R.A.P. Interview: The Real Bob James

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R.A.P.: When you left radio for television, at WEWS-TV in Cleveland, you were the creator, producer, and writer of the Cleveland Comedy Company? Tell us about this show.
Bob: That's the thing that won me the Emmy awards, but it wasn't just me. There were a lot of people involved in that show. But as producer of the show, they give you the award. I think it won seven Emmy awards; some other guys got them as well. It was really a team effort. This was about two or three years into Saturday Night Live's existence. We thought Cleveland was one of the funniest cities in the country, so we thought we might as well try it. We put together a group of wonderful young people who just wanted to perform, and we used local people like Larry J.B. Robinson, the "Diamond Man," the guy who owned a chain of diamond stores. He was one of the hosts of the show. John Lanigan was one of the hosts of the show. John is still a disc jockey in Cleveland. Jay Lawrence was a host of the show. All of these well-known local media personalities would come on and be the host, and it was shot like Hee Haw if you know what I mean. We would have one day when the host would come in and do all his shtick. Then we'd have a time when we would do our set pieces. There would be a time to do the news parody. Then, after it was all assembled, we would bring an audience in and have them sit down and watch television screens so we could get their reaction and record the show with their reaction. This was local television, and in local television, they know how to do news, they know how to do sports, and they know how to do weather. They don't know how to do entertainment programming. So, to make it sound good, we had to bring an audience in and sit them in the bleachers at the Channel 5 studios downtown. They watched the TV sets, and we recorded their reaction to it. And, that's how we did it. And every three months, we'd put a new show together. It was quite an experience.

R.A.P.: When you left ACN over four years ago you went back on the air for a few years. What made you decide to get off the air and go behind the scenes in radio?
Bob: I decided I didn't want to be an air personality anymore. It's just too volatile a job, and I think I'm getting a little too old to keep moving all over the country. Most recently, I was doing mornings in Hartford. I had a five-year deal there, and I was enjoying it pretty much. But, things change, and after three years they asked me to leave. It was like, "Hey, Bob, it's nothing you did, and it's nothing you didn't do. This is just what we're doing." They were acquiring new stations, and they were getting rid of debts. And I'm thinking, "Man, I have a family. I want to be with my wife. I want to be with my cat and dog, and I don't want to be moving all over the place." I think it's really a young person's field, the on-air thing. So this opportunity in Milwaukee came up, and I took it. I knew the guy who owned Sundance Broadcasting which has four stations in Phoenix, four stations in Boise, I think, and a couple in Milwaukee. I called him and said, "Hey, I'm ready to work for you in Phoenix." He said, "I don't need anybody in Phoenix. Are you interested in going to Milwaukee?" I wasn't completely interested in Milwaukee, but I flew in and talked to the GM and the programmers and saw some of the stuff they were doing. I was very impressed. It's a cutting edge kind of place. They had the DSE 7000 digital unit in the production room. They bought it when it first came out. They must have paid forty grand for this machine because they wanted to be ahead of everybody else. And they've got Media Touch in there as well. So, here they were with all this new digital equipment, moving toward the future a lot faster than at any place I had been. I thought, "Why not? Milwaukee's a nice town." So I took this job, and I've learned a lot. I didn't have any digital experience before I got here, and now I feel very comfortable with digital. I'd hate to go back to using tape.

R.A.P.: Where did you get the name the Real Bob James?
Bob: Chick Watkins was the programmer in Cleveland, Ohio when I went on the air at WGAR. I came from Columbus where I was doing overnights, and I was calling myself "your Buckeye Buddy, Bob James." So, when Chick put me on eight to midnight, he said, "I'm gonna change your name if you don't mind. You're the Real Bob James."

They say, "what's in a name?" A career, because nobody remembers me as Bob James, but everybody remembers me as Real Bob. Chick gave me the Real Bob James, and it has stuck with me now for the twenty-some odd years. So thanks, Chick, I appreciate it. And I guess I'll thank the Real Don Steele; that's where he stole it from, I'm sure.

R.A.P.: What are your responsibilities at the station?
Bob: I do a little bit of everything. I do all the promos and the imaging for the AM and the FM, for WOKY and WMIL, FM 106. Then, occasionally, a real hard ball client comes to one of the salespeople, and they'll need some help. They come to me, and I'll do some writing, which I enjoy doing. I like doing that because it becomes a real challenge to crack a real tough client.

R.A.P.: There must be other people doing commercial production there.
Bob: Mike Cromwell works with me. He's a very good producer and a really good copywriter. And there's Beth Otten, who's the copywriter, and she's very good. They pretty much handle the commercial end of things, and I'm on the periphery of that.

I also help the morning show on the FM with some production, and I do something called Danger Boy for the FM where I get a cellular phone and go out during the morning and do goofy, dangerous things. For example, tickets went on sale for a recent Vince Gill concert, and I'm there trying to cut in line, you know, getting people mad at me. I'll dress up funny and walk into a George Webb's restaurant, which is like a McDonald's here in town, and say, "I think the Dolphins are going to win. What do you think of that?" Then people throw stuff at me. It's kind of goofy, but people seem to like it.

R.A.P.: You sent me a tape of WMIL, and, for the sake of those who can't hear the station, let me say that the station sounds like it's a lot of fun to listen to.
Bob: Yes, and I was talking to Rusty Walker recently, and he said the same thing. It's got a real attitude about it. It's got a fun, up tempo kind of attitude, and that's what they were striving for.

R.A.P.: And a big part of that "fun" sound comes from the produced elements between the songs.
Bob: It just makes sense. As we get into these format configurations with ten songs in a row followed by no-talk triple plays followed by the new song of the week or whatever, there's really not a lot of opportunity for air personalities to say anything. They work the format. That's what they do. And, moreover, all the perceptual studies that come back show that people don't want to hear disk jockeys. Fun disk jockeys show up like eighth, ninth on the list of what consumers of radio want to hear. They want to hear music. And that's why we're playing a ton of music.

Well, how do we make the radio station fun if you don't let anybody talk? I mean, everybody's playing the same music, so how do you make your product stand out from all the rest? Well, fortunately, in Milwaukee, we're the only country station, so that's not too hard. But, you've still got to do something to still make the radio station have a different spin.

When I'm down in the Racine area, I tune in Chicago radio and listen to US 99. I don't want to say anything disparaging about them, but I listen and punch back and forth between FM 106 and US 99, and I prefer Milwaukee. I've got ears, and I listen carefully. I think the caliber of jock is much more up tempo in Milwaukee, and so is the production. I like a produced sound on a radio station. I don't like it to sound like a jukebox all the time, and I think we have that produced sound. I like up tempo, fast, exciting kinds of things and wonderful ideas and concepts.

When I go out and talk to people in colleges or high schools about production and radio and television stuff, I make it clear that radio stations have microphones and buttons and dials and switches and CD players. That's what they have, and that's all they are, just buttons and dials and switches. Where the magic is, where the magic comes from, is in your head and in your heart. And you have to be technically astute enough to know how to use all this equipment to make the magic that you have inside your head come out and grab people. You want to make emotional connections with people. You want to make them laugh or make them cry or make them think or make them get excited or make them call in.

I'm into content. I think of radio stuff as intellectual exercise. You know who the most fun people to hang around with at a radio station are? The news people because they're hooked into what's going on in the world. If you hang around disk jockeys, they want to talk about the cart machines. I want to talk about the stuff everybody else is talking about. In fact, there's even a consultant who says throw away your R&Rs and pick up Vogue magazine. Pick up New Woman. Pick up Highlights for kids. Pick up what human beings who listen to the radio are reading. Don't read R&R; talk about stuff that everybody else is talking about. And that makes a lot of sense when you start thinking about it. Now, that's not a big revelation. Everybody kind of knows that, I guess. I think we just get all caught up in the jargon about radio. There's a radio station that's in your heart and in your mind, that radio station you carry with you everywhere. And that radio station was formed back when you were twelve years old, back when you were really impressed by radio and the magic of it.

R.A.P.: Your title is Creative Services Director "slash" Production Manager, but it sounds like your major contribution is more in the "creative" end of things.
Bob: Creative Services people do a lot more than just dub tapes onto a cart. If that's all you're doing, then you're probably an intern. There's nothing wrong with that, but a real Creative Services person is truly involved in the programming of that radio station, and enlightened managers at the program level know that. I'm fortunate to work with Cary Wolff, who is terrific. I sit down with him and say, "What do you need, when do you need it, how many do you need, and how many updates do you need?" He gives me all the copy points, then I go off and write. And he's a fan. Occasionally there has to be a change on the stuff because of inaccurate information or something but, other than that, it's nice to have somebody who just lets you write and likes the concepts.

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