love is, I’m really trying to help businesses attract more relational clients rather than the transactional ones.

But when it comes to production, I think radio stations ought to be charging for production anyway. The cable systems are charging for it. But my explanation why we don’t is this. If we put together an eight commercial campaign for a client, from start to finish, that is probably an investment of somewhere around 50 hours. Radio station production people and radio station salespeople generally don’t have the time to devote to that level of research, of interviewing, of writing and actually getting the final approval. It isn’t that they can’t do it. It’s just that if you’re a production guy at the radio station and you’ve got ten or eleven radio reps, and even if you’re not writing the ads, everybody is bringing their stuff in and you’ve got to get it written, got to get it produced and get it out because there’s another ten or twelve right behind it. And most organizations have really cut back, and trying to find a three or four person production staff in a lot of stations is getting hard to find. So what happens is, I don’t think the ads are quite as consistently good because they just can’t take the time to give them all the time and effort that they deserve.

JV: How busy is DreamMakers? How many spots are you cranking out in a week?
Walter: It depends on how successful I am on going out. Generally we are probably working at any given time in any week somewhere around three campaigns. I’m talking about full eight-commercial packages. We stay real busy. I did a little project with our stations down in Sherman/Denison at the end of September and then again a couple of weeks ago. We just picked up close to 50 new clients. Those campaigns are going to have three ads rather than eight, but that means that I’ve got somewhere around 150 ads that I need to have written, produced and approved between now and January 1st. So we’re going to be pretty busy.

JV: That should translate into some production fees!
Walter: Yes, but the production fees really just cover our expenses, our salaries and things. That’s not the purpose of DreamMakers. We’re making some money in fees, but the real money that we’re making is very similar to what Tim Miles and the folks down at Zimmer are doing. The money is in the annual contracts of the advertisers with the radio stations. We did three and a half days in Saginaw in June and generated somewhere close to half a million dollars out of the seminar and the follow up meetings. That’s a half a million dollars in advertising to the stations in Saginaw.

JV: Do you think most stations need a DreamMakers production company? What about those stations whose direct sales is just a small percentage of the total, stations where most of the spots are agency produced?
Walter: Our expertise and our forte and our love is working local direct clients. Any station that wants to increase the amount of local direct really needs something extra. Whether it’s a DreamMakers or a really strong production department, I think that’s important. If most of your business is all agency driven and you’re just uploading spots into your digital system, I don’t think you need it. And obviously we’re available. If NextMedia isn’t in your market, I’ll be glad to talk to anybody.

JV: The budget-strapped production guy who won’t get the money to go visit the Roy Williams Academy, how does this guy start making better commercials?
Walter: I think I would start with the second book that Roy wrote which is Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads. The other thing to keep in mind is that Roy does, or has done in the past, some seminars for Radio Inc. where it was like $400 or $500 to go to the seminar, which would be a really inexpensive way of doing that.

The other thing, as far as writing better ads, I would encourage anyone who wants to be a better writer to read, and not read the newspaper and not read magazines. Those are written at about a fifth and sixth grade level. One of the things I found very beneficial is to read poetry. Now people will say, “Well I don’t understand it,” or, “I don’t like poetry.” I don’t read poetry for the meaning. I read poetry for the combination of words. You’re looking at a piece of copy. How would the great writers say it? If we were talking about this business or this particular service this business provides, how would Hemmingway write it? Or how would John Steinbeck write it? The opening paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was probably one of the most incredible opening paragraphs of any book anywhere. Powerful words.

Reading is probably the number one thing that people should do. Listen to your clients. Ask questions. I think you really need to get involved in the creative conference rather than having your salesperson handing you a sheet saying, here are the details. Actually interview your client. How did you get involved in this business? What’s been the most rewarding thing? What are your most fanatical clients saying about you? I mean the ones that are out there waving the flag, the ones that shout your name to the rooftops, the ones that recommend your business to everybody they know. Because there are hundreds if not thousands of people just like them in any market that have the same feelings, the same emotional needs, the same desires, the same hopes, the same aspirations.

JV: It seems Roy Williams is having a greater influence on more and more stations, most recently with Clear Channel’s request to help them with their “Less Is More” campaign.
Walter: Well Roy’s out there, but there are other guys. There’s Dick Orkin. He has some interesting stuff to read, and he’s got that conference he does with Dan O’day. Dick Orkin is a phenomenal talent. To be able to do those dialogue ads and those slice of life ads that he does, I mean, that’s the trick. But Orkin says it in a different way than Roy Williams. Orkin is more advertising oriented. Roy is more marketing oriented. Put it this way. What do movies and television programs and books and plays – our favorite ones — all have in common? A great story. Storytelling is the human existence before there was the written word.

JV: How does what we’ve been talking about apply to the imaging on the radio stations?
Walter: If you do the research — and this is probably anecdotal — and you ask the listeners what they don’t like about radio stations, they will most of the time say they don’t like the commercials. But if you go deeper into the interview, what you find that they are most aggravated about are two things. One, the phoniness of the announcers, and two, the repetition of the music. Now even if a radio station has a two and half hour rotation, if the average American has like 2.5 or 3.0 favorite radio stations they listen to, they’ve heard the number one song probably every hour on the hour for the last three hours, even though your station only played it once.

JV: But those are the successful stations out there, the ones with the songs in hot rotation.
Walter: Once again we need to be real. Here’s my positioning statement: “You’re no more than two minutes away from another song.” Forget about the six or seven breaks. I think the whole Arbitron diary thing is a sham. I think People Meters is probably going to be real interesting when the thing gets totally rolled out. Because people aren’t sitting there listening for 45 minutes in a row. Just play a couple or three songs and a couple of ads, couple or three songs, couple of ads. But anytime you hear an ad on my station, you’re no more than 2 minutes away from another song. That’s my guarantee. But nobody’s tried it yet.

But getting back to imaging, what we’re talking about does apply. I mean, try to be real. Here’s what we’re all about. This is why we designed our radio station the way we did. Here’s our guarantee to you the listener, and we’re not talking the talk, we’re walking the walk.

JV: So if the client is the radio station, should we approach the Program Director and say, “What’s your passion about this station?” and try to make a campaign out of that? Do we go to the GM and interview him or her? One of the jocks maybe?
Walter: I’d get everybody together. The scary thing is if you are just talking with the Program Director, who may have a different vision from the Sales Manager, who may have a different vision than the General Manager. This really needs to be a team effort. Are we all on the same page? Are we all pointed in the right direction? Are we all on board with whatever our collective vision is? Because otherwise, if you’re just talking to one person and not everyone else is on board, then all of sudden, if the rest of the staff is not delivering on the promise or even knows what the promise is that the Program Director has, then you’re in even worse shape.

JV: Any final thoughts for the production people of the world out there reading this?
Walter: You need to work on yourself. You need to work on your own career. You need to work on educating yourself. We’ve got too much to do and too little time, but find fifteen minutes a week to read something you’ve never read before. Find five minutes in the morning to read a poem or a short story by an author that you’ve never read before. Study Abraham Maslow. You start talking about Maslow’s hierarchies of needs, and the implications for writing ads and doing marketing is amazing. He’s the father of the humanistic school of psychology. He was the one that came up with the self-actualizing person and his hierarchy of needs.

Take Subway for example. At the bottom of the hierarchy is our basic need for air, food, and water. Above that is our need for safety and security – having a roof over our heads. Above that is love and belonging – the churches we attend or synagogues or the groups that we belong to, our friends and our family. Above that is our self-esteem or our ego needs. And above that is self-actualization. It’s very simplified. I mean, humans are unique in wanting to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today. So here’s Subway, which is not even on the radar screen when it comes to fast foods, because all we were talking about is their Chipotle sandwiches or whatever the sandwich was. And once we’ve had lunch, we don’t need to think about the sandwich anymore. And then Jerod comes into our lives – and people tell me I look like John Candy. I said, “I can eat all those sandwiches and lose that weight?” That becomes a self-esteem need. Yeah! Lose weight! Eat sandwiches! And from the time that Jerod came on board, Subway’s sales started to skyrocket. Then Subway chickened out. Somewhere down the line everybody started picking on Jerod and they kind of got rid of it, and their sales started to go back down. They started going back to just talking about the sandwiches. Now you’ll see a blend of the two. Once we’ve been fed, we don’t need to think about Subway sandwiches, but we won’t stop thinking about how we can lose weight. If production people really want to kick it to the next notch, that’s the way to start thinking about advertising.

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