R.A.P. Interview: Mitch Todd

JV: What kind of projects will you treat yourself to when you get in the studio? A couple of promos maybe, or will you tackle some of the long form stuff?
Mitch: I’ve done some long form stuff. In fact, a couple of years ago we did a special on 9-11, for the anniversary. We won a New York Festival Award for that. That was a pretty long form program. As far as shorter stuff, I do image the Classic Vinyl station. That’s our mainstream classic rock channel. I still have a good hand in imaging Little Stevens Underground Garage channel. Other than those, the rest of the projects I do are sporadic and kind of on an ‘as needed’ basis or in a supervisory role. My background in traditional terrestrial radio has been rock, pop and country radio, but over the years I’ve had my hand in multiple formats.

JV: Before you came to Sirius, you had been a Production Manager at a cluster of stations. Now you’re managing a much larger cluster. How is it different?
Mitch: Yes, right before Sirius, I was cluster manager in Cleveland, Ohio, for WMMS Radio, Mix 106.5 and WMJI, the number one Oldies station there. Now it’s a bigger cluster, sixty-five channels. As far as the differences, obviously it’s a far more diverse platform. Just the whole nature of Sirius gets you into much more niche programming. I mean, we have an ‘Outlaw Country’ station. We of course have the mainstream channels as well in the country vein. We have Bluegrass. We have a Folk channel. You really get to focus in on the specific formats, very niche formatting.

The imaging possibilities are endless and particularly of note is the fact that since we have no commercials on the music channels, the imaging really has to just focus around the artists, the music, and the culture, depending on the particular format, and that lends itself to myriad creative opportunities. That’s what the producer side of me finds most exciting.

JV: What are some of the biggest challenges of the production task there?
Mitch: Well, I think being more or less a new medium, we really are trying to redefine what radio imaging is all about. As I said, there are no commercial interests in the imaging, so when we do promos, we’re not also pitching a product within them. I think it’s just very exciting to be able to focus on the artist and keep it life-style oriented. The challenge is trying to keep it unique and trying to reinvent or redefine it as we’re going along. And I think anytime you try to reinvent the wheel, that’s always a great challenge. Luckily, I have a wealth of experience from terrestrial radio to call upon, but I try not to let that be baggage, but more a foundation to build kind of a whole new way of doing things.

JV: All the music channels have no commercials, so the imaging is the only thing, other than the music, that the listener is hearing. Does this burn the imaging more quickly? Do you have to freshen promos and IDs more often than a typical commercial station might?
Mitch: The beauty is that we don’t have as many breaks for the imaging and the promos, so I wouldn’t say that they burn more quickly. But we do try to keep things as fresh as any major market terrestrial radio station. We also try to take new approaches and keep it fresh any way we can. From just a volume standpoint of what we’re actually producing, we have a lot of channels to keep fresh, so we’re constantly in brainstorming sessions and trying to come up with new features or just new small imaging pieces that position that particular radio station.

JV: You have over a dozen producers working under you with the music channels. Todd Stack, who oversees the other channels has his crew as well. Do you share?
Mitch: Todd Stack, the Director of Production for Sports, News and Talk/Entertainment has his staff of producers, but we keep it fairly separate. However there is some cross pollination there from time to time. We try to not box ourselves in, or compartmentalize and just have one person in charge of one channel, or five channels or three, whatever the case may be. We try to cross pollinate as much as we can within my department and then with Todd’s department as well, just so we can put the best brains on the best project. I have a little concept I call the ‘Hit Squad’ concept. If we have a particularly challenging re-imaging project or maybe a new channel launch, I’ll assemble a little A-team of producers that I feel are specifically suited for that application and put them to work on it as a team. Then we get that shored up and we move on to the next project.

JV: Do the producers work shifts? Are the studios going around the clock?
Mitch: Well, we’re not quite yet around the clock. As you can imagine, studio space in Midtown Manhattan and Rockefeller Center is at a premium, so we’re running two shifts. We have a day shift and a night shift. And directly underneath me, I have a day manager and a night manager who kind of oversee the shifts.

JV: What’s the turnover like with the producers? Are you guys constantly looking for producers or do you have a pretty stable group of people there?
Mitch: We have a remarkably stable stable of producers. I think that once people get here, first of all they realize the creative freedom that they have, and I would say that I am probably the furthest thing from a micro-manager there is. I try to hire the best people I can and turn them loose, let them do their job.

As I said earlier, the beauty with imaging these channels is there’s really no constraints. We’re not trying to get that quarter hour listener; we don’t have any commercial interests. The whole idea in fact is to just retain subscribers. So, not only can the imaging have to do with that particular channel, but we can turn them on to other channels on the platform. As you know, with a service such as this, listening habits generally are going to be such that you’re going to have three or four or five favorite channels, and a lot of people don’t stray from that. But we encourage that. For instance, if you’re listening to the Classic Rock channel, or The Vault, which is a deeper cut classic rock channel, you might hear a Janis Joplin song, and we’ll have an imaging piece where a jock might say “You know that song was actually a cover done by Bessie Smith, and you can hear the original on the Blues channel. Check it out... Sirius Blues.” We really encourage that and we try to expand people’s horizons to the full offering that is available on the entire Sirius platform.

But as far as turnover goes, I honestly can’t think of one producer, and I’ve been with Sirius five years now, that has quit and moved on. This appears to be more of a destination than a job for producers anyway. I offer them creative license and freedom. That doesn’t mean to say we don’t have limits, but we do have far less restrictions, as far as producers go, than many other work environments or mediums. I think that is a great appeal to a producer or any creative person.

JV: When you hire producers, are you looking for veterans or do you tend to go the other way and get some fresh bodies with open minds?
Mitch: I go the full spectrum on that. I like to hire young up-and-comers with no baggage and a complete fresh open mind, and then again, we also have some very seasoned veterans on our staff. So, I try to keep a balance. I try to keep it balanced right down the middle.

JV: Is there significant audio processing on all the music channels, or do your engineers take advantage of the dynamic range of the satellite signal and try to keep gain control at a minimum?
Mitch: We have processing just like traditional radio. We don’t have some of the technical limitations that FM has such as protecting the pilot or having shelves that blow off the high frequencies. The infrastructure is substantially different obviously, being all digital. In fact, we are digital from the moment a voice enters the microphone until the moment it comes out of your speakers. But yes, we do have individual processors on every single channel. We have a whole room full of them. We’re a little out of my domain, but we do try to match the processing to the format. On some channels, the more traditional pop or mainstream channels, we’ll have more aggressive processing that creates somewhat of a signature sound. Obviously, on like a classical channel, we try to keep it more open, giving more dynamic range. You have to keep in mind that the end user very often is in an automobile where sometimes there are very high ambient noise levels, so we do have to limit the dynamic range, somewhat, or you’re going to lose some of those lower passages in an environment like that. So, yeah, we do control that, but we also try to keep the audio as pristine and clear as possible.

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