R.A.P. Interview: Mark Driscoll

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Mark Driscoll, President/Director, Mark Driscoll Productions, Philadelphia, PA

by Jerry Vigil

For most, Mark Driscoll needs no introduction. His career in radio spans nearly three decades, and his resume is replete with such powerhouse stations as WHB/Kansas City, WRKO/Boston, WIBG/Philadelphia, WOR/New York, KLOS/Los Angeles, WRC/Washington, 13Q/Pittsburgh, WWDJ/New York, KSLQ/St. Louis, WNBC/New York, WMJX/Miami, KIIS/Los Angeles, Z100/New York, KSTP/Minneapolis, WNOE/New Orleans, WDRQ/Detroit, and on and on. He made his name as a Program Director, APD, Music Director, and drive time jock, and his creative production and voice-over expertise has been with him all along the way. Today, Mark heads up Mark Driscoll Productions & Broadcast Services, providing creative services and "voice print" for various stations worldwide. Other services include consulting, studio design, workshops, research and development, and talent search/training. This oftentimes controversial man is despised and shunned by some, admired and respected by others. Despite the mixed criticism, one thing remains constant: Mark possesses a remarkable understanding of radio and an ability to successfully transfer this understanding to the airwaves.

R.A.P.: What are some of your earliest thoughts about radio, and where did you get your start?
Mark: I think I was very lucky. The whole radio thing was an adventure for me. It was so mystical. Radio was something you could pick up for hundreds of miles. I remember my dad helping me build my first coil radio that I used to go to sleep with every night. I used to hear stuff from all over the place. Back then, I never really had any aspiration to do radio. I was just totally infatuated with this mystical medium that was everywhere.

I was a karate teacher at a very young age. I had a student who was a disk jockey, and we hit it off. I think he was trying to figure out how this little kid was basically knocking him all over the place, and I was real impressed with the fact that he talked on the radio. So, he invited me to the radio station which was KELI-AM in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I got to rip the AP wire and cut it up for him, answer the request lines.... Then I discovered the production room, and I felt like the Wizard of Oz. You could pull the curtain, and nobody bothered you. You could do all kinds of stuff in there. I had no idea what I was doing. It was instinct. I think it was that instinct and whatever you want to call it -- higher power, God, gift -- that made me want to really jump in. There was no question I was a very right hemisphere, creative thinker who loved the opportunity and was very enthusiastic about the business, even through its dips. At a young age I was very impressionable, and I met so many incredible people along the way which was to my advantage.

I don't know that I was ever really a very good disk jockey. I think the FCC helped a lot by me having a first phone. That enabled me to get on the air at a young age when nobody else could. There was this kid in high school who was talking to another kid about the radio business. I overheard the conversation and just locked in on him. I went over to him, introduced myself, and talked to him for a minute or two. We chatted, had subsequent conversations, and he told me of his plans to go to Elkins in Dallas to get a first class license. I asked him what that was all about. He said that with the license you could be a disk jockey at night, and you were likely to get hired.

Well, my mother played bridge with the wife of the manager of KELI in Tulsa. During a bridge game, she mentioned the fact that I was going to get my license. Of course, my parents thought that being a disk jockey was not a real job, so they gave me permission to explore it, having no idea that I would explore it to its fullest. At any rate, this woman came back to my mom and said, "My husband said that as soon as your son finishes high school and gets his first phone...just tell him to look me up, and I'll bet you we can find a place for him in Tulsa at KELI." Well, I heard that and I just about jumped out of my cowboy boots. I knew by then that Elkins was a fast food, first phone place where you got that thing, and it was worth its weight in triple platinum. So, I tagged along with these two guys and went to Elkins.

I went through the course and got the license. Elkins had a big job board on the wall. There was this station in Muskogee, Oklahoma, KBIX -- a gigantic 250 watt daytimer. Muskogee wasn't too far away from Tulsa at the time. Now it's a suburb of Tulsa. Anyway, they needed a Chief Engineer, some salesman, and some disk jockeys. I hammered out a real quick letter. I had met Charlie Van Dyke when I snuck into KLIF one day, so I mentioned his name and a couple of others I hardly knew. I sent this guy this letter. Later, my mother called me in Dallas and said, "There's this fellow on the phone calling from Muskogee saying he got a letter from you and he has a job for you on the radio. What's this all about?"

My mother was a great supporter. My dad thought I should have been an architect or something. He was a pilot, and every once in a while he would fly me around, just to be with him. We had flown someplace in Texas to drop off a client. It was August 8, I remember, when I was supposed to show up for the interview at this station. I didn't know I was going to get the job and go on the air that day. I remember my father calling the tower at Muskogee Airport to have them relay a telephone message to this radio station that I'd be late -- and I've been late ever since. (laughs) The guy's name was Gale Lee, and he was the Manager, the engineer, the salesman, a disk jockey, everything in the world. When the airport called the radio station to say that Mr. Driscoll was flying in from Tulsa and was running about twenty or thirty minutes late, these people were freaking out. It was like, "Who is this guy?!"

Well, I was still in school, but I moved to Muskogee. My mom was a big realtor in Oklahoma, and she found me a little duplex that the original Johnny Dark had once occupied. My mother and father actually allowed me to move away and go to school in Muskogee, Oklahoma to pursue this ridiculous career. I think they were so stunned that they had no idea. Again, my mother was such a supporter that she made it happen. So, there I was, making eighty bucks every couple of weeks after taxes. The duplex cost sixteen bucks a month or something ridiculous like that. It was something else, but it was great.

We had an old Collins board, some cart machines, and QRK turntables. We had really high ceilings, and there were about six of those microphone snakes connected together, hung from the ceiling with a coat hanger, and that was the mike stand. On the end of it was an Electro-Voice PA mike. Of course we had the "Maggie," the Magnacorder, and you had to learn how to count spots by how many flips hit your thumb while you were doing the weather to figure out what commercial you were supposed to play, all the time running, what was then known as a "tight board" which was kind of hard to do. And of course, there was no processing. I think that was the year that I first heard of something called a Level Devil...and by the way, we didn't have one. I used to listen to WLS in Chicago back then, and I always wondered how they got that warm sound to their microphone, so I tried everything. I guess I was a processing freak from the very beginning. I finally found a rag that I put around the microphone with a rubber band that cut off the metallic sound and somewhat directionalized the microphone. It was kind of muddy, but it was certainly a lot better than it was.


R.A.P.: What microphones do you like to use now?
Mark: I prefer using the old Sennheiser shotgun that Ernie Anderson probably made famous. I have always loved the ribbon mikes like the RCA that you see on Letterman, and the old AM mike made so popular by KHJ and the AM stages of RKO, the RCA BK5. It kind of looked like a Shure SM7 with a big round ball at the end of it. All those mikes I like to keep around, however, in actual use today, I think that the shotgun phantom and the Neumann U87 are great. And if you're going to use a cardioid mike, then the SM7 is real good without the condom at the end -- just use a nylon screen. We're constantly testing mikes. We're testing one now that you see musicians use on stage. It's another Sennheiser. You see Michael Jackson and Madonna use them. I know a lot of news/talk stations use them, too. I really don't have any specifics on that mike yet.

R.A.P.: What are some of your thoughts on mike processing?
Mark: There's so much that goes into a microphone's processing, and the performer has to meet standards of processing. I think that anybody that goes out, picks up a Harmonizer, and thinks that is going to do the trick...well, sorry Charlie. That may work for somebody, but it may not work for you. In my chain, I think we probably use four or five compressors, and sometimes all at once -- three, generally. Sometimes a station may have a requirement where they really have a tight "smack" on their air sound, so we'll double the compression on it and adjust the EQ and such.

R.A.P.: Radio has changed a lot over the past twenty years. To what do you attribute these changes?
Mark: I think it was two things. Certainly, our culture was part of it. Then there's the expansion of communication in general. You've got satellites now. There's cable TV, and the advent of FM in the seventies which didn't really show its super impact until almost the eighties. That's when radio showed just how powerful a medium it could be. We have so many sources of information now, and so much information. And the speed at which this information is imparted is so fast that it's incredible. If you blink, you miss. A book called "The Media Lab" addresses that. So does "The Marketing Revolution." There were times when we didn't have a national newspaper like USA Today or a national news network like CNN. The way it has taken off is unbelievable.

Twenty year-olds today are so incredibly hungry, talented, and exposed to technology. And I think that hunger is not really satisfied. I lived in eras where technology lacked, but the other side was strong -- the teaching side. There were people around to teach me things which satisfied my hunger. I think there are fewer teachers like that today. I think a lot of people probably don't remember that answering machines for telephones didn't really debut until the early seventies. Computers were like...c'mon that's Univac! When you look back at what technology was available to us back then and compare that to what we have now, particularly in radio, it's just unbelievable. I think we're sitting in a pocket now that needs to be addressed. I'm talking about the need to mix the technology with the tutoring of our next and even existent era, the era that just hasn't pulled the trigger on its activity yet.

R.A.P.: Jingles used to be the primary component of a station's identification. Nowadays, many stations are simply using voice IDs to replace jingles. What are your thoughts on this?
Mark: An old buddy of mine, Buzz Bennett, had something to say about that a long, long time ago -- and it seems like yesterday that he said it. I had asked him why we never used jingles, and he said in the typical Buzz Bennett fashion of that time back in the early seventies, "Well, I never had a request for one." I thought, "That makes sense." Some people go for it, and some people don't. If you want to sound like a Coca Cola commercial, that's fine. If that's the style you want to use, that's just fine. But I think the human voice is certainly much more of an effective conduit to communicate and cut through to a very passive yet actively aware and very, very heavy user of the medium that we call radio.


R.A.P.: You've had the opportunity to closely watch the birth of digital workstations and their growth. What workstations have you played around with?
Mark: The first one was the Synclavier, manufactured by New England Digital. I got to play with that when I was with KIIS in LA. We saw some prototypes of what were going to be called digital workstations, and somehow we managed to bring in this Synclavier, and it had everything. It had the towers, the optical disk, the D-to-D (direct-to-disk) recording and all this stuff. There were all sorts of people crawling all over the place, showing us all the technology that could be programmed into this thing. Luckily, I had some interest in the keyboard. Otherwise, it would have been frightful for me.

I remember watching this thing come in to the station, and it was certainly nothing like the systems of today. It's no different than computers and the other things that have been reduced to miniature sizes with huge capabilities. Then, of course, they brought this other box. In it was what looked like a triple set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. These were the instruction books. I worked with the engineers from New England Digital. Most of them were from M.I.T. and were very accomplished musicians, but they didn't seem to understand that Rick Dees needed a forty-second promo in twenty seconds and that it really needed all the bells and whistles. And that was the bottom line. Just as I left KIIS, I remember someone asking, after a year run with the machine, if it was a good investment to make. My answer was, "No." It was a half a million dollars. All I knew was that I could do in an analog room on a multi-track -- or a two-track with a couple of cart machines for that matter -- anything I wanted to do very, very fast. And since we were broadcasting from that domain anyway, it didn't make any difference whether it was recorded digitally or not.

I remember having a race. The two head guys from Synclavier were in town -- I guess they were in for the kill, to make the sale. I said, "Look, we've gone over this time after time for a year. Here's a forty-second promo. I'll tell you what. You guys do it on the Synclavier. I'll voice it for you and slate everything for you, and give you all the direction you need. But you guys produce it over there on the keyboard, and I'll just do it the old-fashioned way over here." Well, I was done in about half an hour. About two hours later they were still trying to figure out why their computer wouldn't work.

So that was my first experience with a digital workstation. However, I did have the opportunity to work with some pretty great producers for people like Stevie Wonder, George Michael, Michael Jackson, Spielberg, Disney.... A lot of these people were working with the Synclavier and had been working with it for a long time. They would say to me, "The first year on the Synclavier you'll learn a lot of stuff. The second year you'll kind of learn how to use it. And the third year you might get good at it." Today, the manufacturers of the workstations have simplified everything.

R.A.P.: Which of today's models are you familiar with and prefer?
Mark: I'm familiar with a lot of them. For broadcasting, I've always had a tremendous admiration for Jack Williams and Pacific Recorders. There are other companies that make very, very good stuff, but I think that the Pacific Recorders workstation has impressed me the most. It just seems to have a good mind. It's very user friendly, and, for the most part, you really do get the bang for the buck. There are others out there that are good, like the ProTools and the AKG, but the bottom line is that you have to consider the operator and the outboard equipment that you have.

R.A.P.: Tell us a little about your producer.
Mark: Chris Hudspeth has been with me a year and a week. He is the epitome of a producer. He carries a different kind of ego into the room. When I worked on mike for Mark Goodson, there was a sign over the stage in LA that read, "Leave your ego and emotion at home and that way they won't get hurt while you're here." I think that's probably one of the most brilliant walk-in messages I've ever seen besides the walk-out message saying, "Exit" -- unless I had to go to the bathroom and was looking for "Men." Anyway, Chris carries a different kind of ego into the room. It's a very passionate one, but it's not like he wants to be something he's not. He knows what he likes. He loves it, and he's got a great passion for it.

He reminds me a tremendous amount of myself when I was his age. He's half my age, and it's almost embarrassing to say that. One thing I learned a long time ago is that the hearing curve of the average human being starts sloping off around thirty years of age, so I never liked to use the opinion of audio engineers that were older than thirty-ish or so. I'm a very, very big fan of the gut, and I don't mean fat. I mean instinct. If your hearing starts to shoot out like eye sight starts to peter out around that same age, then why do people have audio engineers and consultants come in and set up gizmos and gadgets for an audience that can't hear them the same way? It makes no sense. It's just like programming. Let's say an owner says he wants to do a format search in a market. "Okay, your signal goes over here to this Polish ZIP code, but you say you want to play Italian music? Okay, but I don't think you're going to have very good ratings." I see it all too often. Now, I'm not saying there is nobody who is sixty or a hundred years old that's competent at making the actual adjustments by turning the knobs and locking the audio processing equipment in for the final output of the radio station, but as far as being able to hear it and give it the listenable cut...well, I think that's very important. Chris brings that to the table, and he brings a lot of ideas to the table.


R.A.P.: Do you ever get behind the controls of the workstation and do your own production anymore?
Mark: I credit Chris with a tremendous workload. However, I may get squeamish or hurried, or sometimes he may be in a situation or quandary where I know I can get through it real quick. So, I'll pick up the knife and go for it again. It's like riding a bicycle; I don't think you ever really forget how to do it.

R.A.P.: Was it difficult for you to adjust to having someone else produce your work?
Mark: When I was a young disk jockey, I worked for huge radio stations where I got used to working with an engineer or "hands." I got used to this at a very young age, so it seems very natural to me. I know there are some people who just absolutely cannot perform, whether it be perform behind the mike or operate machinery, if there's somebody else in the room. They just can't do it. I'm almost at the point where I can't do it if there's not anybody around because I want the immediate feedback. I want to see somebody's eyes move or not move. I want to sense that feedback. As Marice Tobias says, "The skin is the most sensitive organ of our body." You can tell when something is going wrong or when something is really exciting by a person's perspiration or goose bumps and other things that the skin does. An old programmer I knew used to say he could always tell a hit if he got goose bumps on his right arm. If he got them on the left arm, he never played the record. I always used to think that was pretty funny, but now I kind of get it.

R.A.P.: What advice do you have for people who are young in the voice-over business and who want to improve their skills?
Mark: I remember when I was probably in my first or second year of radio. This guy, who was my boss, says to me, "Boy, you have a great voice." Well, I wasn't even trying, and I thought, "Wait until he hears this!" And, of course, that was the mistake. I think you have to really be comfortable with the tools that the good Lord gave you and trust them.

Here's another thing -- we discussed this in a group session this past weekend with Marice Tobias. Entertainers, TV actors, radio people, and entertainment people in general are rather flamboyant, with volume and very voluntary communicative skills. The unfortunate thing is that so many of them sit around and think that they are boring. Well, they're far from boring, and I think that's another thing that goes into the booth. If you go into an agency to do a read -- and I'm certainly speaking in general terms -- the radio person tends to walk in, take the copy, immediately make that voice adjustment, and starts punching those words and growling through the thing or whatever. The natural thing to do is just be yourself, which is not to say that you don't work out and practice. I used to read in the bathroom because I liked the echo. Now the bathrooms are so well insulated that they're terrible, so I had to buy an echo chamber. (laughs) I'm just kidding.

Be yourself. Understand what you're reading because if we're speaking for a living, we're selling something, whether it's emotion or a product or whatever. I think it's very, very important to be yourself and not become some artificial extension. I know that's hard to understand for some young people because they may have somebody they look up to and say, "Hey, I want to sound like that."

R.A.P.: Do you see more females getting into the voice-over business?
Mark: Men have dominated this industry for so long, and even though we do have something in our Constitution called Freedom of Speech, women have been somewhat threatened not to exercise that right to be free with themselves. Therefore, you have men doing lipstick commercials. But now we're starting to see more and more females doing very well in all areas of the business, but specifically in voice-over. It's great to hear special talent in a female. An unfortunate thing is that so many women grew up listening to this male-dominant business. There was a period -- and as a programmer, I remember it very well -- where most of the women you would interview many years ago were women that talked like men because they grew up listening to so-and-so or this guy or that guy, and they had that male cadence and that sort of choppy sound. Excuse me for saying this; I know this is a sensitive area, but you had a lot of bull dykes on the air. Or, it would be the other way around, and it would be "Bambi Bimbette" overdoing the femininity and misunderstanding the difference between sensual and sexual. It comes back down to being yourself.

R.A.P.: Over the past several years, a lot of country, news/talk, and even A/C formatted stations have brought in "CHR" style production people. What are your thoughts on this trend?
Mark: Well, I'm not certain that those labels of CHR or Top-40 or whatever you want to call it are realistic these days, but for the sake of ease of identifying it, I think that the Top-40 or CHR people, particularly in the production end, are trained more in the tight, glitzy, fast precision, very, very focused domain. The other formats you mentioned appealed to a different type of thirty-five year old or fifty-two year old back then than they do now. I think that being very, very precise and tight and clever, and bringing in different dynamics to the production scheme of things - or the talent scheme of things for that matter -- is very, very important.


R.A.P.: Do you think this glitzy, fast, bells and whistles production is going to continue to be "in style" for some time?
Mark: We all know that this business runs in cycles. I think that the market and the behavior of whatever that market is, as opposed to the broadcast universe there, is going to determine what kind of cut it takes to get whatever message or identification through. So, I think you really have to stay on top of your game. You have to stay on top of all the techniques, whether it be seductive or bells and whistles. And I think there's been some back off of the bells and whistles because we've got so many bells and whistles now. These days, the technology seems to come faster than the talent, and I think there are a lot of broadcasting people who are like kids in a candy store. It's like, "Ooh, wow! What's this?" And they use it for everything. Unfortunately, it burns out just like a color or a fashion or anything else. We're all living in a very designed technology. So, staying on the top of the game in as many areas as you can is very, very important.

I don't think that this style of production is going to go away forever, nor do I think it will stay forever. I think that for some people jingles are good, and for some people jingles are not good. That's a marketing determination that is certainly left up to the programmer. I think today, it is very much the responsibility of the programmer to be cosmetically aware, and that means being aware of production because what goes in between the records or the newscasts or the commercials that are aired on radio or television is so important.

I think about how young Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were when "ET" and "Close Encounters" and "Star Wars" were released. Knowing how many years it took them to develop those movies, I realize they were kids when they made those things happen! Are they from this planet? I don't know. There's just so much fantastic opportunity for anybody who has the will to do it and the ability to understand the tools we have to enhance what we do without using them as a crutch.

R.A.P.: What is your definition of a good radio promo? If your voice is going to be on it, and you're going to produce it at your studios, what are some elements you say would have to be there?
Mark: Well, I'm going to reach back into my bible of mentorship and say it the way it was told to me once. It's the old Baptist Bible salesman -- "First you tell them what you're going to sell them, then you tell them what you're selling them, then you tell them what you sold them." So, you open and you maintain control through the body, and you close with equal energy and persistence.

Something I find often in reviewing production from people is that the spot or promo starts off great, then somewhere down towards the middle it starts going on this curve, and by the end, it's out of breath, out of ideas, out of determination. The energy doesn't remain. They didn't read the three-step manual. It's kind of like reading copy from the bottom up so you get the idea when you are rehearsing.

R.A.P.: What tips can you offer about writing promo copy?
Mark: One of my favorite things to do is to write as little as possible and to think as much as I can because, after all, voice-over is a synthetic reproduction of a thinking process that you're sharing with someone else's ears, not a reading process. I think that is clearly misunderstood in the business today. There are too many readers and not many thinkers. I think it goes back to when you were a kid and you had to get up in front of the class to read a paragraph or a chapter out of a book. You get so tied up in not making any mistakes that you're very forceful and give attention to every specific word so you don't get laughed at.

Don't get typewriter-itis, as I call it. Just think of some really cool stuff and then roll tape or whatever your workstation does. Record as many pieces of things that you can in your style, and it's amazing what you'll end up with. If you understand what you're trying to get across to people -- which is very, very important -- and you've got a pretty much standardized way of getting that message across, then you're going to get it across.

R.A.P.: Any final thoughts for our readers?
Mark: Well, I do want to say that I certainly can't take credit for everything I said because there have been some incredible teachers, both younger and older, and more and less "experienced" than myself, and I'm very thankful. I think this is a wonderful, wonderful business. I think there is another side of it, and that is the focus of marketing and programming -- living both worlds and having to make sure that whatever project I was on, both worlds were met and were equal and definitely capable of separating the winners from the losers or the men from the boys. Coming out victorious and getting the point across, that's the bottom line.

So, don't puke. Practice. Think for yourself. Stay healthy, and watch before you cross a street -- stop, look and listen. I think there's a lot of stuff that comes from our ancestors, so to speak, in our industry. I think Marconi had a terrific idea, and we've had some terrific people in the industry who have taken advantage of that. There's such incredible opportunity out there. I don't know about you, but I know that every day I get up I just look for the opportunity.

I wish the production people would get a few extra pats on the back. I certainly believe they deserve it because there's a lot of good programming people out there that wouldn't know where to put a cherry if they saw a cherry pie sitting in front of them, and I really think putting the icing on the cake sometimes makes a difference between a win or a loss.

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