R.A.P. Interview: Casey Van Allen

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Casey Van Allen, Production Director, KMOX-AM, St. Louis, MO

casey-van-allen-dec92by Jerry Vigil

He does voice work for the CBS Radio Network. He's the booth announcer for KMOV-TV Channel 4 in St. Louis. He hosted Hot Hit Video for over two years, a show that was #1 for a year, beating Saturday Night Live. He has worked in a recording studio. He's been a top rated jock in St. Louis. He's programmed radio. He owns a graphic arts and production company called Van Allen Communications, and he owns a couple of radio stations. This month we take a look at a fellow producer who feels production is "the place to be," and we get a glimpse of a news/talk station in the country's 18th market that won't let ANYBODY get even remotely close to beating them.

R.A.P.: Give us a rundown of your background in the biz.
Casey: I started in St. Louis, and I've always lived in St. Louis. I'm one of the fortunate people that has never had to leave the marketplace. While going to college I worked at a top 40 radio station, KIRL. They were beating the powerhouse top 40 station in town, KXOK, a station I always dreamed of working at.

When I graduated from college, I went to be the Chief Engineer, Program Director, Chief Cook, and bottle washer at a radio station just outside of St. Louis in Granite City, Illinois, WGNU. I worked there for a short period of time, then an opening came up at KXOK. I went to KXOK as a disc jockey. This was back in 1970, I believe, and KXOK was still a real powerhouse. FM hadn't taken a hold quite yet. I had a real fun time there for a number of years.

While I was working at KXOK, I was still living at home with my parents. I was making the union dollars at a big station, had no expenses, drove a sports car, and had money to burn. So, I built a radio station at the Lake of the Ozarks which is in central Missouri. I owned it for a number of years and ran it while I was still working at KXOK.

I then went to program KADI in St. Louis. It was a soft rock station. I got a little burnt out on radio, so I went to work at a production studio called Track Masters Recording Studio which is where I got my real knowledge in doing great production. Coincidentally, the studio was located two blocks down the street from Anheuser Busch, where they brew that fine beer. As a result, we got about ninety percent of Anheuser Busch's recording business. We did just about all there commercials.

I then got an opportunity to work for CBS at KHTR. It was KMOX-FM at the time. After a while, we were all saying, "Hey, this thing needs to go CHR. Let's do it! The time's right! The hole is there! Let's jump in it!" So we did. We took the thing CHR, changed the call letters to KHTR, and it zoomed up the charts. We were the number two station at the time behind KMOX-AM. It was just a killer station. If anybody ever gets the chance to work for a number one rock and roll radio station, man, do it. The team effort that goes on inside a heavy rock station like that is just a real thrill.

Anyway, after a number of years of that, the opportunity presented itself to come downstairs to work for KMOX-AM as a Production Director. Robert Hyland called me and said, "I want you to come down here and do production for us." I said, "Sure, I'd love to. Where would I work?" He said, "Come down here and I'll show you your work space." So I went down and all they had was a couple of old Ampex 440 tape recorders, an old rotary pot board, and a couple of turntables. I said, "No thank you. I would really rather stay at KHTR." He said, "Why?" I said, "Well, because you don't have anything here. You can't expect me to do any production if I haven't got any equipment." He said, "You just make me a list of what you want." I thought, "Well, he can't really be that serious. When he reads the list of what I want, there's no way he's going to want to do this." So I sat down with some of my friends at the recording studio that I used to work for and said, "Let's sit down and make a wish list, everything we want." At that point, I wasn't real sure whether I wanted to do it or not because KMOX was an extremely intimidating radio station, and I didn't really have the background in news/talk. I just didn't know whether or not this was right for me. So, in the back of my mind, maybe I was trying to scare him off by making this wish list. Well I made a wish list of about $150,000 worth of equipment, and he bought all of it! He wanted me down there right after he approved the list, so I had to muddle through for a couple of months. I had to work around the engineers that were wiring up all the new equipment, so I really didn't get a lot of production done for about six months. That's how long it took the engineers to do their magic. I finally got the thing going, and it ran very well. I had just about everything I could have wanted back in 1980. After a while, the board that I had was starting to break down because I was putting it under some pretty serious use. I said, "You know, I'd really like to have a new studio," and Robert Hyland said, "Well, make me a list." So I made him another list, and this time I really did it up right. I hired a studio construction company that built the recording studio I worked at. They built studios for the Steve Miller Band and a bunch of other rock and roll bands. They really do beautiful work, not only with the equipment, but with furnishings and wall coverings, too. They came in and gutted three rooms and built the palace that I have right now, and this is where I've been sitting since about 1980.

R.A.P.: When did you build this studio you're in now?
Casey: I guess I did it in 1988. Robert Hyland, who unfortunately passed away last year, will be really missed by all that worked with him. He was a real visionary. He was one of those people that saw a need, saw a way to make a buck on it, and did it. And it paid off for him. When you invest in equipment and people, the dividend is always greater profits. That is partly what is behind the success story of KMOX.

R.A.P.: It is quite a success story. The spring '92 Arbitron ratings show KMOX with a 19.0 share 12+. What did the station do in the summer book?
Casey: I think we went down just a little bit. But we're still two fold above the number two station, and that's the way it has been for the last twenty years or so.

R.A.P.: You attribute this success partly to investing in equipment and people. Elaborate a little on the people side of this.
Casey: People is radio; Radio is people -- bad English, but I think it works. If you've got a losing station, you've got the wrong people. I think we have probably the best group of radio broadcasters in this market. There are some very good broadcasters in this market at other stations; don't get me wrong. But I think collectively...we have some extremely good talent -- Bob Hardy, Jack Buck, Bob Costas. We have Dan Dierdorf! Big people have come out of this radio station, and I'm not just speaking of Dan Dierdorf. Bob Costas does a regular show on the station. Dan Dierdorf is not on as much as he used to be, but he'll make an appearance every once in awhile. Jack Buck is on staff here, and he is here everyday.

R.A.P.: Are we talking about shows that are networked throughout CBS Radio?
Casey: No, these are just local shows. We don't do a whole lot of networking for the CBS Radio Network other than news things like a news feed. However, I believe we are the only radio station in St. Louis that has three satellite uplinks, so we're sort of like the telephone company for radio in town. If anybody wants an audio feed out of this town, it generally gets routed to the telephone company and then to us. Then we put it up on a bird. We do an awful lot of that, especially for NPR and other networks.

R.A.P.: Do you work closely with Bob Costas and Dan Dierdorf?
Casey: I produced the shows when Bob Costas and Dierdorf were here on a regular basis. Bob still lives here, but he commutes an awful lot to New York now. When he was on staff working here everyday, I did all of his syndicated shows -- The Bob Costas Sports Flashback, the Inside Sports Magazine -- I put all of those shows together for Bob and they were on about 150 stations, I believe. I did that for a number of years, and I also put together the John Madden Sports Quiz. All those shows are marketed through Olympia Broadcasting.

R.A.P.: Getting back to the incredible success of KMOX, is there anything else you would attribute the enormous ratings edge to?
Casey: Well, consistency is probably another thing. We've been doing it for God knows how long. Kids have grown up with this radio station, and their kids have grown up with this station. The station has been the same for years with pretty much the same people on the air. Another thing is that we are so ingrained in this market when it comes to sports. We carry every one of our major teams. When the football team was here, the Cardinals, we carried them. We are a sports voice on anything that goes on in this market. We have a complete sports department staffed with a number of people that cover everything in sports. Plus, when you've got talent like Jack Buck, Dan Dierdorf, and Bob Costas in the sports department, how can you not be good? We have the consistency and the talent.

R.A.P.: What about the programming side of the station? How is the station programmed?
Casey: Everything is local. We don't take any network shows. We produce everything here. Every talk show we have on the air is produced here. Every talent has his own producer who helps book shows. And when you've got people, a number of people, all contributing, you're gonna have a better product. That's part of it. And our community involvement -- there's no other station in town that's involved in the community like this station. We take a very active role in every community effort here. You go to some of the shows -- the municipal opera is a big one here -- and you'll see our name plastered all over the programs. You see us everywhere. You'll see our call letters in any sports arena in town. I think visibility is another facet of the station's success.

R.A.P.: It sounds like there's a real magic combination of things working for KMOX.
Casey: There really is, and it's a team effort. I mean, everybody pulls on the rope the same way. If somebody gets sick around here, we all chip in and pull on his share of the rope. This is an unusual situation. At most of the other radio stations I've worked for, there always seemed to be a few people that didn't pull their equal share. Everybody here is hungry to win and stay on top. We very seldom look over our shoulders.

R.A.P.: You mentioned earlier how enjoyable it was working at a number one rock station because of the team effort. Is the atmosphere at KMOX a lot like that?
Casey: Oh yeah, it is, very much so. And we have a lot more employees. I think KMOX employs about two hundred people. You've got a much bigger team here, but it's very much the same. Everybody is given the opportunity to contribute, and I think that's a great testament to the entire CBS Radio division. They are really talent intensive. They really support talent and try to get them to perform to the best of their abilities without giving them any restrictions. I'm sure that anybody that works at a CBS station can say that.

R.A.P.: The studio you are in now is the result of your second wish list. How is it equipped?
Casey: I've got an MCI 8-track, and two quarter-inch Studer reel-to-reels. I've got a -- don't laugh -- Technics reel-to-reel. That particular tape recorder I probably use more than most because it is an isolated loop tape recorder. It's got an incredible start up time. You hit the start button, and it doesn't ask any questions. That's the one I use to do most of the tape to cart stuff. Then I have a DAT recorder, and some cassette machines. That's all the tape recorders.

For processing I have an Aphex II Aural Exciter, a Howe Tech Phase Chaser, an A-Maze triggered compressor which I can digitally trigger, an Eventide broadcast delay, a Wheatstone notch filter, Wheatstone parametric EQ, and a 1/3-octave graphic equalizer that I use to equalize the monitors which I have a 600 watt amp for. I've got an Eventide H-3000B with the new software in it that has two minutes of sample time. I've got an Orban 424 compressor/limiter, a Yamaha SPX-900, a Dynafex noise reduction system, a Symetrix hybrid phone interface, and an Aphex Compellor -- the Phase Chaser and the Aphex Compellor are dedicated to the input of the cart machine. And then I've got Symetrix 528 voice processors for every microphone in here. I use a Neumann U47 mike in the studio. For monitors I'm using the 4425s. I've also got some Auratone nearfield monitors. I've got an SP6 console by Wheatstone. I don't use the meters on the board; I have a phase scope that I use for metering, and it's right in front of me. I also have a dbx spectrum analyzer with a built in full octave equalizer, and I've got a bunch of 99B cart machines. On my wish list for this year is a digital 8-track.

R.A.P.: Which one are you considering?
Casey: The AKG DSE-7000 is the one I think I'm going to get. That's coming at the first of the year. I'm really looking forward to that. I think it will be a real lifesaver for me. The MCI is a great machine, but I just don't like to have to spend time waiting for machinery. I'll be real glad when everything is done in the digital domain, and we won't have to make cartridges anymore. If there is one thing that takes up more of my time, it's waiting for a 99B to go through its erase and alignment cycle. That's probably the biggest time waster in the production studio that I know of, in addition to waiting for tape recorders to rewind and fast forward. Once we get it all into the digital domain, I think you're going to find the level of creativity fully increase in all radio stations because you're taking away a number of the time restraints that we're all having to deal with.

R.A.P.: Do you have an assistant?
Casey: Yes. His name is Roger Brand who is also our fill in traffic reporter.

R.A.P.: Do you both solely handle all the production for the AM?
Casey: Yes, we do everything. Anything on this station that's recorded comes through this studio or Roger's studio, anything other than news and sports.

R.A.P.: With such huge ratings, I would imagine most of the spots on the air are pre-produced agency spots. Are you producing very many commercials?
Casey: Yes we are. Unlike all the other radio stations in town, we're running eighteen minutes of commercials an hour.

R.A.P.: ...and getting a bunch of money for each one of 'em, I bet.
Casey: Well, one morning drive spot...I'm not sure about this, but at one time anyway, it might have been last year, a morning drive spot cost more than a prime time spot on TV. But the good part is that you were getting twice the audience of any prime time television show. In morning drive, on the average, we carry thirty to forty percent of the entire listening audience in St. Louis.

Anyway, in an average day, we'll pump out anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and fifty carts. Of course, on Friday that goes way up.

R.A.P.: Is this all being done out of two production studios?
Casey: Well, we have eight production studios here.

R.A.P.: Between both the AM and the FM, KLOU?
Casey: No. Just for KMOX. Two of them are main production rooms with 8-tracks. One of them is mine and the other one is Roger's. The other production studios are used for various things. One of them is used for network feeds like baseball and hockey games when we're feeding them to other stations. When it's not being used for that, it's used for news and sports. Then we have one backup on-air studio that we use. Of course, we have our main on-air studio, and the rest are for news and sports. We have some auxiliary studios where it's just a tape recorder, cart machine.... Sports has their own little production room back there.

R.A.P.: Your background is basically CHR. Do you feel you were brought into this news/talk station because you had this CHR production style?
Casey: Oh yeah, absolutely. I've listened to this station for a number of years, and I used to think, "Boy, this station needs some pizzazz. It needs to get up and move!" When I first came here, I wanted to do the laser blast promos, you know, coming from a CHR background. And I did that for a period of time until Mr. Hyland came in and said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm putting pizzazz into this station, boss!" He said, "Well, un pizzazz it a little bit. Crank the energy level back just a little bit." I found that the real highly produced production really does not work. When you use a lot of different sound effects and make things really highly produced, it's a little undiscernible on the AM dial, and it just sounds too confusing. We're a communication station. We're dealing with information, and that is what they need to hear in commercials and promos. They need information. They don't need to be whiz banged.

There are a number of things I do whiz bang, but, for the most part, things are pretty simple. Music beds, a couple of sound effects, and a voice is pretty much the way we do most of the spots here. The accounts are more adult in nature. When trying to communicate to adults you don't really need that high energy production.

R.A.P.: Still, would you say you've taken a CHR production approach and adapted it to news/talk?
Casey: Right.

R.A.P.: Would you say that is pretty much the trend of news/talk stations these days?
Casey: It seems to be. This station is unlike most news/talk stations. It won't sound like a WBBM or a WJR. We are more talk intensive than we are news. Everybody has a show on this station, and generally, we'll stay on one subject for a whole hour, whether we're talking about politics or talking about some new book that came out. We're sort of like a TV station on radio to some degree.

R.A.P.: Is there any humor injected into the station, in the morning show for example?
Casey: Well, we kind of have two morning shows. We have what's called "Total Information AM" which is more news intensive, and that goes till about 8:30. Then at 8:30 we have a show that you can consider humorous in that it's the morning meeting show. We have two hosts that take an irreverent look at just about everything, and it's pretty funny. We probably have the most fun doing their promos. I can be a little crazy with them because we're not so serious during that time period. That goes till about eleven o'clock. Then we concentrate a little bit more on news from eleven to one. Bob Hardy, who's the Master General of the station, hosts those two hours. Then Ann Keith comes on at one, and that show is pretty cerebral. Then we have "Total Information PM" which is information based news/talk. Then sports takes over at night, followed at ten o'clock by a guy who is very conversational and sort of like Bruce Williams.

R.A.P.: It sounds like programming a news/talk station is a lot like programming a music station when it comes to different types of shows for different times of the day.
Casey: Oh yeah. The station is very much day parted. We know what kind of people listen to the radio station at what times, and we gear the programs to meet those demographics that are available for those time periods, much like a top 40 station will daypart records.

R.A.P.: Has KMOX had many stations try to compete for some of the huge numbers you have?
Casey: We've had many people come in and try. A couple of years ago, we had a guy come into town and buy KXOK. He took it from a top 40 station and made it news/talk. He tried to absolutely duplicate our format, hour for hour, putting on the same kinds of guests and everything. Well, they never got any higher than a one share. So, imitation does not necessarily work because, even thought they had a good signal, they still couldn't compete with the kind of personnel we have here.

R.A.P.: Not to mention the longevity of KMOX.
Casey: The people have always tuned into us and they always will. If a major event breaks in this town, there's only one station they tune to.

R.A.P.: What production libraries are you using?
Casey: I've got Network Music and Network Sound Effects, I've got the F/X sound effects library. I've got Associated Production Music. I've got some Century 21 holiday disks. I have TM and some FirstCom, and that's about it.

R.A.P.: What makes CHR production different from that in a news/talk format?
Casey: I think it's a feel. With any kind of production you have to know what is going to be playing around it. If what you're doing is going to be played after the latest Guns & Roses song, you've got to have the same production timber there. If what you're producing is going to be bumped up against somebody saying, "Good afternoon, you're on the air," then you adjust the timbre accordingly.

R.A.P.: You've been an owner, a PD, a jock. What made you plant your feet in the production room?
Casey: I've been on all sides of the fence in this business. I've been and still am on the ownership side. I now own another station, KBMX, which is at the Lake of the Ozarks. I've been on the Program Director's side. I've been on the talent side. I've been on the salesman's side and the Chief Engineer's side. I think that production is the finest job in the radio station. I think where the excitement level comes in is when you actually go out with a salesman on a call, develop a campaign for some sponsor, and then watch it work. I think that interaction keeps the interest alive for me in the business. But production is without a doubt the finest job in the radio station. It's kind of hard to keep the interest alive in any other position. In production, the creativity can always spur you on.

If there is one thing that is a drawback to production, it is when you're doing the same thing over and over again. One thing I would like to do more of is spend long periods of time on one particular project. Right now, we only do that once or twice a year when we produce Christmas plays that run during the holidays.

There's such a high volume of business that comes through this station. We do about thirty percent of all the advertising buys of the town. I just wish I had a little bit more time to spend on certain things. But what it has done is made me a whole lot more efficient in getting the job done as quickly as possible without making any compromises.

R.A.P.: How do you find time to do production for KMOX and own a station?
Casey: KBMX pretty much runs itself. I have a lady that takes care of it. The other station that is partnered with that, which is an AM station, is going to be going on the air shortly. I'm also the voice of channel 4, which is the TV station here in the building. I keep myself busy. When I get bored, I don't like myself much. So I figure if I just keep moving forward, I won't ever look back.

R.A.P.: So you've got yet another station coming on?
Casey: Yes. And I've got construction permits for two other ones. I don't know if they'll ever make it on the air though. The market is not lending itself to building radio stations right now.

R.A.P.: You said you have a lady taking care of KBMX. Is the station automated?
Casey: Oh no. It's a beautiful music station. I have a staff of about twelve people there. The lady, Janet Cox, takes care of all the administration. We have a General Manager there that actually runs the station. His name is Dan Leatherman, and he's doing an excellent job. I really don't have that much to do with it. I just go in and sign the checks.

R.A.P.: Is there money in this, Casey?
Casey: No! It's just a play toy and an investment for the future, I guess you could say. I don't think anybody really makes money in radio, not anymore. I think the '80s pretty much weeded out the bad operators, and I think the LMAs that are going on all over the country now are gonna change the face of radio. We had an unfortunate situation here in St. Louis where one of the competitors was just LMA'd with another station, a top 40 station. KHTK just bought WKBQ and they fired fifty people yesterday. That's unfortunate for the radio business because I like to see a lot of people in radio. I think the more people we have in it, the more creativity gets poured into it, and we need to pour as much creativity into this business as we can so it won't slip any further away from us than it has already. We need to put more creativity into all aspects of radio, and that goes for news/talk and music stations. We need to try and make radio just a little bit more listenable and exciting. It's gonna take some people with some new ideas, and if we keep lowering the volume of people that are in the business.... It worries me, and it seems like we're diluting the business.

R.A.P.: How would you compare production to the Program Director's chair?
Casey: Programming is fun, and it's nice to be able to direct the listenership of a radio station. But it's awfully paper intensive. I have a great respect for Program Directors because they have probably one of the loneliest jobs in the radio station. They're management, and they have to try and get everybody to work together and pull on the rope in the same direction with the same strength. And a Program Director has to be a real people person to accomplish that task. On the other hand, a production person has the ideas of what the radio station should sound like, and he just takes his creativity and molds the station into that sound. For the production person, it's more of a one on one, personal thing with the sound of the radio station.

R.A.P.: Everyone in this business has heard that sales is where the money is. Why didn't you pursue that end of radio more?
Casey: Because I don't take to rejection very well. That's one thing that is a hard lesson for production people to learn. We all pretty much sit in our gilded kingdoms and crank out these commercials that the salespeople put together; and when they don't get the copy right, and we have to re do it, we don't realize the animals that they have to fight off every day. If any production people want a real education as to what it's like to be a salesperson, just jump in the car with a salesman one day. Go on some calls and see what they do. Live on their side of the fence one day, and it'll make you a lot more tolerant for the last minute changes they bring into you. It doesn't do any good to get all upset because they're bringing in last minute changes because it just robs you of your energy. It's a job. You've got to just grin and bear it and get the job done. After all, the person who wins the race is the person who gets the job done the fastest and best.

We cannot let television, newspaper and the other media grab hold of us and make us give up the one and only real asset that radio has and that is immediacy. When a client can call up at nine o'clock and say they want something on the radio in the ten o'clock hour, and the salesman comes into the production studio and says, "Hey man, I got a buy on this. I've got to get it on at ten o'clock. Can we do it?" If you say, "No, I'm right in the middle of this major production here," the station loses the revenue and you've given up a vital asset of radio -- its immediacy. Pop that puppy on, man!

R.A.P.: Any parting words for some of our readers who are young in the business?
Casey: Stay with it and don't compromise. Don't produce something and say, "Well, that's good enough for government work" or "That's good enough for the AM station" or "that's good enough for UHF TV" or whatever it is. Don't make compromises because if you do, you'll find every time something plays on the air you're gonna say to yourself, "Gee, I wish I had gone and just taken the extra five minutes and put that extra little effect in there. It would have made that work so much better." It will gnaw at you until finally you start thinking less of your ability. Don't make compromises. Just do it to the best of your ability the first time. Make the time to do it right the first time. Then, over a period of time, you'll build up your talent.

I think that is the main testament, the reason I found the production studio so nice to rest in. As a disk jockey over a period of years, I found myself always rushing to the radio station knowing that I had to be sitting in that chair with that microphone on at exactly the top of the hour to say exactly what was written on that card; and for the next three hours I was going to be sitting in that room, was going to be having to say certain things throughout the time period, and if I made a mistake I could never call it back, because once it went out the transmitter, it was gone forever. The production studio allowed me the luxury of being able to do it over until I got it right. It allowed me the creativity to expand and do what I wanted to do, to take a piece of production and mold it into what I wanted.

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