R.A.P. Interview: Lonnie Perkins

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Lonnie Perkins, Creative Services Director, WIBC-AM, Indianapolis, IN

by Jerry Vigillonnie-perkins-dec94

When was the last time your local newspaper came to you, wanting to do a story about you and the incredible promos you produce? Right. It's not the kind of thing that happens every day. But this is exactly what happened to Lonnie Perkins recently. What's so special about his promos and bumpers? Listen to this month's Cassette and find out for yourself, and read on and discover what happens when a news/talk station takes a successful morning man and hires him as their Creative Services Director. It's a magical combination that's working for everybody involved.

R.A.P.: How did your career in radio begin, and what brought you to WIBC?
Lonnie: I had a cousin who was interested in radio when I was ten or eleven. I kind of caught the bug from him and still blame him to this day for it. I would play radio with him. Then one day I went home and went out to the barn, grabbed some old scrap lumber and built a pretend studio in my basement. I scrapped together what I could and made a full horseshoe console and played radio in my basement for about five years. I got my first job when I was fourteen doing the coveted six a.m. to seven a.m. Sunday morning shift and eventually worked my way up to a full weekend shift at a 250 watt daytime directional blowtorch from a double-wide house trailer in Cave City, Kentucky. It was just about as low on the food chain as you can go; I had nowhere to go but up. At the end of the football season in my senior year I started doing afternoon drive at the local teeny bop station. This was at WOVO in Glasgow, Kentucky, and that's how I paid for college.

My experiences at those two stations were some of the richest experiences that I've had in radio, period. I wouldn't give anything in the world for the experience of working up through small markets, and I guess my young age helped out a lot because I didn't have to worry about responsibilities -- not that I do now. We'd do a lot of fun things like going in and setting a guy's newscast on fire while he's in the middle of the obituaries, things you just can't get by with in major markets these days. All those times are great.

When I was in college I'd work the seven to midnight shift and end up staying and playing in the production room until three or four in the morning doing production and cranking out promos and figuring out how to make a couple of wind-up 2-track decks sound like the stuff I was hearing on the big radio stations, and that experience has been priceless throughout my career -- developing that thought process and learning how to make do with nothing. I'm still doing that today!

Anyway, I skipped around in Kentucky radio for a number of years, and when I finished my degree, I got engaged and decided I needed to get serious about making some money. So I started floating out some air-checks and was trying desperately to get into Nashville. I got a call from the Group Program Director at WSM who said they didn't have anything in Nashville, but he liked my tape and wanted to fly me out to Oklahoma City and make me a morning star and revolve the entire radio station around me. I said, "Okay."

I was in Oklahoma City doing mornings for almost four years. Then I got anxious to get back closer to home and was talking to the guys at WSB, KMOX and WIBC, entertaining offers for whatever I could get. In some cases it was production, and in one case, at WSB, it was for afternoon drive. WIBC was the first one to come through with an offer, so I took it. I worked there for a year as a commercial production guy and was miserable. I was basically a dub monkey. But I told them I'd be there for a year, so I stayed the full year. Then I was offered mornings at WSM, so I went and did mornings there for a while. A couple of years later I got an unsolicited offer to come back up to Indianapolis as Creative Services Director, and here I am.

R.A.P.: It sounds like you spent more time as an air personality as opposed to a production person.
Lonnie: After almost twenty years in radio, this is my first real production job. I've spent about three years in production. The rest of the time, my focus has always been on the air. But the shows I did involved a lot of characters, and I basically did on the air what I'm doing now. It's just that instead of producing two, three and four minute bits that I could use once and then start all over again the next day, I'm doing thirty and sixty second bits now that I can use for two and three weeks. What a fool I was.

I've always had two first loves: one was on the air, and the other was production. I've always loved playing in the production room, playing with and discovering new production techniques. When I was fifteen and sixteen years old, I used to sit around and listen to jingle demos. I'd hear Mason Adams and think, "Jeez, I'd buy his mother if he tried to sell her to me. He's just the nicest guy in the world!" I would study his voice and try to figure out what makes him sound so nice and so warm -- what's the magic of his voice? And I'd study all these guys on the jingle demos. I'd study the national commercials that came in and what made them sound good. And in Oklahoma City and Nashville both, I usually did most of the station promos. So I've always had a strange fetish for the production room.

R.A.P.: You're the only Creative Services Director I've heard of where the local newspaper heard your work and called you up to do a story on you. That's pretty special.
Lonnie: Just shows you how slow news is in Indianapolis.

R.A.P.: After hearing your tape (on this month's Cassette) it's obvious your technical production is excellent, as is your voice quality. What stands out even more is the writing you do. I'm sure that's what stood out for the newspaper reporter. Were these writing skills developed as a morning air personality, or were they developed in the production room, writing commercials and promos?
Lonnie: A lot of it unquestionably came from the morning shows and writing bits and developing characters. My show was more than just voices. I had very well developed characters, and I did them live so I could interact with them. I cranked the stuff out day after day after day after day, and I did it all myself. I didn't have anyone writing for me, so I was fried to a crisp after three years. But it was a great experience, just cranking this stuff out.

With regard to promos, somewhere along the way I began noticing I could always tell radio production versus ad agency production. Even when I would be driving through a town where I wasn't familiar with the stations and the voices, I could tell what was local and what was agency. I was always intrigued by that and wondered why it was that radio production always sounds like radio production, and agency production always sounded like agency production. I always thought that if I ever did production, I would want my stuff to sound like ad agency material. So, I guess I approach promos from a concept basis instead of from the angle of real heavily produced stuff. There are two reasons for this. One, in my opinion, I think the concept-based stuff stands out more. It doesn't get lost as much in the commercial clutter because it's a little more cerebral, so people kind of latch on to it. And two, if everything is based on production, then I'm always vulnerable to the guy with the biggest toys. If the guy across the street gets a better digital unit or buys a better whoosh and zap package than I have, or has a superior s-s-s-sampler, then I'm out of luck. But, if I do everything in my head, then I'm not enslaved to the kind of equipment I have, and so my value is me. It just seems to offer a little better job security.

R.A.P.: WIBC is news/talk. A lot of the material you use is humorous, which is characteristic of the material used in morning shows. Do you think this is common in news/talk formats, to use humor in the promos and drops, or is this rather unique?
Lonnie: I don't get out much, so I don't really know. A lot of this is new to me; production is new to me. I've always pursued the on-air career, so that's what I've listened to, the personalities and hosts and whatnot. But I think I have the same observation as many, and I'm amazed and bumfuzzled by it because, to me, talk radio is where the cerebral stuff belongs. I mean, that's where you find the people who are listening closely and evidently enjoy thinking, as opposed to the passive listener that the music formats attract. So, I guess I'm amazed that talk radio is not the bastion of those types of things, the humorous and cerebral material. To me, it would make sense that news/talk is where it originated, but it seems to have originated more on the AOR and CHR stations.

R.A.P.: What are your responsibilities as Creative Services Director?
Lonnie: In a nutshell, I guess you'd say I handle the on-air marketing and all the programming production. We've got another guy, Dan Osborne, who is our commercial production guy. He handles virtually all the commercial work for WIBC and for WNAP-FM, which is a boat-load of work in and of itself.

R.A.P.: Who's handling the programming material for WNAP?
Lonnie: Johnny George. He would be, I guess, Creative Services Director for WNAP.

R.A.P.: One person handling the commercials for two stations, and two people handling the programming material. That's a beautiful setup. Is it just the AM and the FM?
Lonnie: Well, when Emmis bought us, they also owned WENS-FM in town, so there are three stations. WENS has their own Production Director. We're in the process of getting everything under one roof, but that's still way down the line.

It's a great setup, and I guess I've been amazed to see it survive. When I came here -- and they're paying me respectfully -- I came fully expecting for them to come up any day and say, "Look, this is a fat position, and we just can't live in Disneyland any longer." I have just been amazed that I've survived.

R.A.P.: Generally, a good morning man is going to make a heck of a lot more than a Production Director or Creative Services Director. Without giving up any numbers, would you say you have been able to maintain, if not improve upon, your salary as a morning man?
Lonnie: Yes. I've maintained and even improved some. And I was not one of those seven-figure morning men, so don't be deceived by that. I've also been able to free up a little more time to develop my free-lance more, so that's helped the income a lot, too.

R.A.P.: You're obviously talented enough to be playing this game in the majors. Is that a goal, or are you pretty content where you are?
Lonnie: I've thought about it. One of my problems is that I've got a life, and I love that. I guess my stint in Oklahoma City got the travel bug out of me, and I guess it also helped me see that I really enjoy being close to family. And that's far more fulfilling than any career, I think. So I guess it's just a matter of priorities. If I had my way, I'd pick up my family and my wife's family and move them all here to Indianapolis or move them to Chicago so I could get a major market job, but the thought of moving far away again.... I think Chicago would be the only place where I would have any interest at all, either there or moving back to WHAS in Louisville. That's the station I grew up on, and that would put me about an hour and a half from both families. I enjoy having a life, and, to me, radio is not worth revolving your life and your family around.

I've always worked at the big, full-service station in every market I was in. A lot of it has to do with the kind of show that I did, the real heavy personality. I just got tired of the fact that every time I needed or wanted to change jobs, it meant I had to move and leave all the roots that I'd planted. With this format, there's only one possible station for me in the entire city. But with production, I kind of have the option of living here and working in the major market through voice work, especially as this digital technology develops, the ISDN stuff. As that develops, things will only improve.

R.A.P.: A couple of your lines quoted in the newspaper article about you were: "It's like a Nordic Track for your brain. Your news and talk station, WIBC," and, "More energy efficient because we use hot air. Your news and talk station, WIBC." Did you ever do any networking of your writing or comedy bits, like a comedy service?
Lonnie: I just dabbled in it a bit. But I hate hearing substandard humor and substandard bits, and when you're cranking lots of that stuff out, the quantity destroys the quality. That's why Letterman has fifteen or so writers to do his five minute monologue. And yet you've got radio guys who are doing four hours of fresh material every day by themselves or with one or two contributors. And doing radio bits is such hard work for so little payoff versus applying that same creative energy into doing commercials and selling those to clients and ad agencies. There's a lot of money in that.

I'm just coming into my own with the free-lance, and I'm just beginning to start marketing myself. I've picked up a lot of stuff by word of mouth. I've had a banner year this year, doing half my salary in free-lance work, and it's all been by word of mouth. I've never done any kind of serious marketing. So, as I look at pursuing that more seriously, I've done a lot of thinking on whether I should market just the voice work, or should I do a package for voice work and writing and that type of thing? The problem is that most stations don't want to pay out the kind of retainer fee that you'd like to get for that much work.

R.A.P.: What kind of studio are you working out of?
Lonnie: Well, after being here eight or nine months, I finally pulled the sales job of my life and talked them into getting our first 4-track. So I've got a 4-track deck and a couple of two tracks, and that's basically it. I lay my music down on two tracks, and I usually throw my voice on one track and go back and throw all the sound effects in on another track. However, Johnny, Dan, the engineering department and I have all been kind of scouring around, looking at different digital workstations and weighing the options. We haven't narrowed it down to a single workstation yet, but we've weeded some out.

R.A.P.: What's your philosophy with regards to producing promos?
Lonnie: To me, promos should follow the old advertising rule of create the need first, then satisfy it. That's what I've tried to do. I first create the interest, get their attention through intrigue or shock or spectacle. Then I create the need and satisfy it. I'm amazed at how many Program Directors there are who think call letters should be the very first thing on the promo, then you spew off a few facts and then end up with call letters again. To me, it's much more intriguing if you create the need, if you're a little evasive up front so you can catch their attention, then you pay it off.

Something else I've noticed along that same line, in a cluster of sound, whether it's a spot set or a jock rap, the first five or ten seconds of a new element is lost. I noticed this with my own listening habits. I'm listening to the radio, and I hear, "Indy weather -- hey, high today 95, low tonight 64. It's going to be a beautiful day tomorrow," and that's about the time I clue in -- "it's going to be a beautiful day tomorrow...." Oh, he's doing the weather! What did he say about today? What was the weather? It's the same thing on commercials. I've noticed when they start spewing out information, you don't really lock in for the first five or ten seconds. So, for me, you should not only get their attention and create that intrigue, but don't waste good information those first five or ten seconds, because I don't think people catch it. It sounds great in the production room when that's the only element you're listening to; but when it's competing with five or ten other elements...the listeners don't lock in for five or ten seconds.

R.A.P.: So you're suggesting for five or ten seconds to use sound effects, music, and/or some other audio to grab attention and then hit them with information.
Lonnie: Yeah. And another thing -- we scream about this on commercials and then often will do it on promos -- we overload promos with information. Programmers will scream about it to the jocks: "Don't throw too many elements into a talk set. Do your call letters, your time. and do one liner." Then we fill our promos with twenty thousand copy points. And they're double tracked and phased and sampled, and, by the time it's over with, you haven't got a clue about what has just happened. It might as well have been static. So, it's important to simplify the points. A promo doesn't have to be a legal statement, and you don't have to get all the disclaimers and all that stuff in there. Keep it simple enough that people can grasp onto it.

R.A.P.: Do you use a lot of character voices on promos and drops?
Lonnie: Absolutely. And I play around a lot with straight deliveries -- Joe Average on the street, that type thing.

R.A.P.: You do a lot of "theatre of the mind" production. What tips can you offer for doing this type of production?
Lonnie: I think it's important, if you can, to experience an event you're going to write about, or listen closely to those who have. I found it very frustrating during my first year here. Indy 500 festivities start the first of May, and the 500 doesn't happen until the end of the month. It's a huge, huge deal. It was very frustrating because I'd never been to the Indy 500, and it was hard writing promos relating to it, promos that would touch people's hot buttons and talk about experiences that everybody could relate to or grasp onto. The next year, having gone, it was the difference between night and day. But that first year, what did help was just talking to people and listening to stories from people who had been there and kind of living it vicariously. If I'm writing from personal experience, my writing is improved threefold. It's just like writing humor, or sitcoms, or anything, you write from your experiences.

And I think authenticity is important. A lot of great production is ruined by bad voice-overs. If you don't have kids or good kid actors or good female voice talent available, don't write them into the script. Don't bring in some guy who talks in his falsetto voice and is supposed to sound like your mother. I've heard a lot of great scripts ruined because you get so distracted with that kind of thing, that is unless it's kind of built in as obvious parody. Write to your strengths. If you've got some great characters of your own or people around the building, write for them. We used to have just a storehouse of great female talent in our station with secretaries and other people that I used to access all the time. Most of them have moved on now, but if you have that available, by all means, use it. Look for it and access it. But if it's not there, don't write it in because you just make yourself look bad. If it's production that's great or if it's your characters, whatever it is, write to your strengths. It's good to experiment, but experiment off the air. Save your dignity.

R.A.P.: How about a tip for writing humor?
Lonnie: Brand names are funnier. "I grabbed the A1 Sauce and knocked out his dentures" is funnier than saying, "I grabbed a ketchup bottle and hit him in the mouth." There's something about brand names that takes it to another level. Maybe it's because you can picture the A1 bottle better. Instead of saying, "It's where you can really keep your mind in shape," say, "It's like a Nordic Track for your brain."

The bumpers I wrote that were in the newspaper article, that kind of writing was originally intended to be used as slogans for billboards. I was just sitting down, brainstorming some good, quick slogans that would work on a billboard, and eventually I thought, "Why waste all these?" So I ended up using them for bumpers, and I've received more comments from more people on those lines than anything else I've ever done. I've just been amazed. People come up all the time and say, "Hey, I heard your line, you know, 'it's like where you can talk to a friend without having to buy him a beer.' Hey, that's great!"

One time I was trying to create a bumper that described the size of the station. I thought about saying it was like a 50,000 watt CB radio, but that sounded so dated. Then it dawned on me: "It's like a 50,000 watt cellular phone, but we pay the bill!"

R.A.P.: You really have great control over your voice and can do a lot with it. What are some techniques you used to develop your voice?
Lonnie: I'm always listening to and studying national commercials, listening to stuff on TV and just kind of studying voices in general. It's important to figure out your range and know what you can do and what you can't do because you can sound like a fool real quick if you're trying to be Ernie Anderson and you've got a Loni Anderson voice. That's one of the things that attracted me to Mason Adams when I was fifteen years old -- I didn't have very impressive pipes, and guys like Mason Adams showed me how to use what I had. Take John Bartholomew Tucker, who used to do the Fotomat commercials. He has a terrible voice, but his delivery is just so phenomenal, and his voice is so unique, he's made zillions of dollars off of it. It's important to discover the strengths of your voice and work and hone and highlight those strengths. You can play around imitating things you hear on TV and whatnot, but always use your strengths on the air. Play around with your weaknesses off the air. That's the advantage we have in the production room. You can play all day.

R.A.P.: Any parting thoughts to help a hard working radio producer along the way?
Lonnie: When you're worried about what everyone else is thinking about your stuff, remember that they're probably not. They're thinking about themselves just like you are, and it's good to remember that in your copywriting, too. You're not writing for yourself or writing to make yourself look good. You're writing to appeal to people who are sitting there thinking about themselves. It will free you up if you're not worried about what everyone else is thinking about your stuff.

And keep a perspective. I mean, it's just radio, and even your worst stuff is going to be over in sixty seconds. And this is kind of a pet peeve of mine: I think it's important to take a lot of pride in your work, but if it comes down to trying to choose between should I remix that last spot because I really didn't like the way it came out, or should I go and be on time for my son's soccer game, forget the spot and go to the soccer game. Life will go on. Remix it tomorrow.

The best advice I can offer is: get a life. It will help your copywriting, and it makes the rest of life pretty nice, too. When I had my worst writer's blocks, it was during times when I had been sitting in the studio too much and I had no life. I had nothing to draw from. The best thing I can do is to spend time with friends outside of radio who don't think like radio geeks. And that reminds me that most of the people who are listening to my stuff don't care. So I have to write in such a way as to make them care, and it also helps me pick up on things that people, real people, care about. I discover hot buttons, and it gives me life experiences to parody or to draw on. I think the best thing you can do for your copywriting is spend time in a nursing home or go to Billy's soccer game or join a church or get a life and do something worthwhile. That's the best thing I've done for my production.

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