R.A.P. Interview: Brian Price

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Brian Price, Creative Services Director/Assistant Program Director, WDVE-FM, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Brian-Price--DVE

By Jerry Vigil

wdve logoYou can’t talk about monster, heritage rock stations without talking about WDVE in Pittsburgh. Clear Channel’s pride and joy in Steel Town continues to dominate, and this month we visit with Brian Price who has been imaging the station for the past 14 years. It’s another story of a dream job and one of those guys who’s a “veteran” in the biz, even though he’s only worked at one station his entire career. Brian gives us the inside scoop on imaging ‘DVE and we chat a little about his latest venture, Category Five Sound, his new imaging library company. Be sure to check out Brian’s imaging demo on this month’s RAP CD!

JV: How you got into the business?
Brian: Well, I was pretty fortunate. I started out in college at West Virginia University in Morgantown, and we had a college radio station that had a tremendous amount of structure to it. So it wasn’t the college radio that most people think of where people just kind of do whatever they want, show up with their own record collection, and have their buddies on the air with them. It was run like a real radio station. So the four years I put in there was truly like working four years at a small-market radio station. And while I was there, I interned at two places. One was a post-production house for West Virginia University called Radio & Television Services, which ultimately hired me out of college. I was the radio producer for WVU. I did a lot of image building for the university, a lot of interviews with deans talking about how great the agricultural school was or what the engineering department was up to. These sorts of things would air usually during halftime at basketball games or football games for WVU and that sort of thing. I would also do audio support for video. After about three or four months of working there, I got a job at ‘DVE as a part-time jock. Prior to this, while I was still in college, the second internship I did my senior year was in production at ‘DVE, so they knew me already.

When I showed up at ‘DVE, I fully intended to be a jock; I thought that’s what I wanted to do. And after about three days in the production room, I realized that every day you played Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and John Mellencamp, and it’s almost the same songs every day; and in production you can really do a lot of different things. So it took literally three days for me to change my mind. My predecessor at ‘DVE, a guy named Tom Koetting, was also from our college radio station. He had been at ‘DVE for about five years. So U92, my college radio station, has kind of controlled the production at ‘DVE now for about 20 years. It’s a great station. I kind of owe it to that launching pad for getting such a great start at an early age.

So for about a year I worked two jobs out of college. The first was the full-time job at the post-production house, and then I worked part-time at ‘DVE. I drove about 75 miles from Morgantown to Pittsburgh each way. I did that for about a year, and then Tom left. He moved on to KBCO in Boulder, and that left me in a position to get the Production Director’s job. I was 23 years old at the time. It was kinda funny because when I talked to people like Joe Kelly, who was our voice guy at the time, and Spike Lee at Brown Bag Productions, who we bought our stingers from, they would say, “Where did you work before?” expecting this ten-year trek. “Well, I got out of college, worked here part-time for a year, and now I’m here.” I was very lucky. I’m from this general area and always wanted to work at ‘DVE, so that’s another reason. I had a tremendous focus on getting here and making sure I stayed in this area.

JV: Sounds like it was your dream job from day one.
Brian: Absolutely. And it has remained that to this day, which is rare. It was rare back then and it’s even more rare now.

JV: WDVE was a rocker back then. Has it been a rocker all this time?
Brian: Absolutely. It’s been on the air about 36 years now, and that’s the beauty, it’s never changed. It’s a true heritage rock station that has no blemish on its record. It doesn’t do like ‘MMS did back in the ‘80s — Top 40 for a while then something else for a while. We’ve never really been all over the map. We’ve stayed the course, and that’s why we have bonded so closely with the people in Pittsburgh. When you drive through Pittsburgh seeing ‘DVE bumper stickers, T-shirts and billboards, it’s like driving through any other city and seeing Coca Cola ads. In fact, just last night we had a little ceremony. We are in a building at the top of a hill near one of the three most traveled areas in Pittsburgh. It’s like the main drag to go into the city from the airport. We’re at the top of this hill in this eight-story bright gold building; it looks like a flashcube. And after many years spent trying to make this happen, we now finally have our call letters on the side of that building at the very top, so it looks like the ‘DVE Building. We lit the sign last night and had a little ceremony. It’s great because we’re at the top of this hill, and people will sit in traffic sometimes for an hour on this hill. It’s the ultimate billboard. I’ve got video of it. It will be on our website in a couple of days.


JV: You arrived at ‘DVE as Production Director. You were doing imaging for them, but were you also handling commercials?
Brian: Yes, I had to do both. Then after about four years, my Program Director at the time, Gene Romano, basically got greedy on the imaging end. He wanted more and more stuff done, and I kept telling him that I was really kind of buried in commercials. At that time, we had just acquired WXDX, so we had this sister station in the building. This is when we were owned by Secret Communications. We had a guy there who everybody really liked, and he seemed to be pretty adept at production. So Gene decided to bump him up and make him the Production Director of ‘DVE, and I became the Imaging Director. I think Creative Services Director was the official title, which I still have to this day. And I’m also the Assistant Program Director here.

JV: So how long have you been doing imaging only?
Brian: It’s almost to the day been ten years, ten years imaging for one station. Most people would look at that and their jaw would drop. All the Clear Channel stations are in this building, but I’m only dealing with one. And our Production Director, the guy I was just talking about, his name is Bill Cameron, he too only deals with commercials for one station. But keep in mind, we do get asked to help out on occasion, and we’re certainly up for doing that.

JV: To what do you contribute your longevity there at ‘DVE?
Brian: As much as I’d like to say it’s talent — that’s part of it — I think it’s just fitting in with the staff. I guess you could say in a way it kinda comes down to loyalty. They know that I’m happy here. If you’re the kind of guy who goes in every year to negotiate his salary and always says, “If I don’t get this, I’m walking...” well, I don’t think management is ever going to warm up to you that much. They’re always going to feel like you’ve got one foot out the door. I’ve never had to play that card. I’m from this area, so I’ve always intended to stay here. Now, I’m not going to take abuse, and luckily they’ve never been the kind of station that has abused me or beat me up or anything like that. They’ve always taken care of me. I’ve had years where I didn’t get a very good raise, but then they’d make up for it the next year.

So it’s been a tremendous place to work for a lot of years, and the staff all feels the same way. We have very few transplants with this staff. Most of our air staff, if not all of them, are from this general area and were just like me – grew up wanting to work here – and because of that, it’s sort of the secret weapon at ‘DVE; it’s what makes it special. When you look around town at the other stations — of course there’s some hometown people working at some of them — but you’ve also got people from other parts of the country there. ‘DVE doesn’t have that kind of an issue; it’s mostly just Pittsburghers, and I feel like I fit in really well here.

JV: The station is doing very well in the ratings, beating out all the other stations in the market 12+ except a News Talk and a Country station…
Brian: And we’re beating them 25-54. We beat everybody 25-54. In fact, I believe we’ve been number one, 25-54, for about 49 straight books now.

JV: Keeping some local people on the staff is part of that success, I’m sure. But you’ve been there a long time; what do you think makes the station that strong? That’s a big market, and there are a lot of stations to compete with.
Brian: Well, you know rock in general has been taking it pretty hard for the last few years, and ‘DVE is a rock station. I think our secret has basically been some of the ancillary things that we offer. Music, for our older listeners, is still pretty important. But music just isn’t as important to people as it used to be. For years we’ve always tried to have the best personalities on the air, and what we’ve ended up with is a dominant morning show. We’ve got a guy, Jim Krenn, who has been here since 1987. The guy who used to be paired up with him, Scott Paulsen, retired in 2000 and left the business for about a year and then came back to do nights at ‘DVE. He basically just hated getting up in the morning. We hired a new guy when Scott left named Randy Baumann, who has worked out in ways that we never thought he would work out. He’s really taken the morning show to the next level. He’s a little young but he brings a little more of an edge to the show. So basically, we not only didn’t slip in mornings, we gained ground. We brought back a morning guy to do nights who, in a study we just did, is just as well recognized in the market as our morning guys. We literally have all the top personalities in town working here. Our midday woman, Michelle Michaels, has been here 20 years. So all of our personalities are actually compelling enough that people tune in just for them.

We’re also the flagship station for the Pittsburgh Steelers and have been for about seven years, and we’re looking to maintain that partnership as long as we can. So obviously from late summer through January, we get a tremendous boost in listenership, particularly on the weekends. For rock stations, weekend numbers are usually atrocious. But for a good six months, we’ve got pretty healthy ones because of the games. And Steelers fans are special. In Pittsburgh, because of the storied franchise that they have here, we’re insane when it comes to the Steelers. So we don’t just want to casually check in on game day and see how the team is doing. All week they listen. So we have some of the biggest sports names, like sports reporters from various TV and newspapers, as guests on our morning show and on our afternoon show throughout the week to talk about sports in general. But obviously during football season, it’s a very big concentration on the Steelers. So sports, which is important to this town to a lot of people, is another attribute that draws people in.

Another thing we do is — and we’ve been doing this for years and I can’t believe somebody else in the market hasn’t completely copied it – we run a lot of comedy clips. Every hour we run at least one. It can be a stand-up comedian that you might hear on Comedy Central, and a lot of times we just recycle bits from our morning show. “Hey, this is something that the morning show did this morning.” It’s a great way to promote the morning show and also play something different than “Stairway to Heaven.” The guy I was talking about before who does nights, Scott Paulsen, is just as talented at doing bits, parodies of songs and things like that. So we have this massive comedy collection.


JV: You’re in the midst of the “less is more” thing with Clear Channel, yet you’re talking about putting comedy clips on the air. How are you balancing the entertainment and the clutter?
Brian: We’re constantly fighting the battle of editing them and making sure they’re as short as possible. With the morning show, their bits are usually 40-second bits to four-minute bits, but we can search through a list and sort it by time. So on overnights when we have less spots, you can run that four-minute bit, and in the afternoon when it’s tight, you can grab that 40-second or 1:15 bit. Our constant challenge is to make sure that what they are putting in there truly represents the best of what they do. If they’re doing something that was really funny, but it was 3½ minutes, we’re constantly working with it to make it a little shorter. We always try to edit, edit, edit.

JV: How has “less is more” been applied to the promos and the sweepers and IDs? Are they shorter than they were before?
Brian: Yes, they are shorter. I never realized how long some of our promos were until I would go back to some of our old production. For benchmark promotions that we might do every year, I archive my Pro Tool sessions. So if I want to, I can go back and dig up a couple of work parts and recycle them the next year. I’ll open these sessions, and my god here’s a 45-second promo! This one was 52 seconds! Now we’ve been told that they really shouldn’t exceed 30 seconds. ‘DVE has set the bar even higher; we’ve tried to make them between 15 and 20. Of course, with a promotion that is a little more convoluted and needs a little more detail, I’ll try to keep those at 30. But if it’s a promo for a feature where we might have five, six or seven different promos all rotating to talk about the same thing, and it’s something that’s been established, those I’ll keep anywhere from 10 to 16-17 seconds. What I’m finding is that there’s not a lot of room for creativity there. That’s the huge challenge right now. It’s tough. They always say here, “Sell the sizzle,” but that can’t be done all the time in 15 seconds.

They did a study where everybody in our company prepared this sampling of breaks from jocks – maybe them reading a liner, maybe them back-selling an artist, whatever – all these different things that at any time a listener could hear. And they were asked some questions: “Do you consider this an interruption? Do you consider this a commercial? Do you consider this a tune-out?” Those sorts of questions were asked. The bad news was that just about everything was perceived as an interruption, a commercial, whatever. The good news was that they weren’t tuning out. Of course, everybody gets back from this seminar and they see this data: “Our listeners think these are interruptions! They think these are commercials!” My bone of contention is, if you would have done that survey ten years ago, they probably would have said the same thing. Listeners don’t know what else to call it. When they hear, “‘DVE Rocks,” they don’t think that’s an imaging piece; they think that’s a commercial for the station. And if they’re not tuning out, to me, that’s a good thing. And I don’t think they’re sitting there with a stopwatch saying, “Well, it is a commercial, but it was only 12 seconds.” I’d rather hear a 30-second interruption that gives me more room to be compelling, a little more creative. If you have a little more compelling writing involved in the thing, I think it can be worth listening to. It’s tough with 15-second pieces though. I think I’m a good year away from having a demo of 15-second promos that can be montaged together where you can say, “That was pretty good, and that was pretty good.”

JV: So your approach to producing a promo these days is probably more about key points and keeping it short.
Brian: Constantly editing, and it’s a process that is constantly evolving. We did a listening day for ‘DVE about six months ago where we literally sat in my Program Director’s living room and listened from 6:00 in the morning through 6:00 at night. What we found was that everything that we were running was textbook; it was by the book, perfectly executed. But it sounded stale. It didn’t have any personality to it any more. All these restrictions that we’d put on ourselves – making sure to say it quickly; get in and get out – had, I felt, removed the fun factor of the station. So I went in and started re-cutting things and tried to boost that upward a bit. That’s the sort of thing you don’t notice when you listen for 45 minutes; but when you listen all day, it’s like “wow.” We’re saying who we are, we’re getting the message out there as to what station they’re listening to and what show they’re listening to, but it’s just the facts. There’s nothing fun about it.

So like I said, it’s an evolving process, and it’s one that I’m going to be constantly fighting with my bosses, to make sure we don’t get boring. That’s the sort of thing we can’t afford to do here. We’ve always been a fun station, and that’s a big part of why people listen to us. Fun is still very much a part of our overall stationality. And it’s not just hearing a comedy cut, it’s also subliminal. When you hear an ID in between songs, and it’s got a cool funny line in it, I think that helps.

JV: When you want to get creative, where do you go to get the ideas? What’s been your fountain for creativity over the years?
Brian: We’ve all been through TV and movie drops, everybody has. I still have to try to gather sound in that way because it’s always good to have some of those nuggets available. But I try not to rely on them like I used to. One of the things that we started doing a few years ago was actually going out and getting listener sound. Now for a lot of stations, that’s no big deal; they’ve been doing it for years. I was always hesitant because I thought it would sound kinda jive. I don’t want to put words in people’s mouths. But what we found was that when we phrased the questions a certain way, we were getting people to open up and talk honestly about what they liked about the station. So I’m getting these really solid unrehearsed comments. It takes a while to build up a library of that, but I’ve been using that for an audio drop as opposed to something from a sitcom or a movie, and it’s even more effective. To have a guy say, “Yeah, I’ve listened to ‘DVE since I was a kid. Man, you guys are great,” is much better than something from a movie I just watched last week. But it takes a long time to dig that stuff up. I can come back with a MiniDisc filled with audio and end up with like 10 little clips that I might be able to use. I cut them up, label them, stick them in a folder, and then database them so I can search for them.


JV: It’s a Pro Tools studio there as you mentioned a moment ago. Has that been the case since the conversion to digital?
Brian: I was actually one of the first guys in the country to get Pro Tools. I remember actually being at Mike and Bob Lee’s house visiting them in, I think it was 1991. They had Sound Designer from Digidesign, which was their two-channel editor. They were like a developmental partner for them, like a beta tester almost. He said, “Yeah, you should wait because they’re coming out with a multi-track version of Sound Designer.” So I waited, and we ended up buying Pro Tools, which at that time was very difficult to use. The plug-ins didn’t exist for it. It was two separate programs. If you wanted to record something, you had to launch a separate program. If you wanted to then edit it, you had to save and quit out of that program and open up the next. It was really hard to use, but we stuck with it.

We’ve purchased thousands of dollars worth of equipment over the years. Our first Pro Tools system cost about $45,000-$50,000. We had one gig hard drives that cost $5,000 apiece. Now you can get 300 gigs for $200 in a case. So I’ve been with the product since day one. In fact, some guys from Digidesign came here within those first few months just to say thanks for buying the Pro Tools system for a radio station. I think there was a station in Philadelphia, maybe one in L.A., and then us.

Brian-Price-Home-Studio

JV: Do you have a studio at home as well?
Brian: Yes. It’s a 24-Mix system with three Legacy farms in it and a couple of interfaces. It’s an older system, and I need to upgrade to an HD probably next year. The 24-Mix system has been in my house for about three years. Before that I had an 001, and before that I had an Audiomedia 3 card. So I’ve had a little setup in some way, shape or form at home for about 6 years. But the 24-Mix system kind of changed everything. Finally I could work at home, and it was just like working here at ‘DVE, with no limitations.

JV: Did you take a lot of work from the station home?
Brian: Yeah, I did a lot of back and forth work, and I still do to this day. It’s nice to have that interchangeability. Right here at work I have the same system. It’s a complete mirror of it.

JV: Were you also doing some freelancing out of the home studio?
Brian: Well, I first started putting a studio together because when I got married and my wife was pregnant, I determined that staying late at work just wasn’t going to be something that I could do any more. And I did start getting some clients. That was starting back in the mid-90s through almost the late 90s. Times were great for an independent producer to make some extra money. Stations just believed in hiring outside guys. They set aside a few hundred bucks a month to maybe do a couple of promos or some sweepers, whatever. I had a ton of clients. At one point I had stations in New York and Miami. I used to do stuff for KUFO in Portland. That was also at a time when we were owned by Frank Wood/Secret Communications, the small boutique company I was talking about earlier. You didn’t have to worry about competing against your own company back then; we just didn’t have very many stations. Once everybody started getting gobbled up and you’re down to like two giant companies now and then a few others, it’s very difficult for me to get a call from another market and not be competing against another Clear Channel station in that market, which is kind of a no-no. Not to mention, larger companies have also decided they need to save money. They’d rather hire another production guy. Get somebody started in the business and have him do that extra work you need done instead of paying $5,000-10,000 a year to various freelancers. So the business kind of dried up for me around 2000-2001, just as I bought a new computer and everything. Then I started doing stuff for Premier. I started doing the Classic Rock Plug & Play Imaging Service, and that’s kind of been a resurgence for my home studio. They’ve helped finance the construction of it and all the equipment upgrades that I’ve done. I pretty much dump all the money that I make right back into that. I’ve been doing that for about three years now.


JV: And your imaging library, Category Five. Tell us what it is and how it came to be.
Brian: Let me start by saying this, a little advice maybe… And I don’t mean to sound doom and gloom, but I think in this day and age with everything changing the way that it is, particularly for rock radio, there really is no guarantee that any of us are going to have the same job we have now in five or ten years. So my best advice, because I’ve been doing this for years, is to save money and have a plan B. Be ready to do something else, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the same job you’re doing now, just in a different city. If you have the talent to do something out of your house, start making plans to do that. It’s never been more affordable to get the equipment and set up your own voiceover studio, or in my case basically a production facility. I’m always looking at other things that I could be doing. At first, when I put the equipment in at home, I thought, I’m going be able to cut radio production in here. Then you look ahead and you go, maybe people aren’t going to want to pay for that. Then I started thinking about doing sounds. So the studio in my home and producing sounds is really in case I lose my job. If that happens, I want to have something else to fall back on.

Regarding the library itself, as a guy who’s been trying to buy sounds for years and has been disappointed probably for about the last five or six years, I decided to just create my own library. It’s mostly geared toward rock, and I produced it as if I were the customer as well. I patterned it after the Brown Bag libraries back when they were a cash library that you could lease for a couple of years at a time. I just love being able to get one disk, maybe even two disks, and just know that everything on here is going to work. I’ve been buying so many disks of late that just don’t satisfy. They don’t have nearly the amount of cuts, or they have way too many cuts that are bad, and I have to search through to find a couple of good cuts, which to me is annoying. Nobody wants to get an eight-disk library and then immediately have to go through it and almost either write little notes or dump them into Pro Tools and save them in a folder. To me that’s just too much work. I want to be able to grab a disk and know that I can use it. Every cut is usable, and you can get a lot of use out of it for a fair amount of time. I don’t want to do a zillion different libraries for every conceivable format. I’d rather do one quality library per year.

And as far as my business model, I’ve taken the best things from some other services. When AV Deli came out with buying these things and owning them forever, when Joe first launched that, that was awesome. Because as an alternative to Brown Bag, it costs about the same amount of money, maybe a couple of hundred dollars less, and you owned it forever; that’s a great deal. Of course, over the years that’s morphed into not paying anything, just bartering for it. But then you have to trade spots on it, which in the “less is more” world, people are really re-examining. In certain markets, you could be paying $20,000-30,000 for an imaging library in bartered spots. Here in Pittsburgh, they’d love it if I went upstairs and said, “You can have those 60s back. That one 60 a day, the seven a week that we’re running to keep this service, you can have those back.” They’d sell them, and we’d get all that money back.

So I wanted to offer up a library that was fairly priced. You buy it, you own it, it’s done. I’m hoping that once it gets going, it’ll be a nice safety net for me. It’s something that I can easily do on the side without taking up all of my time. I don’t need to have every producer in the world as a client. If I have 50 or 100 really great clients, that’s fine. I’m not looking to make all the money; I just want to put out a quality product. I’m hoping that within a couple of years – because I think that’s how long it’s going to take to really tell if it’s a success or a failure – I want people to think, “Category Five Sound… great sounds.”

JV: The first library is available now, right?
Brian: Yes. It’s a CD-ROM with over 400 cuts on it, and they’re WAV files busted out into folders that are broken up by category. They’ll import into any digital workstation that you have – very easy to use. I don’t have 1,000 people beating on my door for it just yet, but the few people that have purchased it have given me nothing but glowing reviews.

JV: Any parting thoughts for our readers looking for tips to imaging ‘DVE style?
Brian: I’d say just always re-examine everything that you do. Kind of study it and break it down. Most things we do, we’ve done for a long time, but we are constantly improving upon them. We really don’t change things unless it’s going to benefit us and it makes sense to do so. For instance, comedy cuts – we need to keep doing those, but you can’t just run comedy. You have to constantly finesse that, look at the library and make sure we’re running the right ones. And after the comedy cut, we have a quick element that says, “Jim Krenn, Randy Baumann, mornings 6:00-10:00 on ‘DVE,” reminding the listener where they can get more. Just re-examine how you do things, and make sure you’re always doing them the best way that you possibly can.

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