R.A.P. Interview: Ray Sherman

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Ray Sherman, Production Director, 97X/WXLP-FM, Davenport, IA

ray-sherman-march-1992

by Jerry Vigil

For quite some time now, we've been getting tapes for our monthly Cassette from a powerhouse station in Davenport, Iowa, a pleasant little city in the market known as the Quad Cities. We were quite impressed with the quality of work coming to us from this small market with an Arbitron Metro Survey Area population around 300,000 and a market ranking of 120. So, we decided to check in with Production Director Ray Sherman to find out what this talent with a major market sound is doing in a small market. We also find out what kind of small market station attracts this kind of talent. Unfortunately, due to the RAP Awards finalists being on this month's Cassette, you will have to wait until next month to hear Ray's work, but trust us. It's as good as it gets in Small Market, USA!

R.A.P.: Where did you get your start in radio, and how did you wind up at 97X?
Ray: I got started in college radio at Western Michigan University in 1973. I did that typical thing and drove thirty-five miles to do a morning air shift for free at the college station so I could get a tape together to get my first real gig. That first gig was at an AM daytimer, WYYY, down in the swamps of Kalamazoo. I had a five hour air shift and the Production Director title. I did this for about a year and a half, then I sent out three air checks and got a call back from KBEQ in Kansas City. They needed an all-night guy for sixty bucks more a week. So, at twenty-one years of age, I packed my stuff in a U-Haul and went to Kansas City.

I worked at KBEQ from 1976 to 1981. I did the all-night show for about a year, then had a chance to move up. The Production Director at the time was Mike O'Brien who really showed me a lot in my early days about what being a Production Director was all about. I moved into the six to ten p.m. shift and eventually became the Production Director.

After KBEQ, I got an opportunity to go to Chicago which was where I grew up listening to radio as a kid. WKQX, at the time, had changed from album rock to A/C. I worked the night shift there from ten till two. There was no emphasis on my production because there were engineers to run the equipment. I had no hands-on production, and it felt really strange not being able to touch the equipment.

I was at WKQX for about a year when they let me go, but, in my mind, that was a good deal because WMET came on to the scene. WMET had been there already, but they had just been purchased by Doubleday. I worked at WMET for about a year and a half, and it too was a station that didn't put a lot of emphasis on production. Doubleday sold the station after about eighteen months, and there I was looking for another job.

WCKG then came on to the scene in Chicago, and I managed to get a part-time gig there. Bill Towery, who is WCKG's Production Director today, was the Production Director back then as well. I was able to get a lot of hours in as a production assistant. The station is and was very production intensive. We did lots of promos, drops, show opens, and things like that. Bill Towery was instrumental in showing me another side of production I hadn't seen before. I worked at WCKG for about eighteen months and found myself out of a job again. That's when the opportunity here in Davenport opened up at WXLP.

R.A.P.: How did the move to Davenport come about?
Ray: WXLP had just been purchased by Bob Goodrich of Goodrich Broadcasting in Michigan. They also own WVIC, WSNX, and WODJ. When Bob bought the station, it was down in the dumps, though it did have a heritage in the market. Jeff Scarpelli, who was the Corporate Manager at the time, came in as the station manager, and Chuck Finney, who was the Corporate Program Director, also came in. They had just bought the station, they needed warm bodies, and I needed a check. I thought, "Hmmm, the Quad Cities? It's not Chicago, but hey...."

It's a hundred and eighty miles from Chicago, so I'd drive out on Monday and work all week. Then I'd drive back to Chicago on Friday night. I did that for a few months, sort of on a trial basis to see if I liked the gig and if they liked me. We did, and it became a good deal. I figured I could move the wife and kids out here, buy a house for one-fourth what it would cost in Chicago, put the kids in a good school system, and that kind of stuff. We've been here for five years now, and I'm still happy here. I'm still having fun, and it's still a good place to work.

R.A.P.: What makes 97X a good place to work?
Ray: Bob is the kind of operator that gives his employees what they need, including the best equipment. Now, we don't have a lot of things some radio stations have, but whatever we need to compete, Bob gets. In the beginning, that included moving our studios to a new building. Bob bought an old funeral home and converted it into a radio station. We call it the Rock and Roll Mansion. The embalming room still exists upstairs, and there's more square feet in this building than I've ever had at any radio station I've ever worked at.

R.A.P.: I imagine there are quite a few jokes running around about the building once being a funeral home.
Ray: Oh, yea. And when we first started in this building, Bob didn't want us to refer to it as an old funeral home. He'd say, "Call it the Rock and Roll Mansion." So we did, and it stuck. Now, when you mention The Mansion to someone, they know what you're talking about.

But getting back to what it's like working here, the company believes in hiring good people. At all his stations, he hires good engineers, good programmers, good managers, and good salespeople. And people will come and go, but the basic premise of the Goodrich philosophy of hiring good people holds true, and there isn't a great turnover. I think it's a great operation.

Bob is very supportive of his people, and I mean more so than just buying the equipment they want. For example, he supports the DJ's and their rights to freedom of speech. That may sound a little funny, but he won't just fire somebody if they say something that upsets a client. Part of this philosophy probably comes from the fact that Bob also owns theatres, and he once owned an X-rated theatre in Grand Rapids. He'll tell you that it was "Deep Throat" that made him the money to buy his first radio station. Grand Rapids, Michigan is a fairly conservative place, and Bob was probably having some hard times with the local "do-gooders." Bob's a charter member of the Grand Rapids ACLU, and he believes in the right of free speech. So, while we are expected to be responsible for what we do, we do have freedom here. He's not up-tight, and it's a great atmosphere.

R.A.P.: What responsibilities do you have as Production Director?
Ray: Aside from the usual writing and producing of commercials and promos, I also do a two-hour air shift from one till three in the afternoon. I feel like I have a luxury there because I'm still able to dabble with being a DJ which is something I still find fun to do; and at the same time, I still have most of the day to play in my studio. On a typical day, I get in here around eight or eight-thirty and work till five-thirty and later sometimes.


R.A.P.: Do you produce all the commercials and promos for the station?
Ray: No. We have people on the air staff who do production, too, and some of them can do things I can't do. I'm not threatened by other people who have abilities to do things I am not able to do. I feel like I know what my strengths are and can capitalize on them, and I like to get that out of everybody. Everybody on the air staff that does production here has their own strengths, and we like to use them all. One of my guys, Mike Doran, got out of college a year or so ago, and he started working with us as a part-timer. Now he's our night guy and copywriter, and he has an excellent array of voices. He can do impersonations like you wouldn't believe.

R.A.P.: Does he write all the copy?
Ray: He writes most of the commercial copy, and I write occasionally. As far as promos go, we're more of a team on that. Our Program Director, Guy Perry, is very helpful in writing promos, and we'll come up with a lot of ideas together. We also get ideas from other staff people that may not be on-air people. Everybody has a perspective, and you can use it. We have a morning team here, Dwyer and Michaels, who are very talented. They are very good at being character voices in commercials, and they help out a lot with the promos. And they're very cooperative, too. You don't get any of this, "Oh, I've been here since 5:30 this morning" stuff. We're not a "four and out the door" kind of station. People hang around here and wear other hats.

R.A.P.: Who takes care of the continuity and traffic?
Ray: We have two girls, Monica and Theresa, who work with the Marketron system and do a great job. Traffic is one of those thankless jobs. It's not a high paying job at some companies, and yet, those people have so much stress to deal with. Somehow, they manage to get all the spots on, and we go through weekends without any discreps at all. We don't miss spots here.

R.A.P.: How are spec spots treated at your station?
Ray: Spec spots play a very important role here. I don't know if this is the same in other small markets, but you're going to Ma and Pa kinds of businesses, and you can't just whip out a ratings book and say, "This is why you should buy 97X." You have to show them more. You have to say, "Listen to this spot 97X put together for you and compare it to the commercial the other station did." We offer service. Service is an important part of the sales business, in my opinion, and I think we service our clients. We have no problem cutting a spec spot three and four times. If that's what it takes, we'll do it. That's how we get business. We believe that once people get on the air with us and if the campaign is successful, they'll be back.

R.A.P.: Does a salesperson have to do anything special to get a spec spot done?
Ray: Not really. They'll have somebody they want to call on, maybe a client that has been on recently, and the salesperson will come to Mike or myself and say, "I want to go see this guy at this body shop. He likes Star Trek. What can we do?" Then Mike gets into his Kirk thing, we put a spot together, and the salesman takes it there.

R.A.P.: You'll produce spec spots for cold calls without copy approval?
Ray: Yea, sure. Of course, there are some clients where it's a given that they'll buy, and it's also a given that we'll have to re-produce whatever it is we take to them. So, in that case, we might just take a script to them. If you know your clientele, you'll have a couple of clients where it's better just to take a script to them first. In that case, we'll get the script approval then produce it. But, that's not usually how we do it.

R.A.P.: How many spec spots would you say the station is producing every week?
Ray: Well, let me look at the master log for the period of February 3 to February 10...sixteen spec spots.

R.A.P.: How many regular spots do you cut per week?
Ray: Oh, I couldn't begin to count those. It's a rather large number. Being in a small market, you don't get all those agency dubs. You have to do a lot more actual production.

R.A.P.: Are you producing a lot of promos as well?
Ray: Yes. The station is very promo intensive. In fact, that's one of the things that I think sets us out from a lot of the other stations. We're constantly trying to come up with angles on things that the other stations don't do. Take the Thomas hearings, for example. We thought, "Well, I don't know what kind of weekend we could do, but what about a political cartoon? The papers do it, so why don't we?" So, we did a political cartoon and used the characters of Marge and Homer to create a political satire out of the whole thing. There's also a lot of talk going around about censorship, so we did a "Censored Weekend" with "the best bleepin' rock and roll all bleepin' weekend, and if you don't bleepin' like it, you can kiss our bleep!" And you don't really have to do anything different programming-wise; it's all in how you package the weekend.

Another example like this is our upcoming Valentine's promotion. We're giving away a Valentine's package this weekend, and you've got to call our Valentine's Hotline and tell us about your worst Valentine's experience. The morning guys then play some of the messages back, and they pick a winner. Well, with the Mike Tyson verdict in the news, we thought, "Gee, what if we had Mike Tyson call the Valentine's Hotline and tell us about his worst Valentine's experience?" So, we produce a lot of little things like this.

R.A.P.: It sounds like you're producing not only a large number of spots and promos, but a large number of creative spots and promos. What kinds of guidelines and policies do you have regarding turnaround time on these orders?
Ray: We put out a little schedule that says, "Okay, salesman submits order for spec on Tuesday morning. When can they reasonably expect it back? We need a day to write it and so on, so Friday afternoon is the earliest they should expect it." But, does it work like that? No. If they need something, and I've got time to do it, I'll do it right away. I'll ask them when they need it. I work better with deadlines, anyway. If they say, "Well, I've got a meeting with him on Friday at noon," I'll say, "Okay, no problem. I think I can have that for you." Then we get it done. We're not turning spots around in a half a day on a regular basis, but that will be done if it's necessary.

R.A.P.: I get the impression you do a lot of collaborating with other staff members on the spots and promos. When do you find time to do that?
Ray: Just sitting around the station, goofing around, we come up with a lot of good stuff. That's where a lot of our stuff comes from. We also do a lot of things together outside the station which gives us time to collaborate. That's another thing about working in a small market versus the large market; in a large market, people go off into different directions after five-thirty, and you don't see them until the next day. In a large market, you may live seven million people away from the guy you work with every day. But here -- not that we live and play with each other all the time -- there are a lot of times when we're out together. There's a local class A baseball team here, and our AM station handles that coverage. So, maybe we'll get together at a game on a "fifty-cent beer night with 97X," and we'll have a couple of beers and come up with something there. As far as regular brainstorming sessions go, we like to think we have them on a regular basis, about once a month.

R.A.P.: What makes a good spot?
Ray: A good spot is something that people hear. We're bombarded with so much information every day, and we only absorb about one-fifth of it. I don't want my stuff to be part of the four-fifths that goes in one ear and out the other. I'd rather be that one-fifth that gets somebody's attention, and I like to tell a story to get somebody's attention. People like to hear a story. Think about it. If you see somebody at a party who is standing around, telling a good story, all of a sudden, you find people just walking over and listening to what that person has to say. Look at a legendary broadcaster like Ernie Harwell. I grew up listening to Ernie Harwell do play-by-play on Tiger games, and he's an incredible story teller. He's riveting. So, if you can tell a story in thirty seconds or sixty seconds, you're going to get somebody's attention, and the message is going to be heard. And you can do that in a lot of ways.

When people come in for tours and come into my studio, I'll say, "One of the things I like about this job is that we get to make pictures in people's minds, unlike television." And I point over to the video monitor in the room and say, "Those people have already drawn the picture for you. You don't have to make your mind work. But if I put this little compact disk in here and make this sound on the radio -- and you turn on the water sound effects or whatever -- all of a sudden, you've got a picture in your mind. We've painted a picture in your mind. We've created a scene. That's what the magic of radio is, and that's why I like radio." And if you do that with commercials, you've done your job.

I don't look at a commercial as something that is work or undesirable. I like commercials, but there are a lot of commercials out there that aren't good. You get people coming in with their scripts that are basic reads, and if that's what they want, that's what you give them. But if I get to choose, I try to get people to listen to what I have to say in my commercials.


R.A.P.: How many production studios do you have?
Ray: We have two studios. Our main studio is a 4-track room. We have a couple of the Otari 5050 2-tracks and the Otari MX5050 4-track. Our console is the Ramsa WR8616. For outboard gear we have an Orban reverb unit, an Orban equalizer, a Tascam cassette deck, an Orban compressor/limiter, and the Eventide H969 Harmonizer. We have ITC cart decks. We have a turntable which is rarely used, and we have a Technics CD player. The second studio is a basic 2-track room with a couple of Otari's.

I keep talking to them about entering the digital realm. I'd like to get into the world of Dyaxis and other systems like that, and I think it'll happen down the road.

R.A.P.: What are you using for production libraries?
Ray: We use the FirstCom music library and their Digifects library. We have the Sound Ideas 1000 Series library. I want to get the 2000 Series, and I think we'll be doing that real soon. I also have Brown Bag's Flashpoint. I like their stuff a lot. I think they're great.

One thing I've noticed is that every sound effect library lacks in some area. Take Sound Ideas, for example. If you need a good firecracker, you can find some good ones, but maybe not the kind you're looking for. Or, if you need a Harley-Davidson, no, there's no Harley-Davidson in there. I had to go outside and record the Harley on my own. But, you take that library, and you take another one like Digifects, and when you put the two together, you end up with a pretty good library.

I've got all the volumes of "TV's Greatest Hits." And for people who are looking for the Star Trek sound effects, you can get the original Star Trek sound effects on CD now. They come from Crescendo Records in Los Angeles. These are the original sound effects from the series. I'm talking about a six minute bridge sequence, communicators, phasers, etc.. When you're doing a Star Trek spoof, you need the real Star Trek sounds effects to make it happen. You can't just stick some other spacey sounds behind the spot and make it work. It sounds goofy. People who know Star Trek know those sounds.

R.A.P.: Who calls the shots on production libraries and equipment purchases for your department?
Ray: These are things I have to lobby for. I have to go to the General Manager, Dave Bevins, and say, "Dave, the lease is up on the music beds, and we need to do something. Can I renew it, or can I buy this?" Being a General Manager, he's one to keep the expense side down, but at the same time, he knows we need things." All you have to do is prove to him that it can pay for itself by the fact that you'll get people to make buys on commercials that you use it with. If you put it in those terms, then it's different because you're looking at it from the revenue side and not the expenditure side.

It's the same with equipment. I'd go to the engineer and say, "Hey, Mike, I'd really like a DAT machine. Can I get one?" He'd say, "What do you need it for?" I'd say, "Well, I could master my spots to DAT, and I wouldn't have to buy so much analog tape, or whatever." Now, whether I would get it or not is something else, but I can at least make my case. And this goes back to what I said about the owner of our company wanting to have the best equipment for his people to work with. I think they adequately supply us, and then some. So, it's not a real problem. If I really, really wanted something, and whined enough, I could probably get it, and the same goes for the production libraries.

R.A.P.: What are you doing in the way of free-lance work?
Ray: That's something I'd like to get into more as time goes on. I'm not sure if I'd like to do it in the form of being a hired gun as a voice talent for somebody as much as I'd like to have my own agency someday. I'm not really sure which way I want to go with that.

When I was in Chicago, I did some work with Kirk Johnson at Studio One. He was the one that taught me about telling a story. As a voice-over talent, you have to tell a story. When Gene Hackman is talking about United Airlines, and they're playing Rhapsody in Blue in the background, he's telling a story, and it gets your attention. It's the same with Burgess Meredith when he's selling Hondas.

Anyway, I would like to get into doing more voice-work. I do some around here, but it's not the big market stuff. I don't do any Budweiser commercials or anything like that.

R.A.P.: Are you the voice of the station?
Ray: I am the voice for the bulk of the work we do, but our hired gun is David Lee. He's got great pipes. He's the Production Director at QFM in Milwaukee. He's the guy that does the "97X" at the end of our promos. He does our positioning statements. I'd like to see us get some other voices on the air. I agree with Marc Chase in last month's interview; I think we should have more than one voice for the station. But, budget is a consideration there. My favorite guy that does voice-overs is the guy WEBN uses, John Wells out of Dallas.

R.A.P.: Do you ever use outside voices for commercials?
Ray: Something we do here is share voice talent with other stations in our company. For instance, if a salesperson here has a client that wants something different, wants a voice that's not on every other spot on the station, we'll fax the copy to one of our guys at one of our other stations and get him to give us a few reads and shoot the tape back to us. It's an outside voice, it sounds good, and we'll get a buy. Why not share resources? A lot of companies may own seven stations, but they don't know what's going on at the other six. It's kind of a "we do our thing here, and they do theirs" situation. Well, we share ideas and talent. It's no different than going down the hall to get a voice track from the traffic girl for a spot.

And speaking of that, an interesting thing about using people who are not "professional" voice talents is that they do better in the role of playing a character as opposed to being an "announcer." You just say, "Theresa, I need a bitchy old lady. Her window just got busted by these neighbor kids, and she's upset." If you explain to them the frame of mind your character is in, nine out of ten times, they'll come through with something you can use that's actually very good.

R.A.P.: Here's an off-the-wall question: In the movie "Rain Man," Dustin Hoffman does a scene on the highway where he's imitating a station ID and saying, "97X, Bam! The future of rock and roll." Do you use that drop in any way, and was this your station being referred to?
Ray: Yes, we use the line. We do a program on Sunday nights. It's our place to play the new stuff you can't actually put in rotation because it's too unfamiliar. So, what do we call it? The Future of Rock and Roll, and, of course, we use the actual drop from the movie in our promos. And our outcue on that promo is, "Ray, Ray, Ray! Enough already!"

But that wasn't our station they were referring to in the movie. However, that station does exist. I think it's in Oxford, Ohio. It may be the college radio station there. I believe the call letters are WOXY.

R.A.P.: Is 97X consulted by anyone?
Ray: Yes. We're consulted by Tom Owens of WEBN. His Production Director, Joel Moss, is a great guy and very talented. I always enjoy hearing his stuff on the RAP Cassettes.

R.A.P.: What do you miss about working in the larger markets, if anything?
Ray: Well, the pay is probably better, but the security is probably less, although there's not necessarily great security in radio in a market this small. It seems like there are a lot of people in this market calling my Program Director for a job. But, other than the ego part of it, I don't think there's anything I miss about the large markets. It's neat to think you're talking to tens of thousands of people at one time when you're working in Chicago, but, at the same time, I'm a photographer on the side. It's a hobby, and if I have a picture published in one of my hobby magazines, I probably get more of an ego kick out of that than I do from being on the radio and talking to a bunch of people in the third largest market in the country. There are times I miss it, but, then again, I grew up in a small town and I have no problem living in one. I like the city, and I like being close to the city, but I also like being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

R.A.P.: There are a lot of guys and gals in the small markets reading this who are striving to get to a larger market. What would you say to them about pursuing the larger markets, and what would you say about their expectations?
Ray: I'd say go for it. That's what I wanted to do, too. Everybody should chase that. If that's what you want, you should do it. If somebody here on the staff comes into the studio whining because they don't want to be here in this small market, they should go. As far as expectations go, when you get to a large market, there's the same bullshit going on. You think you're going to get out of the BS when you get to a big market, but you're wrong. There's still crap going on there, too. You think, "Gosh, when I get to the big market, it's going to be paradise -- none of this peon stuff." But it doesn't work that way. Now, some guys end up in a major market and find that that's their niche, and they get rich making three-hundred thousand dollars a year, and that's great. I'd like to do that, too; but, at the same time, I can drive to work in fifteen minutes without any traffic jams. I can go home to my nice house and grow my roses in my backyard and enjoy myself. I like this lifestyle.

I would tell anybody that is young and wants to work their way to the big market to definitely do that. Then, once you've reached that goal, you have to set new goals and find out what it is that really makes you happy and really makes you content to be in this business.

I remember when I first came out here. Those first few days on the air here I was going, "Geez, I don't know, man. There are a lot of corn stalks out there listening to me right now...." This is market 120 or whatever, but then again, we're a hundred and eighty miles from Chicago and a little over two-hundred miles from St. Louis, and Minneapolis is only a five or six hour drive. There's an interstate going through here, and I know there are a lot of people that know about 97X.

Comments (2)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

This is the guy who offered me my first paid gig in radio! He was Prog, Director by 1994 and hired me on PT! I'll add an aircheck with Ray and I at some point.

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Talented guy!

Let me know when you're ready to upload that audio. I might have to flip a switch.

jv

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