Steve Curry, Production Director, More FM/WBEB-FM, Philadelphia, PA
If you keep up with the ratings news in the trades, you probably caught the story of WBEB’s 17.2 share in the Holiday PPM. That’s not in their demo… that’s 12+. In a large market like Philly, that’s pretty much unheard of. So we decided to check in with the man in charge of imaging this ratings monster, and Steve Curry did not disappoint. We find out what kind of Christmas magic garners those kinds of numbers. We get a look inside the walls of this amazing radio station, one of very few privately owned large market stations that have held the #1 slot in the ratings, book after book, again and again. And we get a few insights into the mind of owner Jerry Lee. Be sure to check out the awesome audio from Steve, which we’ve posted online. (You’ll find the link on the March Highlights page.)
JV: Tell us how you got into the business and some highlights along the way to WBEB.
Steve: Well, I started off at WQAL in Cleveland in the late ‘80s. At that point in time it was an Easy Listening station. I pretty much did all the imaging and all the production for them. It was within about six months of starting there when all of the Easy Listening stations were changing over to Light AC. They were all doing well in markets across the country, the Easy Listening stations, but they just weren’t able to sell it anymore. So my station came up with the idea to change the name of the station to Soft Hits. This was my first attempt at re-imaging a whole radio station. I think Charlie Van Dyke was the voice. As I was going along doing it, I started noticing that when you say Soft Hits, you’re saying “soft tits”. [Laughs]
And so I said to them, “Guys, I think we have a problem here.” I’m thinking this is my first shot at imaging and we’ve got a problem here. They said, “Ah, don’t worry about it. It’s going to be all right.” So I imaged the whole radio station, we went on the air with it, and all hell broke loose. All our competitors were saying, “Hey, did you hear the new soft tits station?”
It was actually kind of funny because it was in fact my first attempt at imaging a station. The stuff sounded great, but it only lasted for a week on the station. Within a week we turned into Great Hits. So that was quite an interesting way to be initiated into the imaging club.
JV: That’s funny. And I’m not sure “Great Hits” was much different!
Steve: So I worked there about nine years, and eventually became the APD and worked with some really, really talented people that came through there -- Dave Ervin, who went on to KBIG in Los Angeles. He was a great guy to learn under. He was tremendous. And at the same time Mary Ellen Kachinske, who was at ‘TMX in Chicago; she was there and ended up becoming the PD. I’ve worked with some really great PDs in my days. I’ve been lucky.
From there I got a job in Allentown as Production Director at WLEV, and within about six months I became the Program Director there. I did that for about three years, then they sold the station and I went to Albany for a year… that I’d like to forget.
My wife is also in radio, and she got a job back here in Allentown from Albany. Then I applied at what was then B101 in Philadelphia and got called by Chris Conley, who was the PD at the time, to come work there. I remember calling my wife up and singing Philadelphia Freedom when I got that gig. I started on April Fools’ Day 2000, and I’ve been there ever since.
JV: Who’s the PD now?
Steve: His name is Chuck Knight. He is terrific. I love working with him.
JV: You can probably count on one hand the number of privately-owned stations in a large market that have had the success of WBEB, beating out the large corporate chains year after year. Did you know you were getting into that special of a place when you took the job there?
Steve: That’s a great question. I didn’t. Just the thought of working in Philadelphia seemed so outrageous to me. But I didn’t know the history. I really had no idea of the tremendous history involved with the station. I remember when I started, within my first week, somebody told me that back in 1985 Jerry Lee had given out 50,000 radios that were set to only one frequency. He passed them out to 50,000 businesses around town. They were really high-quality radios. He spent a lot of money on it. And you could only get one station, 101.1. I mean, how brilliant is that? It just blew me away. I knew immediately, this is a guy I’m going to have fun working with.
JV: What are your responsibilities as Production Director?
Steve: My main responsibility is the imaging of the radio station. I also do commercial production for the station, but imaging is my big deal.
JV: And it’s just one station there, right?
Steve: Yes, just the one. And it’s one station that does about three stations’ worth of business.
JV: Are you doing any voice work there?
Steve: I do a little bit of voice work. Unfortunately, I was born with the ability to produce things very, very well, but I was not born with the great voice that a lot of the production guys out there have. I do a lot of tags and that kind of stuff, but I leave it up to the professionals to do the heavy lifting.
JV: How would you describe the station from an employee’s perspective? What’s it like on the inside?
Steve: More FM, which is what we are through the name change, is kind of a throwback to the ‘70s and ‘80s and most of the ‘90s when stations were fully staffed. Remember those days? You’ve got a full promotion staff, full sales and programming staffs. Not the way it is today with programmers handling three stations and Production Directors handling three or four stations. We really have the time to do things right -- pick the right music for particular spots, and wait for a voice that complements a spot rather than going down and getting Janice, the sales assistant, to voice something.
We really have the ability to take the time to create rather than just churning things out with that assembly line production that you see a lot today. The great thing about it is that the jocks don’t do any production on our station. They voice things, but everything that is produced at the station is done by me or one of my assistants. We keep quality control at a premium, and that’s important, and it’s been that way from the start.
JV: How many assistants do you have?
Steve: I have two. One is Juan Varleta. He is also the Music Director. I get him for half the day. He is a Philadelphia legend. He had been on the air for years. He is the kind of guy that’s really good at a lot of things, and luckily for me, one of them is production. The other guy is Shawn Kohn, who is our overnight guy. He does a lot of the dubs and tags and stuff like that.
JV: The station made big news recently with its 17.2 share in the ratings for the Holiday PPM. That’s nearly three times what the number two station had that month.
Steve: Yeah, we love Christmas.
JV: You were playing Christmas music of course, but what were some of the other things you guys did that you think was partially responsible for those amazing numbers?
Steve: Well, it truly is amazing. It’s a sum of all the parts. It’s not one thing that we do. We just do a lot of things really well that add up. When you’re a kid, there’s that magic and spirit of Christmas that passes on through adulthood -- we like to set that tone on the radio station. The music itself sets a tone, but everything you surround it with is so important. Our cume on average is about 1.6 million people. During the height of Christmas, we are over 3 million. So we’re almost doubling our cume. It’s crazy.
It all starts with the Christmas kickoff every year. This is something that I developed around 2005, 2006. It came from a trip to Disney that I took with my family. Everything they do at Disney, from the fireworks displays to the light shows and the parades, everything has wonderful music scores and effects. What they create is an event. And I thought, we need to make the kickoff of Christmas an event. It needs to be something that people set their button for and then listen all through November, waiting for the flip. And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve created and event with these Christmas kickoffs. Thousands of people call the radio station, “When is the kickoff coming?” Facebook is flooded, “We want the kickoff. Tell us when it’s going to happen.” And it’s really cool for me because you don’t get applause as a Production Director. There is no feedback on things that you do. But that kickoff is so popular, the anticipation of it is amazing for me. I have people around the radio station that purposely stay away from my studio when I’m putting it together because they don’t want to ruin it for the actual kickoff. They don’t want to hear it. They want to hear it live. And for me that’s a rush. It’s really a rush.
Some other things that I do… I created a thing called “Ask the Experts”. What we do is we go out and go to daycares and schools and interview preschool kids and ask them questions like: What is in fruitcake? What is mistletoe? What does Mrs. Claus do while Santa is delivering presents? They give adorable, hysterical answers. I probably have a hundred of them in the can. The listeners just absolutely eat these things up. They’re so cute. I don’t know of anybody else that does it, but it’s something we do, and we’ve been doing it for years.
We have a Christmas choir competition every year. This is probably the biggest thing that we do on the station over the holidays. We have two divisions, kindergarten through 8th grade, and 9th grade through 12th grade -- the high school kids. All of the local schools enter their choirs into the Christmas choir competition. It’s kind of an American Idol type thing. They compete on the air during the morning show. The response is absolutely insane. Two hundred, three hundred schools sign up to do it. They send in the MP3s, and I clean them up for air. The really good ones, the ones that qualify, get played throughout the Christmas season.
And when the voting happens, we get millions, millions of votes. These communities just rally around their schools. It’s an unbelievable draw.
That’s probably one tenth of all we do. We really, really bring it during Christmas. It’s important to us.
JV: And it was right after Christmas that the station changed the brand from B101 to 101.1 More FM. What was that rebranding process like back in your studio?
Steve: That was interesting. I was brought in on it months before the switch actually happened. Normally I have a hand in writing a lot of the imaging, but this was so secretive that it was all done behind the scenes. When I was brought in, I was told I had three days to build a whole new radio station, to reimage the station. There was a long period of time before it actually kicked off, but they wanted it in the can, to be able to go at any point in time when they so choose to do so. So I had to bite my lip and keep that secret for three months, but it was pretty cool.
To kind of explain the way things are at the station, when I was brought in on this project, I was at a point in time where I had pretty much picked all the meat off the bone of the imaging effects that I had. I walked down the hall to our vice president and general manager, Blaise Howard. I said, “I don’t have enough to get me through reimaging this thing.” He just said, “What do you need?” I said, “I really like this imaging effects library called Splat.” He said, “All right, let’s do it.” And within a couple of hours I had it, I was using it. Those are the great things about working for one guy. There are hundreds of great things, but that’s one of them.
And so I went in the studio and went crazy and had fun, and I hope people are liking it.
JV: Speaking of the studio, what kind of toys do you have in there?
Steve: Our editing software is Sony Vegas and Sound Forge. Our mics are Neumann TLM 103s. The consoles are Telos and Axia, Telos and Omnia processing. We have one of the greatest engineers in radio. He is fantastic. His name is Chris Sarris. We have three production studios, and they’re pretty much churning it out throughout the day. They’re all linked. We moved into the building, the More FM building, about five years ago, and the great thing about it was we had the ability to build the studios the way we wanted them with brand new stuff. I couldn’t be more pleased.
JV: Since Jerry Lee took the stream off the internet some time ago, I can hear the station! So tell me what I’m missing. I’m not familiar with the Splat library. Is the station imaged like a Hot AC or is it more smooth-sounding?
Steve: Well, as far as Splat, they cover all kinds of formats. They have Country, they have CHR, Pop, AC, Classic Hits or Classic Rock -- they cover the whole spectrum, even Talk. I had never heard of them, and I took time to do my research because finding good imaging elements is very, very difficult. When I stumbled upon them it was like hitting the Holy Grail. It’s such a good package.
As to whether the imaging is mellow or not, it’s definitely upbeat. A lot of people – and this has been my problem for many years -- a lot of people don’t get AC imaging. It’s not the slow, stodgy stuff that people envision. I mean, the music over the past decade has gotten a lot hotter. You’ve got the Katy Perrys and the Pinks. The music is upbeat, and the imaging matches that.
JV: What’s your main source for commercial production music?
Steve: For the commercial production I use FirstCom.
JV: How involved are you with the commercial production? Are you writing copy?
Steve: No. We have a creative guy who handles a lot of that. He’ll go out on the calls with the clients and such. I really don’t have the time to do that, and having him handle that stuff is tremendous. He is an incredible copywriter, and his name is Jason Collado.
JV: Oh, so you have two production guys and then a copywriter or a creative guy as well?
Steve: Yeah. And even the guy who does the overnights, Shawn Kohn, that’s his main job. He is a professional copywriter as well. We’ve got it all.
JV: So inquiring minds at the big corporate stations want to know… how often do you get to see Jerry Lee?
Steve: I see him every day. It’s really cool. In fact, I was telling my wife about that the other day; I walk past his office probably 15, 20 times a day. And one question I get asked more than any other is, “What’s Jerry Lee like?”
JV: Well , I wasn’t going to ask, but since you brought it up…
Steve: He’s terrific. He is absolutely terrific. He is so way ahead of his time. The ideas and the things that he comes up with just blow me away.
JV: It sounds like he’s a really hands-on kind of owner.
Steve: Very much so, yeah. He’s got his hands in on everything. I don’t know where he finds the time. But I don’t have a bad thing to say. I’m really blown away by what he has accomplished over his career. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary this year. So every month we had staff get-togethers where we would all get together and reminisce about the past and what we’re doing now. It’s really a tight staff. We have the best people working at each position. Everybody works towards the goal of winning. You don’t find any of the office politics or backstabbing. Everybody works together. It truly is an oasis. It’s a dream place to work, it really is. I know people get sick of hearing that, but it’s true.
JV: Any other fun stories you can share with us?
Steve: I grew up in Cleveland. My favorite station was the legendary WMMS in Cleveland. I remember in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, it was just an unbelievable station. I would tape it and listen back -- Kid Leo and Matt the Cat and all the great jocks that they had. To me it was the radio station to listen to. I remember the imaging guy who was there at the time, Steve Lushbaugh. It’s kind of cool because fast-forward to me working at B101 in 2000. Each year they had the Philly Air Awards. They’ve since cancelled the Air Awards, but each year ‘MMR would win one, then I would win one. Then ‘MMR would win one, then I would win one. It was really cool to think, here’s a guy who was imaging my favorite radio station ever, and I end up going up against him in the Air Awards. It all came full circle for me.
You know, I really I created my own style when I got into the business. I didn’t have much to go on. There wasn’t anybody I really copied or anything like that. But I remember always loving his stuff. He is brilliant. He probably doesn’t know I exist, but I just remember thinking it was pretty cool that after all that time I end up in the same market that he’s in, competing with him in Air Awards. He would usually beat me, but I’d get a few wins here and there.
JV: How would you describe your style of imaging?
Steve: I think AC imaging is some of the hardest to do. People may not agree with me. I think in the Rock realm you have a much bigger window; the spectrum of what you can do is greater. In AC you don’t want to go too hot, and you don’t want to go too soft. You want to be right in that hot spot. And especially when you’re trying to win awards, when you’re going up against Rock and Country and CHR stations that can really do wild and crazy stuff, to win as an AC station is not easy to do.
My style is basically whatever ends up sounding good to me. I’ve stuck by that. If it sounds cool to me, it’s done. One thing I always do with my stuff is I do samplers. I’ve always produced things, and then do samplers to hear how it will sound on the air. I will mix the music underneath it or pretty much create an hours’ worth of programming and pop them in before they ever hit the air to make sure that they’re going to fire and sound as cool on the air as they do to me. I always like to test them out before I let them hit the air. That’s a little something I do, but my style is something that’s just so hard to describe.
I think a lot of newbies, a lot of new production guys forget… what you’ve got to keep in mind is it’s all about the message. For us it’s “More music, less talk, seven songs in a row”. You’ve got to hammer those things home, because that’s what it’s all about. I think you can get yourself in trouble when you start producing things to sound cool on your demo, not thinking about the way they’re going to sound on the air. Over the 25 years that’s one of the things I’ve learned; don’t produce for your demo, produce to get the point across on the air.
JV: I’m sure many have asked the question to Mr. Lee and your PD and probably yourself as well, but why did they change the brand to More FM when the station was on top already?
Steve: We research everything. That’s one of the great things about Jerry Lee: research is everything. What we found was that we had done such a fantastic job of marketing the station throughout the years that the perception of some was that B101 was still playing certain artists that we haven’t played in years. These artists were still attached to it. So Jerry jumped out in front of that and decided to make the name change, which to me is brilliant.
Back in the early ‘90s the station was Easy 101, and it was number one. He made the decision at that point in time to change it to B101, and everybody thought he was crazy. Since I’ve been there, from 2000 to 2014, we’ve won nine Marconi Awards. So yeah, you’ve got to trust that he knows what he’s talking about.
We also found through research that people wanted more music. They wanted more music and less talk. And really a major part of it too is they wanted more of the music that they love. So we went from playing five songs in a row to seven songs in a row. So everything is more. Giving listeners more of what they want.
JV: Is that seven in a row twice an hour?
JV: Wow. Then you are definitely not playing a lot of commercials.
Steve: It’s pretty amazing. The jocks and everybody are blown away by how long the music sets are.
JV: How about one last cool story before we let you go?
Steve: Back when you were talking about the streaming and the fact that we don’t stream anymore… one of the coolest things that happened was when we stopped streaming, and I started getting calls from Program Directors all over the country asking me to send them CDs of the station because they have nothing to cheat off of anymore. And it was a lot of them. “Can you guys please start streaming again? I steal everything off of you, and now I’ve got no playbook.” To me that was such an honor. It really showed we’re doing things right.