R.A.P. Interview: Russ Cimber

Russ Cimber, Director of Production, KIRO-AM/FM, KTTH-AM, Seattle, Washington

Russ-Cimber-1By Jerry Vigil

If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of these days, it’s articles about bad times in radio, company stocks in the toilet, layoffs, the “end of radio as we know it” -- which has more to do with competing sources of entertainment than the economic status of the world. Perhaps now, more than ever, radio should take a second look at their production department, not in terms of “who can we get rid of,” but in terms of how that department can be utilized to grow revenue. The economic crisis is not only bad for radio; it’s bad for our advertisers. Maybe what they need more from radio is not a salesperson who will slash rates further than the last guy knocking on the door, but radio that comes to them with a more solid approach to making money, to bringing customers to the door. We’ve heard this story before: produce creative commercials that really work for the client. But maybe it’s time this becomes the standard, rather than the exception. Russ Cimber, Director of Production for Bonneville’s Seattle cluster of three stations, including the market’s current #1 station, is an example of the kind of individual that stations might want to start considering as a “must have” member of the team. The days of taking advertiser’s dollars and throwing “last minute” rip-and-read ads on the air may be over. The power of radio advertising is no less than it was 10 years ago, but the need to focus that power is greater than ever. This month’s RAP Interview with two-time Mercury Award winner Russ Cimber focuses on just how that power can be harnessed. Due to the RAP Awards finalists on this month’s CD, a sample of commercial work from Russ can be heard online at rapmag.com.

JV: Where did it all begin for you?
Russ: It began in 1977. I was a senior in high school, and I left my books in a car of a friend who worked part-time at a beautiful music station in Waco, Texas. KWTX were the call letters. I walked in, went into his little sound booth, and all he was doing was time and temp at the top and bottom of the hour. But when he turned that mic on, I thought, “This is the coolest thing in the world. I’ve got to do this.” So he got me a part-time job spinning Mantovani and The Hollywood Strings and stupid stuff like that, but it got my foot in the door. Then it was on to Top 40 and country and oldies and everything you can imagine. I did 11 years on the air. I spent a little time in Austin in about ‘85, and then ‘86 I went to Portland. I worked at KGON/KSGO there -- KSGO was an oldies station.

Then in 1988, I got off the air to become a full-time Production Director and never looked back. I just didn’t like being on the air; that was not my deal. I just was never comfortable with it. And I liked the palate in the production room, the painting pictures with words and having salespeople be happy and clients be happy. That was the satisfaction for me, playing with sound and being able to be creative. Just sitting there in the studio telling the people what record just played was not for me. I always felt a little weird doing that.

JV: How long were you in Portland?
Russ: I was there about five years, and then came up here to Seattle to work at a station called “The Mountain,” KMTT. It was in its first year, a Triple A station, and it was great. I loved that format. I not only got to do commercials there, but we had all these bands come in, lots of them -- every week we were bringing in a band. All these great artists would come in and we’d record them in the studio. Then we started pumping out what were called “On The Mountains,” their CDs that they put out once a year. I got to be a producer on those, putting those live cuts together. That added a dimension to the job that was just really cool and a lot of fun.

The station is still going strong. It’s an Entercom station. Entercom bought KIRO radio back around ‘99 or ‘98. I came over here in ‘99 or 2000 and became the Production Director for the three or four stations at the time. It’s since become three. Bonneville bought these three back from Entercom a little over a year ago, and I stayed on with Bonneville instead of going over to Entercom. So it’s been about 10 years now at the same facility.

JV: When would you say you really started getting into the creative commercial work?
Russ: Well, back in ‘88, back at KGON/KSGO in Portland, I was on the air, and I got the full-time production job because the Production Director left that position to move into a 16-track recording studio below our building. He started doing all the ads for Fred Meyer, which is a grocery chain. He’s still doing that to this day. His name’s Ryan Wiley. I want to get his name in there because he’s one of the most creative/talented guys I know. I got a chance to work with him and we partnered up. We put together a lot of fun, creative stuff. I personally believe he’s wasting his talents just being a recording engineer.

Then he and I started dabbling together down in that studio. I’d bring down a project, and we found that we just enhanced each other creatively. We almost went out on our own together. I love to work with creative people. Sometimes I feel like an enhancer of ideas, and then I also find that other people are the same with my stuff.

I like working with people instead of alone, but I haven’t done that in a long time; it’s been pretty much solo for a long time now, especially here. You don’t run into those people very often that have that little spark, that are thinking outside the box, thinking really on the edge. It’s always great when you can find somebody like that. Ryan Wiley is like that. He thought the way I did, and we would just throw so much stuff against the wall and find out what stuck the best, and we had a blast doing it.

It was somewhere between ‘88 and ‘91 when we were doing that for about three years. It was one of those jobs where I actually woke up before my alarm went off because I couldn’t wait to get into work. It was that much fun when we were working on a project. To have that feeling again, I’d almost do it for free. (laughs)  Don’t tell my bosses that. It was a lot of fun and I haven’t found that since, where you’re working with someone that you just love coming in to work with, putting this wacky stuff together.

JV: The stations that you’re at now, it’s KIRO AM and FM, and the other talk station is…
Russ: KTTH, “The Truth.” Conservative talk. KIRO AM and FM is currently a simulcast, but soon KIRO, the news talk station, is going to be exclusively on the FM at 97.3 FM, and the AM will be going all sports. It’ll be 710 ESPN Seattle come April.

JV: What are your responsibilities there?
Russ: To manage the department, oversee production, make sure everything gets in smoothly and runs smoothly, and write, voice and produce any of the local stuff. I work with salespeople, go out on sales calls, put specs together....

JV: What help do you have in the department?
Russ: I’ve got one full-time commercial production guy who helps me, and we have a full-time image producer for the stations. Pretty much the only interaction I have with the image producer is if we’re using each other’s voices on stuff. He focuses on working with the talk show hosts, putting promos together, working with our voice guy. His name is Jay Shadix, and he does all the imaging for the three stations here.

The commercial production guy is Mike Sievers. He’s relatively new. He’s been doing this here at the station for just a couple of years. He helped us out in production a few years before that. He was very eager to get in, had the talent, and he’s just grown leaps and bounds. He’s one of those diamond-in-the-rough type guys that’s got it all -- smart, he’s got a good voice, good editing skills. He’s pulled it all together and he’s really doing a great job for us.

The three of us are the hands-on production people here, and we supplement that with some part-time hours. We’ve got a girl that comes in for about 15 hours a week. Her name is Marsha Davis. She spent some time with Sirius Radio back East, and she was brought in to help out what was our oldies station here, in the image department, and since that format went under, we kept her on in commercial production because we needed some help.

JV: KIRO has been consistently in the top five in Seattle in recent books and number one in the last one; and your other station is usually not far behind. What kind of task do these stations create for the commercial department?
Russ: Over the last many years that I’ve been here, it’s been extremely busy. Not only do we have the three stations, but when I first got here we had the Seattle Mariners, and that’s like having a whole station in itself. We lost them for the last six years, but we got them back this year, so we’re ramping up to do Mariners baseball again.

We’re the home of the Seattle Seahawks, so every fall through, hopefully, the early part of the winter, we’re doing production for them as well. We picked up The Sounders soccer, so we’re going to be doing production for them also. We anticipate it getting very busy.

Normally, just with regular commercial production for the stations here, there’s a pretty heavy workflow. Traditionally, we do a lot of directs, a lot of 30s, so we have to learn to write a little differently. That’s been something that has changed from the way it used to be. In fact, I’d say that’s the biggest thing that’s changed: learning how to write 30-second creative spots. That has been the biggest challenge recently.

But the workload is pretty heavy. There’s a lot of direct business. With the conservative talk station, there’s a lot of financial stuff, a lot of clients coming in. That’s another thing that we do quite a bit of, bringing clients into the studios, hours every week. Particular clients will want to come in and either sit here while we do the spots, or they have a voice person with them, or they want to voice their spot. So it is a pretty good amount to manage.

JV: It sounds like you more interaction with clients in the studio than most stations. How is that working out?
Russ: For the most part, they’re pretty good about respecting that maybe we know what we’re talking about and what we’re doing, so they aren’t micromanaging. But a lot of them like to be a part of the process, so they’ll sit and watch. Or a couple of people from either an agency or their marketing department will come in, and they just want to be part of the process and offer some input and that sort of thing.

JV: You mentioned 30-second creative spots as a new challenge. When you were learning how to cram that creative into 30 seconds, as opposed to having a whole minute to do the magic, what was the hump that you finally got over that made you say, “Oh, here’s how you do it”?
Russ: I think it was less is more. It was a paradigm shift in my thinking. Creatively doing a 60, there was a bit of a formula. It was a little bit like what you’d hear with Dick Orkin– who I idolize – and some of the other great ones. You’ve got a beginning, a middle, and an end, and hopefully you wrap it all up. I think you can do the same thing with a 30; you just have to really hone in and drill down for that one point and that one message you’re trying to get across. I think the biggest hurdle was saying a lot less and sticking to your main focus of the spot -- what’s the message you want to get out? And there are ways to do it. You can make a pretty creative 30.

JV: How long have you been going on sales calls?
Russ: Ever since I can remember. I went on sales calls at The Mountain. I’ve been doing that here. Obviously, we’ve pared staff back over the years, and I’m sure that’s probably a very common tale, especially right now. So it does get a little tougher to go out on too many calls; you almost have to qualify some of them, but it can be done if you just schedule your time right.

I encourage a lot of clients to come into the studio, and haven’t had much resistance there. The salespeople bring them by, I give them the grand tour, they get to see some of the talk show hosts, that sort of thing, so it’s not a tough sell to get them in here. It makes it easier on the production department just to head up to the conference room and sit down for a half hour and meet with them rather than head out into traffic and shoot two hours when you can get it done in an hour or less.

JV: What are the criteria for who’s going to get a sales call? How do you pick who’s going to get the special treatment?
Russ: I wouldn’t say there’s actually much picking going on. I guess it’s just explaining a philosophy to salespeople over the course of time as new ones come in. The more experienced ones, they understand it, they get it. It’s just explaining the real situation that we just don’t have a lot of time so we need to make sure it’s more of a sense of need. At what point do you need this to happen? And they’ve been pretty good about that. So I guess they’re probably qualifying the dollar amount, or how close they are, or if the client asks.

But I haven’t been too disappointed at all in feeling like my time has been wasted. I’d like to say your time is never wasted when you’re dealing with clients, because I’ve got a very strong client services belief and I’d like to do it with all of them, but you at some point have to manage your time and weigh the benefits with the time spent. You hate to put any kind of dollar amount on that, but sometimes it does boil down to that, and they understand a $1500 account for a quick spot is not warranting one of us going out.

JV: When you do go out there to meet the client, what do you try and accomplish from a creative standpoint in that first meeting?
Russ: I really try to let them know I’m listening, and that’s what I am doing. I’m trying to hear what they’re saying, and I don’t always agree that that’s their best message, and I’ll let them know that. I believe honesty with the client is so important because you’ve got to establish a trust with the client. They expect a little BS from the salespeople, but they’re not going to trust me unless they feel I’m being honest with them. And sometimes that comes with disagreement.

But I listen to them, try to hone in on what I think their one message would be that is going to appeal to the listener. I really like to stick to one thing. If you remember the movie, City Slickers, where Mitch and Curly are talking and Curly gives him the advice of “one thing” and holds up one finger. Whenever I’m sitting with a client, I always bring that up to them. It’s the one thing. Then you wrap your message around that. That one thing could be the whole creative. You could basically create the delivery device around that one message, but the important thing is that you get that one message across, the one thing that’s going to get people in touch with them.

So that’s what I listen for, and I try to guide them. I want them to see that I’ve done this a long time, that I’ve got experience. I’m not always right, but I do have a certain set of beliefs in advertising, and I try to stick to them because I’ve seen them work. So I guide them along that way, and for the most part, most clients are willing to put that trust in you, and I’ve seen it succeed most of the time. I don’t try to recreate it; I just really try to listen and then feed back to them what I’ve heard, what I hear them saying, and what I think they should do, and then leave the decision up to them.

JV: I think it’s a small percentage of stations that have someone that goes out in your capacity to help the client with their creative. Do you get a sense from the clients that they’re not used to that kind of treatment from radio stations?
Russ: They don’t tell me that, but I get that sense many times that they’ve not been told these things before. They’ve all been bombarded with salespeople, and salespeople are really good at what they do. Do I think they ought to have better marketing skills? Yes. But no matter how good they are with marketing, if they’re with a newer client who doesn’t know that for sure, I don’t know that there’s a complete trust there.

There’s always the angle of, “Oh, he’s a sales guy and he’s just trying to get me to buy his station.” When I meet with a client, I’m up front about that. I say, “I don’t know where you should buy your advertising. I’m not an expert there. That’s why we have this guy,” and I point to the salesperson. They’re the experts in how to run the schedule, what rotations they should run on stations and all that. I’m there to figure out their message. I try to convey to them up front, right away in the conversation, that along with that one thing, how are you going to get that message to the client.

Our objective as a radio station is not to necessarily increase your sales. We’re the first part of that. Our objective as a radio station is to get people to your door where we pass the football off to you. I think that plays into much of the advertising. I think too many people try to do too much convincing and educating in an ad. You can do a little, but I think you’ve got to find what brings people to take that step to contact you. Then, hopefully they’ve got a good sales department, and they’ve got the right people where they can then take the football and run with it.

Many of our clientele are the kind of business that would be put on a list for getting estimates from or checking out.  Let’s say I want to buy a mattress. Most people probably check out two or three places. Well, you want that client to be on that list. Is that through name recognition? Is it through an offer going on right now? It could be a wide variety of reasons, but you just want them on that list. How do we get people to make that next step? Once they come in the store, it’s up to you to sell them; we’ve done our job. I think sometimes the clients need to hear that because they think, “Hey, I’m advertising, how come I’m not selling? They’re contacting me, but we’re not closing the deal.” Well, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to get people to your door. I think they believe in that. After a while, I think they finally see that.

JV: Do you have some formula, for lack of a better word, that you use to get people to the door?
Russ: Many times it’s probably just sitting around and asking those people that are involved in that campaign, whether it’s myself or the salesperson, or maybe just somebody down the hall. You talk to them: what would make you interested in buying? Is it a price, is it an interest rate, is it quality, years of experience? I find out whatever that may be, and I think you need to get that message out with that particular client.

Sometimes it’s just gut. It’s a feeling. It’s knowing that I really think this is going to hit home with people, and they’re going to contact you because of this message. You don’t need to tell them five or six different things in the ad -- we’ve been open 24 years, and financing on approved credit, and here’s our phone number three times, and we’ve got a Web address, too. That sometimes is information overload. You’ve just got to find out what’s going to interest people and what’s going to make them take that next step to get in touch with you, whether it’s now because they need your service now, or whether they remember you -- and that’s through name recognition, so I think you’ve got to brand as well.

JV: When you’re meeting with them, do you use a form and fill in the blanks?
Russ: No, I just take notes. I’ve seen that; I used to have a form. It was based loosely on a form that Dick Orkin’s Radio Ranch had. I can see the validity in that, but it was a little too structured for me. I just try to keep it a little simpler and take notes. But I ask those same types of questions.

Sometimes they look at you like you’re crazy when you say, “So, what’s your objective for advertising?” They’ll say, “Well, you know, to sell more product.” “Well, no, what is your objective and what would make you happy and feel like we were successful for you that your radio advertising has worked?” Now all of a sudden it changes and then they say, “Well, if I have more people show up at my door, get my phone to ring.” Then you can say, that’s right. That’s what our job is. It’s not to sell more product; that’s the second part of it.

But you’ve got to take steps. The first step is to get your message to the people. Second step is to get them to act. Third step is partially, or mostly, shared by the client -- sell it. When you get those people in the door, don’t lose them. That’s up to you.

JV: How has the current economic crisis affected your job in terms of dealing with the clients?
Russ: Other than a slowdown, which I’m sure a lot of people have seen, it hasn’t really affected my job dealing with clients. I think the people that are still here are interested in advertising. They’re a little bit more concerned that it’s going to work. I’ve actually noticed more of a change in the salespeople, who are a little bit more nervous.

If it’s not working in that first week they want to change it, and so I’ve got to sit down and talk rationally with them too, and try to calm their fears, remind them that hey, you’ve been in this business a long time. You know radio works. The message is there. It may not be the message that’s the problem; it may be just the times, and things like that. I haven’t really noticed a difference in the advertisers other than they’re a little more cautious, they’re cutting some budgets.

JV: I would imagine it puts a little more pressure on you, though.
Russ: It does. I share that pressure with the salespeople in that you really want it to work. That’s why it’s really important that you don’t just kowtow to the clients all the time. You’ve really got to give them feedback. You can’t just be a “yes” man. You have to do what you really think is right so that it works for them. Most of the time they take your advice, sometimes they don’t, but at least you’ve offered it, and I think they respect you for that. So you’ve got to make sure you’ve done everything you can to make their ad work.

JV: In this tough economy, it seems having someone like yourself at a radio station is even more valuable now, even if it means adding to your staff, while others are cutting. Would you agree?
Russ: I do. And this is a subject I feel really strongly about. I don’t know how well it works across the country or with every radio station. I don’t know if it takes a certain type of talent that you’ve got to have before you can do that, or how much of it can be taught. But personally, from what I do and my situation here, I believe in it and I think it’s very valuable. I’ve seen it work. I know it provides a very strong closing tool for the sales department when you have somebody who knows the marketing, knows what works, listens to the client, brings back something that the client loves because they did listen, something that’s exactly what they were looking for, and it’s effective.

I think that’s huge in not only getting a client on, but also keeping that relationship going for a long period of time. I think it’s really important for radio stations to have that type of person. Now whether it’s somebody who can come back and do award-winning spots or knock the socks off production-wise, I don’t know that it always has to be. They’ve got to definitely be good and effective spots, but I think you can train more production people in marketing.

Companies invest all kinds of time and money in these creative brainstorming seminars, marketing workshops, sales development programs. I think it would be smart to have somebody that’s almost out of your promotions department that knows production, or out of your sales development programs that knows production. Someone that gets it from the creative side, but also knows how to go out with the sales department and hold that client’s hand, advertising-wise, and show them what can be done, what we think is important for them to do. I think it’s huge.

That somebody that the client is looking at is seen as an expert, and it’s not just the salesperson who’s sitting there, who they know has an agenda to have them sign the bottom line. And again, I go back to what I was saying, you’ve got to establish their trust. So you have to shoot straight with them. You can’t become a part of the sales department by saying whatever needs to be said to get a signature on the bottom line. That’s up to the sales guy.

You need to provide that client with some marketing advice and expertise, and one of the things that they’re starting to do here at our stations is having marketing workshops with the client. I’ve been in several of these over the last three months. They bring a client in, and we don’t talk about radio ads. We talk about the client, what their needs are. It’s a whole half-hour session where we write down all these radical ideas -- there are no bad ideas -- and we start honing in on something that would work for the client. And they really get a sense that we’re servicing them. We’re really trying to drill down and find out what’s going to work for them. I think that’s huge in developing a relationship with a client. It’s not about just taking your ad dollars and running them on our station. We’re trying to become your marketing service. Everybody can’t afford an agency or a high-powered creative services department. We should provide that to them.

I think all stations can do that. I think it’s money well spent if you find a creative person who’s got great interaction with clients, good people skills, who is a good listener. Get those dubs and tags and straightforward copy done by some other people in the station. There are a lot of talented people who can handle that sort of job. Free up that one person and make him part of your sales department and marketing team. That’s the area I think a lot of stations could have some huge success with, especially if so many other stations aren’t doing that.

JV: We’ve done interviews with some individuals who do much of the same thing you do for your clients, but they charge extra for this. I don’t get the impression that you’re charging clients anything extra for this special treatment. Are you?
Russ: No. It’s all part of the service. I think it should be. I think that goes a long way in building that long-term relationship.

JV: Do you have any special places you go for creative inspiration?
Russ: Not really. I love the studio. Many times it’s in the shower. This is my favorite thing, the creative, when you hit on that idea and you just know it’s going to work and you can’t wait to put it down. A lot of times it’s in the studio when the idea comes, just listening to some music tracks. We’ve got a great library here with FirstCom, and we get just about everything they produce, so I’m fortunate to have the tools to work with.

We have a huge selection of wacky and novelty discs, and I often use those for inspiration too. You put on some offbeat music cuts and just start writing to it. You get a germ of an idea. Or it could be a sound effect. I did a 30-second spot for “25 percent off lamps” at a lamp company, and 25 seconds of it was just sound effects of smashing lamps. You hear a stick going through the air and the crashing lamps, and the tagline was, “Taking 25 percent off your lamps? Fortunately we’ve got a better way of doing it. We’re Seattle Lighting,” or whatever. But that’s a sound effect that got people to listen to the ad because they didn’t know where it was going, and that whole message was, 25 percent off lamps right now at this store. So, how can you use just a sound effect in the creative process? That’s an example. Start thinking outside the box that way and just have a little fun.

JV: What are your tools in the studio?
Russ: Pro Tools. I’ve got a nice Mackie mixer, but who cares any more about those? It’s just a glorified volume control and router. Pro Tools is what I use, and I’m loving it. There are a few people in the building that still like to use CoolEdit -- of course at the time it was a cheaper alternative to put in all the studios -- but the three main studios have Pro Tools. For mics, I use the U89 Neumann and really like that. But when I was back at The Mountain, I was very fond of the AKG TL2. I think those two are my favorites, but I’ve really gotten to love the Neumann.

JV: Do you do some freelance work as well?
Russ: I do. I do quite a bit of it, and it’s mainly with clients that have come through the station. It kind of gets back to customer service: you do a good job for them, put out a good product, and all of a sudden they want to run it elsewhere. I think production departments are a great way to make a little extra money, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity when you have companies and stations that allow you to do that as long as your job is getting done. It’s a nice perk.

JV: Have you taken this to a level where you’ve got your own website or an agent for your voice work?
Russ: I’m busy enough with what comes through the station at the moment. But you know, there are those plans. I put in a home studio and maybe that’s something down the road, either as a safety net or if there is a day when you go out on your own, or maybe it’s when you’re semi-retired or something. But I really enjoy the job of Production Director right now, and that’s my main job. It’s what I like doing. I don’t see myself becoming a standalone freelance guy at this point, but that certainly could be something down the road.

Bonneville is a very good company to work for. They’re very people-oriented, community-oriented, and so that means a lot. It’s fun to come into work for a company like this, and that’s part of it, too. I suppose there are companies in the midst of downsizing -- not fun places to work -- where maybe my dream of being a standalone freelance guy would be sooner on the horizon. But not now.

JV: Any further advice to stations wanting to expand or enhance their commercial production department?
Russ: I don’t know if it’s realistic for every station to do the creative services thing. You’ve got to have an individual who can pull it off. They’ve got to be a people person, and as you know, not all good production people are necessarily people persons, so you don’t want to go out there with somebody who isn’t going to put their best foot forward.

But I think those people are out there. Like I say, there’s got to be a combination of people skills, sales skills, marketing skills, honesty, and then of course, at the end of the day, you’ve got to have the production skills to get it done. But if you can find somebody who can somewhat do all that, I would say, train them. I’ve seen a lot of companies spend a lot of money and time training their sales department and their promotions department in all these marketing aspects. I think they need to involve a production person.

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